The free annual event by The Raptor Center gets you up close and personal with birds of prey

Photo courtesy of rck/Fotolia

By Lianna Matt

Nero stands about 30 inches tall, and he makes for a stern-looking figure in his black feathers. So do his compatriots, birds of prey such as falcons, owls, hawks and eagles. They all have the piercing eyes that raptors are known for, as well as the talons, the curved beaks and the wings that command the wind. These birds are fierce animals and a force to be reckoned with—especially if you see them hunting. Hopefully, with the help of events like The Raptor Center’s annual Fall Raptor Release, you might see raptors in the sky a little more.

Dr. Patrick Redig leans forward to thrust the bald eagle into the air as the bird spreads its wings, twisting to catch the draft.

Dr. Patrick Redig, The Raptor Center’s co-founder, releases a bald eagle. Photo by Amber Burnette.

The Raptor Center takes in more than 900 injured birds of prey each year to treat and rehabilitate them. While these birds are released back into the wild year-round, the annual free event is The Raptor Center’s way of saying thank you to the community that supports it.

On Sept. 23 from 10 a.m.-3 p.m. at the Carpenter St. Croix Valley Nature Center, The Raptor Center will be on hand with real birds for people to see up close, children’s activities and educational booths about the center and the raptors. Approximately six birds will be released into the park’s 700-plus acres of prairie, wooded bluffs and river. Beside the benefits to the birds, having the event at the nature center helps children understand the importance of habitat, according to Dr. Ponder, The Raptor Center’s executive director. “We always say we provide the animal connection and they provide the habitat connection,” she says.

As one of The Raptor Center’s educational birds, Nero will not be released, but he will be ready to mingle with visitors who can learn about his 6-foot wing span, his mile-long sense of smell, and why he and his turkey vulture family are bald. While The Raptor Center loves all of its birds, the volunteers and staff are always careful to explain the difference between the educational birds and the rehabilitated birds: Educational birds, even though they have been rehabilitated as much as possible, cannot be released because of a lifelong handicap that makes it impossible for them to survive successfully on their own. Nero, for instance, was bred in captivity for conservation research in Wisconsin and has imprinted on humans.

For birds that can be returned to the wild, The Raptor Center puts them through a structured and rigorous rehabilitation program to make sure they will have no difficulty re-assimilating.

“It’s developed through research, so it’s scientifically based,” says Dr. Ponder. “The simple answer is that it turns out that the (exercise) systems that work in race horses and marathon athletes is the same system that works in birds. Interval training, repetitive distances in different conditions, and so there’s a whole set of metrics that we use to make sure they’re ready to go back.”

Rehabilitation usually occurs near the center’s location on the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul campus, and some days you might see volunteers or staff exercising the birds on long lines.

Gail Buhl stands with a peregrine falcon perched on her arm.

Staff member Gail Buhl with a peregrine falcon. Part of The Raptor Center’s mission is to teach people about birds of prey and the challenges they’re facing. Photo by Amber Burnette.

Although The Raptor Center functions as a full time veterinary and research facility, tours are offered Tuesday through Sunday, and on the weekend, you can attend the Raptors of Minnesota program. Other camps, classes and programs are offered throughout the year or on request, so if you can’t make it to the Fall Raptor Release, make sure to swing by The Raptor Center some other time. Better yet, come to both the release and the center; that way you can see the work behind the scenes and the amazing result.

“I’ve been doing this for almost 20 years, and (the release) still touches me every time. It’s the feeling of being able to make a difference,” says Dr. Ponder. As for those who haven’t had a hand in rehabilitating the bird, she says it’s still a rewarding experience. “We always ask people when we have a release, ‘How did that feel?’ Mostly they’re almost speechless; they struggle to put it in words.”

To get to The Fall Raptor Release and the Carpenter St. Croix Valley Nature Center, you have to drive about 30 minutes outside of Minneapolis and St. Paul, but seeing the release, learning about these amazing creatures and meeting birds like Nero up close make the short jaunt well worth it.


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