On June 26, after three months away, I returned to the Cascades Raptor Center. I looked forward to resuming volunteer work in the wildlife hospital. I also wondered if, after three months at home, I still knew how to handle a bird.
Working with injured wildlife is tricky. None of the animals you meet are there because they thought it was a day spa. Handling a wild raptor to provide medical care, whether it’s a great horned owl or an American kestrel, requires a careful approach and regular practice.
It takes confidence and delicacy to keep a bird safely tucked between your arms while ensuring its talons remain clear of your teammates’ hands so they can perform an exam or give medicine. Osprey can be especially difficult; imagine wrangling an unruly umbrella that refuses to stay closed and has eight hook-shaped talons where the handle should be.
As I walked into the new expanded wildlife hospital, one thing was clear: I’d need to revive my handling skills quickly, because we were full.
Summer is always a busy time for wildlife rehab. At the Raptor Center, we see a lot of young birds that are displaced from their nest or juveniles that left the nest only to be caught by a cat or fly into a window. We saw 78 birds in June, a record month for our hospital.
June 2017 had previously set the record with 66 patient intakes. With a record number of birds coming through our hospital this year, the question on everyone’s mind is, “Are we seeing more birds because of the COVID-19 pandemic?”
“People are probably doing more in their yards,” says Louise Shimmel, the Cascades Raptor Center executive director, “but there’s also a huge variation year to year.” In short, we can’t know for sure.
What we do know is that amid the ongoing crises, the community is still taking the time to help wildlife and has helped us provide care to 297 birds as of Aug. 16. That is the total number of patient intakes the center had in 2019. The entire staff at the Cascades Raptor Center is grateful for everyone’s support.
Like most organizations, the Raptor Center took safety precautions to limit the potential exposure of staff to the coronavirus. A great many jobs have adapted to using Zoom and other software to facilitate remote work, but training and feeding an eagle over video chat just isn’t feasible. So the staff decided to reduce the number of people on-site and temporarily furloughed the volunteer crew. Overnight, the center’s animal care team fell from the equivalent of 17 full-time employees to just seven.
“We have an amazing group of hardworking staff,” bird curator Kit Lacy says. “From our administrative staff making sure we have funds to continue operating to the people that were here every day, day in and day out, to take care of these animals.” Lacy points out that the Raptor Center is a community-supported organization; we don’t receive government funding.
According to Shimmel, education programs, admissions and gift shop sales constitute an average of 40 percent of the center’s total revenues. “That’s a big chunk we’re missing for the busiest part of the year,” she adds.
After closing at the end of March, the Raptor Center reopened to the public June 2 with social-distancing measures in place. All visits must be booked online to reduce crowds, and masks are required, following the governor’s order. If you’ve been feeling cooped up at home and are ready to get outdoors, it’s a perfect time to schedule a visit to the Raptor Center. Puck, one of our American kestrel ambassadors who is known for flying to the front of his aviary to see visitors, has been especially excited to see the public return.
Our ongoing mission is to foster connections between humans and wildlife through education and rehabilitation. Finding opportunities for connection is important right now. I hadn’t realized how much I missed it until I came back. Wildlife medicine is never easy. There’s a lot of poop, and many birds we see are injured beyond recovery. But every day, it gives me hope.
When an owl is hit by a car, or a Cooper’s hawk flies into a window, we simply see a living being that is suffering and deserves care. At a time when the world seems divided on every issue, helping injured wildlife is something people come together to do purely because it is the right thing.
If you find an injured animal, always contact your local wildlife rehabilitator before approaching it. If you find a bird that seems to have fallen out of a nest, look for parents nearby, and do not pick up the animal unless instructed to do so by a wildlife official or licensed rehabilitator.
Robin FitzClemen started volunteering at the Cascades Raptor Center in 2017. He studies science storytelling at the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication and can often be found filming and photographing wildlife at various parks around Eugene. Green herons are his favorite bird.