The bird hits the window as it lands on the sill, its head bobbing as it tries to regain balance. One of the volunteers cups her hands around the bird’s body, squeezing the wings down gently but firmly so that the bird is unable to fly away. She clutches the struggling bird to her body with one hand, trying to endure the clawing and pecking as she opens a paper bag with the other. She puts the bird in the paper bag, rolls the top down, and places the bagged bird on the scale. After recording its weight, she releases the bird back in its cage. On the other side of the small room, a veterinarian puts a feeding tube down a duck’s throat, leaves it for a couple seconds, and then removes the tube, returning the incessantly quacking duck to its cage.
A few minutes later, Lacy Campbell appears dressed in jeans and a purple shirt with the words Wildlife Care Center in white on the back. Her long brown hair is pulled back into a loose ponytail and tattoos cover her arms. An anesthetized duck lies on its back on the table, and Lacy confidently inserts an IV needle into its leg. She then opens the duck’s beak, its head resting in the crook of her hand between her thumb and forefinger, and examines its mouth and throat. As a certified wildlife rehabber and operations manager of the Audubon Wildlife Care Center, Lacy runs the Care Center by seeing bird and wildlife intakes through to eventual release, or in some cases to permanent captivity if the bird is unable to be released into the wild, and sometimes humane euthanasia or natural death. Lacy also trains and manages about eight dedicated and supportive volunteers per day, creates protocols for care of wildlife, and is informed on new protocols. Of over 3,000 animals received per year, about one-quarter are raptors with a variety of different injuries.
Raptors, also known as birds of prey, are carnivorous predators, using their feet to snag fish, small- to medium-sized mammals, large insects, both large and small birds, and some reptiles and amphibians, depending on the kind of bird, size, and habitat (Food for Birds of Prey). Raptors have light, thin bones that “permit the bird to get off the ground,” a sharply hooked beak made of keratin that helps them to devour their prey, and strong, sharp claws that help them catch, kill, and hold onto prey (Weidensaul 42-46). There are many different kinds of raptors, such as eagles, hawks, falcons, owls, kites, and even vultures. Each species varies in size and type of prey. The smallest raptors are the elf owl and the pygmy falcon; both weigh no more than 3 ounces and measure less than ten inches long. The Andean condor, a vulture considered to be the largest raptor, weighs 30 pounds and has a wingspan of 11 feet (Explore Birds of Prey). Raptors also have different body and wing shapes depending on how the bird catches its prey. Raptors such as true hawks have short, rounded wings, which allow for a speedy takeoff, as well as giving the bird quick maneuverability in the air. Falcons have long, broad, pointed wings, which allow the bird to move swiftly and smoothly through the air. Hawks, eagles, and vultures have extremely broad wings, letting the bird soar and glide in the air and close to the ground (Birds and Their Feathers). Raptors are exceptionally magnificent and beautiful creatures that deserve to be protected and preserved so that those in the future may learn about them as well.
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At the Wildlife Care Center, Lacy is needed to make the decision of whether to continue with rehabilitation for the raptor, keep the bird in permanent captivity, or humanely euthanize it. As for keeping the bird in captivity, certain individuals and some species can be high stress, high energy, and aggressive, a sign to Lacy that the animal is not suitable for captivity. In one case, a red-tailed hawk had been shot in the wing and brought into the clinic. The wound was cleaned, the bird given antibiotics and an x-ray, but the wing could not be saved. The hawk ended up being euthanized because it wouldn’t have survived in the wild. “That’s kind of frustrating.” Lacy says, “But I mean, that’s part of life in the rehabilitation field. And there are numerous other examples of where you try and try and try and, you know, sometimes it’s just fruitless.”
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Lacy got into wildlife rehabilitation by chance. Her friend worked with birds, and so she slowly began to get involved and volunteer, too. “I didn’t like birds at the time. I thought they were boring,” she says. But now, over time, she says she has come to “really love working with wildlife. And I love the fact that I feel like I’m making a difference in the world. You know, I feel like I’m mitigating some of the damages that we, as humans, living in the city, have done… We see a lot of human-associated injuries.”
It’s true that many raptor injuries are human caused, but the birds are at the rehabilitation centers for their injuries, which need basic care provided by humans, and sometimes “lifelong dependence on humans” (Keefer). If a raptor is kept in captivity for the rest of its life, the reason is that the bird was unable to return to the wild; it would have died before it could get back up on its feet. A young boy visiting The Cascades Raptor Center in Eugene, Oregon said, “I think it’s kind of sad because it’s trapped in a cage, but it’s also kind of happy because they’re taking care of it” (Swanson).
Human activity really affects raptors the most; being shot, getting hit by a car, caught by a cat or dog, or flying into a window are a few of the short-term injuries that a raptor can have, but human-caused oil spills and other waste as well as destruction of habitat can affect raptors in the long run. Many injuries are directly human caused; “some believe that humans should not interfere, that injured animals should be left alone… others believe that as humans are a part of the environment and are very often the reason a bird is injured, then it is acceptable to step in and take some responsibility” (Raptor Rehabilitation). Most of the time, people are not aware or else do not really think about how their actions, however small, can affect the environment and wildlife. “I think as a whole people mean well, and it’s really difficult to change the things that we have in place like, you know, we’re not going to get people to stop driving cars, we’re not going to get people to stop having windows in their building, you know, things like that,” Lacy says, leaning back in her chair. “I think overall humans and animals kind of end up being at odds because humans have a lot of space needs and a lot of energy needs and I feel sometimes animals end up getting pushed to the wayside, so to speak, because they don’t have as obvious a need.”
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Around 1947 DDT poisoning, an insecticide used by humans in areas where the bald eagle was living, increased, despite public awareness of the harmful and significant effects on raptors and other wildlife. The insecticide was built up in adult eagles and was then passed on to the birds’ eggs. Because DDT made the eggshells so thin, the eggs cracked before the chicks could hatch; “the bald eagle might be nearing extinction today had we never discovered the connection between prolific use of DDT and nesting failure of eagles.” DDT poisoning, loss of habitat, the decline of the bald eagle’s prey, an excess of hunting, and the fact that bald eagles were shot by farmers because they were considered a threat to livestock caused a decline in the population of bald eagles. In 1967, eagles were considered a threatened species, and were officially placed on the Endangered Species List from 1976 to 1994 (Breining 50-60). Because DDT was banned in the United States in 1972, wildlife rehabbers do not really need to worry as much about DDT poisoning. But the United States does export the insecticide to places such as South America; birds that migrate to and from South America bring DDT back into the U.S.
There is a significant negative effect on raptors and other wildlife from pollution, such as oil spills (although there aren’t too many cases of oil-slicked raptors at the Wildlife Care Center, unless the bird accidentally falls into oil or eats fish that live in polluted waters) and DDT poisoning, littering of rubber tires, plastic containers, etc., and the destruction of habitats. In an eagle census in 1980, “pools and rivers beyond were teeming with ducks and gulls… but the tidal marsh was littered with old rubber tires, plastic containers and other detritus” (Shabecoff). Loss of habitat can be obvious and noticeable, such as the complete destruction of forests, but “even quite small changes in forestry or agricultural procedures can have big effects on raptor food supplies.” When a habitat is destroyed, “most of the original species can no longer live there,” so not only have raptors lost their home, but also their source of food (Newton 192).
Not only does littering have a profound consequence in the destruction of habitat, but oil spills also contribute to the deterioration of habitat and many, many bird deaths. The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill in 1989 dumped an estimated amount of 11 million gallons of crude oil across 1,300 miles of coastline of the Prince William Sound in Alaska. Not only raptors, but also all kinds of wildlife, for example, otters, ducks, and other waterfowl, were killed in this oil spill. One hundred and forty-four bodies of bald eagles and 14 other raptors were found covered in oil sludge in Prince William Sound; these numbers were only a small portion of the actual damage - 90% of raptor deaths were outside Prince William Sound. The Sound has the highest densities of bald eagles in the world, so there was a great risk of oil getting on eagles’ feathers and being transferred from the feathers to nests. On some islands in the Sound, no eagle nest survived (Drew).
Tar sands development in Alberta, Canada also affects the health and safety of raptors and other wildlife. Tar sands development erodes soil and terrain, and destroys vegetation, wetlands and forest resources, and biodiversity. The forests and waters that were polluted and destroyed by the low-grade oil run-off were vital to more than 300 species of birds, who have now lost their nesting sites. The pollution is also contaminating the birds’ food supply, which cuts the adult birds and their young off from feeding. In 2008, the tar sands mine killed more than 1,600 ducks, at least 58,000 birds, although the number could be closer to 400,000 birds, and 43 other species of birds including many species of raptors. Like in the Exxon Valdez spill, birds were found dead in 2008 covered in oil and other pollution from the tar sands development. Oil coats the birds’ feathers, which then prevents them from migrating, as well as leading to a lack of insulation and, consequently, death (Glick).
On a similar note, oil and gas drilling affects raptors. Although raptors are protected by the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act, oil and gas drilling could leak toxins into rivers, lakes, streams, and groundwater. The raptors then consume the oil through drinking the water and eating their prey (Mikell).
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“Least favorite part of the job, as I’m sure you can imagine, is euthanasia,” Lacy says. “Sometimes it gets really difficult to do it, but it’s all a part of what we have to do in this field. It’s a fact of daily life.” If a raptor needs to be euthanized, sooner is better than later. “Sometimes humane euthanasia is the only thing we can offer, you know, an animal is obviously suffering and, you know, you need to put it out of its misery,” Lacy says. Even though euthanasia can be the clear and obvious choice for the bird, it’s still not an easy decision. “When I find an extremely injured raptor, the first thing that goes through my head is, well I can help you, at least… die… quickly,” she says. One of the worst injuries Lacy has seen was a great horned owl who had gotten caught in barbed wire. The bird had a compound fracture leading to the humerus, its wing had turned 360˚, and it was covered in maggots. “That to me is the worst thing,” she says, “when you don’t expect it to be that bad.” A red-tailed hawk had been fighting with another bird and was brought in with only a few puncture wounds. Lacy thought she knew the correct treatment plan, but in the morning the hawk was dead. “A lot of times, you know, you think you got it, you think you know what’s going on, and then something happens,” she says.
The success rate at the Audubon Wildlife Care Center is 40%. Although it doesn’t sound good, it is actually a really good success rate because the number includes birds that come in dead, as well as those who die shortly after being brought to the center and those that need to be euthanized. “Ultimate success is getting the bird into the wild,” Lacy says. Before a raptor’s release into the wild, it must be conditioned and prepared for release. “You can’t just say, ‘You’re healed’ and let them go” (Keefer). For Lynn Tompkins, a passionate wildlife rehabber and founder of Blue Mountain Wildlife in Pendleton, Oregon, the raptor is normally placed in cage rest while it recovers from its injuries. Then the bird goes to a flight pen and finally to eventual release. Sometimes, it is sent to a falconer for conditioning. Like Lacy at the Audubon Wildlife Care Center, Lynn needs to euthanize the raptor if it has bad injuries. Blue Mountain Wildlife’s release rate is between about 45 and 50%. “Half of what we get we can’t fix because of trauma,” Lynn openly shares. For example, a raptor came in after being electrocuted, its tail off, and had to be euthanized. She runs a wrinkled, weathered hand through her short gray hair, and sighs. “What I don’t like is things we can’t fix,” she says. Fortunately, of the raptors Lynn treats, not too many need to be euthanized. “[Euthanasia is] better than having them out there starving to death or waiting for a car to run over them,” Lynn says, shaking her head in disappointment. If the raptor can recover but cannot be successfully released into the wild due to permanent damage, Lynn uses as many raptors as she can for education purposes. If she cannot keep the bird in permanent captivity at her facility, she will sometimes give it to the High Desert Museum, tribes, zoos, or other rehabbers.
As mentioned before, the majority of injuries are human caused, both directly and indirectly, whether the injury is by electrocution, shootings, windows, cars, or other trauma. Like Lacy, Lynn doesn’t get many cases of raptors and oil spills, but poisoning is on the top of her list of issues. Lynn tests all hawks and eagles for lead poisoning; last year two-thirds of the intakes had some level of lead in their systems. But lead isn’t the only poison that raptors can ingest. A rodent can be poisoned with pesticides or organophosphate so when the raptor eats the rodent the bird is poisoned as well. “We’ve screwed up pretty much everything as people,” Lynn says. “We don’t think about the effect on the world… we don’t look at consequences. What we do to the world, to wildlife, we do it to ourselves. We are part of the circle.”
For wildlife rehabbers like Lacy and Lynn, who have devoted most of their lives to the rehabilitation and release of raptors and other wildlife, each day is new and challenging, each case somehow different from the last. “You never know what your day’s going to bring. You never know,” Lynn says. It hurts when a bird needs to be euthanized, but when the bird bounces back from extreme injuries it is truly inspiring. Wildlife rehabbing is hard work; rehabbers work long hours every day with no vacation, not much income, and not a lot of time to do other things. There is also a limited number of rehabbers and rehabilitation facilities in the areas where Lacy and Lynn work. It’s difficult to see a raptor kept in permanent captivity after receiving an injury that was most likely human-caused and, of course, it’s devastating to see a raptor die after working so hard to save it, but neither woman sees herself doing much of anything else. Lacy smiles and says, “I see myself doing this for a very long time.”
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