On a windy day in March, a small gray puffball with onyx eyes arrives at the Ojai Raptor Center. The days-old baby owl has probably been blown out of its nest. A veteran volunteer takes on its feeding. She puts on a sweater with a large hood that hides her face. That way the owl won't see a human attached to the hand that presents it with mice four times a day. In the first few weeks of life, owls imprint on whoever is feeding them, identifying that creature as its parent. An owl that imprints on a human can never be released into the wild. This would be in some measure a tragedy, like being confined to a small room for the rest of your life.
The baby's caretaker is one of 25 volunteers in a core group that the center's director, Kim Stroud, relies on. Stroud is a licensed wildlife rehabilitator. She takes in the injured, the orphaned and the starving and returns them — if myriad things go right — to their native habitats as healthy animals capable of breeding and raising their own young. (Don't try this at home — wild birds are protected, and their care requires state and federal permits.)
Stroud's local heroism is the everyday version of the massive bird rescue playing out on the international stage in the Gulf of Mexico. The BP spill is death on an unprecedented scale, but humans imperil wildlife every minute. Even as our cities and towns encroach on bird habitats, many species have adapted to us — or at least found us unavoidable. Power lines, guns, cars, cats, glass-walled buildings, pesticides and poisons regularly injure and kill raptors. Stroud's calling is to intercede when the birds come up against us. "I look at where we're going on the planet, and I feel that every time I save one animal I'm banking against the losses of the future," she says.
Stroud juggles her job running the sample room at Patagonia in Ventura with her work managing the center she founded 10 years ago. This is her busiest time of year. In March, the baby owls begin streaming in, followed by a flood of baby hawks. By mid-June she has 180 young raptors in her care. The darling puffball is now a magnificent adult great horned owl. It's down to one feeding a day, in the evening, when Stroud leaves a platter of mice. When she walks into its flight — a spacious aviary that enables the birds to fly — she's greeted only with fierce suspicion. For this Stroud is grateful.
Otherwise the owl would have ended up like Shytan, the golden eagle who's among the center's "nonreleasables," birds that largely spend their days in small aviaries in Stroud's backyard. A golden eagle, it turns out, isn't gold at all — more the color of dark chocolate that's been dusted with cocoa powder. It has feet as large as a child's hand and wings that could embrace one of Stroud's great Danes. Shytan is fearless, as if his disability didn't exist.
Twenty years ago, Shytan severed his wing when he flew into a power line near Lancaster. A Fish and Game warden found him and his wing and got both to a rehabilitator in the Simi Valley. Stroud inherited Shytan when the caregiver moved to Alaska (his wing went to a local group of Chumash to use in religious ceremonies). Shytan has a confidence that makes him an excellent show-and-tell ambassador for raptors. He accompanies Stroud to Scout meetings, schoolroom "know your birds" sessions, bimonthly displays at the humane society, and Earth Day-type events.
Like other rehabilitators I've encountered, Stroud works too hard to waste time ranting on the horrors she's seen. She is more nonplussed than enraged by the woman who kept an owl on a diet of tomatoes (raptors = birds of prey = meat eaters). Nor does she rail about the red-tailed hawk wounded multiple times by shotgun fire (it lived). Or the screech owl that's been blinded by a golf ball, not the first bird-versus-golfer injury she's seen (she suspects some are deliberate).
Housing the hundreds of raptors she receives (375 last year, 500 the year before) is an ongoing juggling act that includes borrowed space at a horse farm, three flights at Patagonia and volunteers' garages. Stroud realized a dream this year when she built five large aviaries on three acres of land she's leasing at a former juvenile-detention facility in west Ojai. All are now filled with birds except one, a towering, 260-foot-long giant that she lacked the funds to complete. (Over the weekend, at a center fundraiser in Ventura, she was presented with a $50,000 grant from Southern California Edison to finish the job.)
The new cages are training academies for baby raptors; each has a large, topless wood box that holds prey — rats and mice for the owls — that the birds must learn to kill on their own. At first the response to the scampering prey is comic; the owls perch on the edge of the boxes and bob their heads in alarm. Then one bird's instincts kick in, and school's in session.
At about four months, the owls will be released. The great horned owl will be among the first to go, early next month. Stroud has selected a site, an oak wood not far from the center, though sometimes she goes north to Santa Ynez or east to Cuyama or south into the Santa Monica Mountains so that the birds won't compete with one another. Because their presence in daytime draws attacks by crows or hawks, she must release the owls at dusk. The releases are the only time she gets emotional. They are the culmination of incalculable hours, the constant stress about money. She'll make the drive, pull out a box from the back of her van, pick her spot and stand back. As the bird lifts itself into the dying light, its wings won't make a sound.
Ann Herold is the managing editor of Los Angeles magazine.