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Where Birds of Prey Find Rest, Recreation : Winged Wounded Are Healed to Get Another Chance to Fly Free

July 26, 1987|SHARON COHEN | Associated Press

ST. PAUL, Minn. — The patient enters the operating room draped in a pink towel, warily eyeing the doctor in his white coat and the shiny needle on the counter. She squawks.

She is not happy, but no one seems to mind that her feathers are ruffled. Lots of patients squawk around here. This is a hospital for the winged wounded.

The Raptor Research and Rehabilitation Program at the University of Minnesota operates the nation's oldest and largest infirmary for birds of prey and offers a temporary roost for grounded birds from across the Midwest.

Brunhilda, a bald eagle, is being examined to determine how well she is recovering. She is a problem patient: She was taken in with a broken wing, then broke a leg thrashing about while convalescing.

She is one of nearly 4,000 eagles, hawks, owls, falcons, swans and pelicans who have been brought here for some mending magic so that they can soar once more.

"There's nothing that makes me happier than seeing a patient released," said Dr. Patrick Redig, a veterinarian and a founder of the program.

300 or 400 Treated Each Year

Each year, 300 to 400 raptors, or predatory birds, are brought in for treatment. Most come from Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois or North Dakota, but a few have been sent from as far away as Alaska, California and Maine.

Some have broken wings or legs. Others have battered beaks, eyes poked out or bodies bruised by gunshot, traps or power lines. About half the injuries are accidental; many of the birds were hit by cars.

Great horned owls are most numerous, but more than 400 bald eagles and 1,500 non-raptors have also been admitted since the program began in 1972.

Many of the raptors Redig sees have been sent to him as a last resort. They have not healed elsewhere, or are cases no one wants.

"We get several birds who come in totally emaciated . . . unable to stand up, unable to hold their heads up," he said. "The worst ones have been caught in traps and have literally pounded themselves to a pulp."

About two of five such birds recover and are returned to the wild. "If you go down to a field hospital in a war zone, I don't think you'd have a much higher percentage," Redig said with a note of pride.

Most raptors use their legs to kill their prey, so they are not released until they are fully healed. Otherwise, they would not survive.

Some birds survive in the hospital but cannot recover enough to fend for themselves. These fall into two categories: the disabled, which are used for education or for nature centers and captive breeding programs, and those that must be humanely destroyed.

Many birds arrive in boxes, shipped by conservation officials or private citizens. Others are brought to the door by hunters or motorists.

Redig makes late-night airport trips to pick up birds. Once, after a severe storm, he traveled to a lake where hailstones had broken the legs or wings of 30 pelicans.

The raptor program treats the birds as hospital patients. They undergo diagnostic tests and X-rays and get intravenous feedings, vitamins, antibiotics, live food (usually rodents) and physical therapy.

Feather-Strewn Halls

These are no ordinary hospital wards. Feathers are strewn on the floor and there are wading pools for the eagles to splash in. New patients, often with their wings wrapped in gauze, hiss, screech or snort at visitors peeking between the wooden slats of their cages.

Once they are well enough, they can spread their wings in a room with padded walls. The next stage of rehabilitation takes place in a seven-foot-wide hall with two perches 65 feet apart. The birds fly the corridor end to end while doctors count the laps and check their breathing.

Eagles, because of their size, must be exercised outside on 100-foot tethers.

Some raptors, such as red-tailed hawks, take captivity in stride, but "bald eagles tend to be very wild and fractious," Redig said. "They will never be complacent about their circumstances. They fight you tooth and nail."

Raptors generally are more interested in food than companionship, he said, but "if you sit and talk to them and cut up their meat . . . they'll very hesitantly reach over. From that point on, they'll think you're just great. . . . Slow-moving gentleness goes a long way."

There are hazards to handling eagles. Brunhilda, for example, during one examination sunk a talon into a staff member's arm and would not let go until she was anesthetized.

In addition to treating raptors, Redig is working to restore the Midwest peregrine falcon population, decimated by DDT and other pesticides, by releasing them from tall buildings in Minneapolis, Chicago and Grand Rapids, Mich. The ledges of such buildings make ideal nesting places for the falcons.

The raptor program, co-founded by Dr. Gary Duke, a bird physiologist, has grown from a bare-bones operation to one with a staff of seven, a $245,000 budget and 190 volunteers. Next year's projected budget is $345,000.

The highlight of the work remains the same--the release of healed birds, which is done in areas where raptors are likely to find food. For a bald eagle, that means along the St. Croix or Mississippi rivers.

Twice a year, the public is invited to see mass releases.

"It's a celebration," Redig said. "It's just completely exhilarating. Big or small, I don't give a darn. It's a great feeling to give another creature a chance at surviving."

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