Enraptured at the U

  • Article by: BILL KLEIN , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 2, 2011 - 6:43 AM

Nowhere is the fascination with birds of prey better understood than at the U's Raptor Center where the majestic birds are admired and nursed back to health.

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Dr. Julia Ponder, left, Dr. Patrick Redig and Mike Billington checked out Glady, a bald eagle. Ponder succeeded Redig as the center’s executive director in 2007.

Photo: Jules Ameel, Star Tribune

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"The broken pillar of the wing jags from the clotted shoulder. The wing trails like a banner in defeat.''

-- From "Hurt Hawks,'' a poem by Robinson Jeffers

What is it about a bald eagle that makes us watch with such wonder? And then report the sighting to family and friends? Why is a chance encounter with an owl staring back at us with those huge eyes so mesmerizing? And why do we squint into a bright sky to follow a red-tailed hawk effortlessly pirouetting on a thermal?

Hawks, owls, eagles, falcons and other warlords of the sky are aerial predators. Throughout history, these fierce hunters have captivated man. You might say we are enraptured by raptors.

But why?

"Raptors are dominant by almost any measure," observes Dr. Patrick Redig. "They possess speed, agility, amazing sensory powers, and fearlessness. These are traits most of us envy and admire.''

Redig should know. As cofounder of the University of Minnesota Raptor Center in 1974, with Dr. Gary Duke, he is arguably the most knowledgeable expert on birds of prey in the world. He has literally written the book on their care. Raptor Biomedicine is in its third revision and viewed as the authoritative resource throughout the bird care universe.

Redig's love affair with these birds began in a third-grade classroom in Hibbing, Minn. A children's book, The Falcon of Eric the Red, published in 1942, caught his eye and his imagination.

By age 11, he had trained and was flying a robin-sized kestrel falcon. At 14, he performed his first surgery, fixing a hawk's broken wing. Later in life, he trained and hunted with a Cooper's hawk, red-tailed hawks and goshawks which, together with his Vizsla dog, made productive pheasant hunting partners.

"I learned early on that hunting birds are not pets. You must not allow yourself to become attached. They tend to get lost or attacked by other raptors. A good day in falconry is measured by getting home with your bird," Redig said.

Dr. Julie Ponder, who succeeded Redig as the center's executive director in 2007, also knows the allure of raptors. She practiced cat and dog veterinary medicine for 16 years. But when she volunteered at the Raptor Center she found her career path take a turn toward avian medicine. She now leads a staff of 13 clinicians and environmental educators plus more than 300 volunteers who perform the dual healing and educating missions of the center.

• • •

A steady stream of nearly 800 feathered patients a year flows into the center for treatment of broken bones, eye and other head injuries, and lead poisoning.

Eighty percent of the eagles seen at the center have lead in their bloodstreams. More than 30 eagles a year are dying at the center from consuming lead embedded in the flesh of deer, pheasants and other game animals. Ingesting only two No. 6 lead BBs is enough to kill an eagle. Redig and Ponder call on anglers and hunters to further reduce the use of lead in their sports.

There is good news, also. Thanks largely to the education efforts of the Raptor Center, the DNR and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the percent of total raptor patients needing treatment for gunshot wounds has fallen from 35 percent in the 1970s to 2 percent in 2010.

The birds at the Raptor Center whose injuries would deny them survival in the wild become ambassadors, on the arms of staffers, helping teach a quarter of a million people a year about the environmental needs of birds of prey. It is stunning to watch the cacophony and chaos of 30 grade-school students fall still and silent when a bald eagle enters their classroom. All eyes focus on the majestic bird.

Raptors that heal completely, meanwhile, are returned to the wild in joyous and moving celebrations to amaze us once more with their hunting abilities.

Soon again, a healed falcon will hurtle its 2-pound body in a 230 mile-per-hour dive, striking its prey with the kinetic energy of a .30-caliber bullet. And patched-up barred owls will once more capture mice under a foot of snow using only ears and talons for weapons.

You are invited to stand nose to beak with these birds at the Raptor Center. Check out their website at raptor.cvm.umn.edu for tour times. The center is privately funded, and there are opportunities to donate your time, talent and treasure.

But be forewarned: You could fall under the spell of a raptor's haunting gaze, and become enraptured.

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