Injured birds get new chance at Michigan sanctuary

All of the birds at the Michigan Avian Experience were injured and cannot be returned to the wild. One of them, the bald eagle, is even somewhat of a celebrity. It's the bald eagle that free flies before the Eastern Michigan University Eagles' home football games at Rynearson Stadium. (www.miavianexperience.org)

COLUMBIA TOWNSHIP, Mich. — Francie Krawcke tosses a dead mouse into the air and watches with amazement as a bald eagle swoops down and catches it in its outstretched talons.

It’s in these moments that the Columbia Township resident is in her element.

“It’s my life,” she said. “They really are amazing. We share the same spaces, but birds are so much tougher than we are.”

Krawcke is the manager of Michigan Avian Experience, a birds of prey rehabilitation center located at her home, which includes more than 20 acres.

There, Krawcke cares for a handful of birds of prey, including a bald eagle, golden eagle, great horned owl, barred owl, two red-tailed hawks, a broad-winged hawk, a turkey vulture and more.

All of her birds were injured and cannot be returned to the wild. One of them, the bald eagle, is even somewhat of a celebrity. It’s the bald eagle that free flies before the Eastern Michigan University Eagles’ home football games at Rynearson Stadium.

“It has been a great privilege to have the Michigan Avian Experience’s live bald eagle appear on home football game days,” said Andy Rowdon, senior associate athletic director for external affairs. “Since debuting in Rynearson Stadium in 2014, the live eagle pregame flight from atop the visiting stands has become a highly anticipated part of our fan experience at the stadium.”

The eagle also loves the attention, Krawcke said.

“The bald eagles are the divas,” she said. “They must have the attention and must be better than other eagles.”

Krawcke admits her birds are an unusual hobby, but it’s something she’s been doing for more than 20 years. Krawcke grew up downriver from Detroit. As a kid, she fell in love with the ducks and gulls that flew over Lake Erie, she said.

“I was always fascinated with birds, but I didn’t actually really discover birds of prey until I moved away to college,” she said.

Krawcke went to Northern Michigan University. She later did conservation work around the country for the University of Minnesota Raptor Center. Now, she does conservation work and educational programming around Michigan and beyond.

Krawcke takes her birds to schools, clubs, college classes and anywhere else she can help educate people about America’s birds of prey. Her birds are used at high schools as lessons in physics of motion classes.

Krawke doesn’t play favorites with her birds.

“My favorite is the one I’m working with; the bird that is on my glove at the moment,” she said. “The challenge is figuring out what the particular individual bird needs to be successful physically and mentally.”

Krawcke doesn’t name her birds because she doesn’t want to give human traits to wild animals.

“These birds are so powerful,” she said. “They could literally rip your face off if they wanted.”

Feeding time is a great example of just how spectacular the birds are.

Every day, Krawcke feeds them an assortment of dead mice, dead chicks, dead rabbits, fish and more.

“They eat better than we do,” she joked.

Krawcke directs the birds to sit on a perch in their enclosure. She then throws the food into the air as the birds swoop down, catching it while contorting their bodies and landing on another perch.

The bald eagle can swallow a whole mouse in a single gulp.

At its core, Krawcke’s work is that of a bird therapist, she said.

“With these birds, you have to make a connection to really understand what their needs are and how we can help them,” she said.

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