Contrary to popular opinion, the Cold War, the energy crisis, and Nixon’s resignation were not the most significant stories of the day back in 1974. Rather, it was the startling decline of America’s wild raptor population, best exemplified by the disappearance of the peregrine falcon everywhere east of the Rockies and the near extinction of the bald eagle. A future without creatures so captivating to the imagination and vital to our country’s ecology would have been very bleak indeed. Something had to be done, quickly.
As is so often the case, Minnesotans took it upon themselves to find a solution to the problem. The University of Minnesota’s Raptor Center was thus established as a place where ornithologists could study and avian veterinarians could medically treat the raptors in such dear need of help. The Raptor Center now admits around 1,000 sick and injured birds every year, as well as helping to identify emerging environmental issues related to raptor health and their populations.
“The great difficulty in what we do here is how relatively little we know about avian medicine as compared to other branches of veterinary science,” explained Dr. Julia Ponder, executive director of The Raptor Center. “The great majority of medical studies have been conducted on mammals, so we have a pretty thorough understanding of their physiologies. We know relatively little about many of the nearly 200 families of birds, however, and they are all drastically different from one another. What you might know about a chicken will only provide a rough framework for what you need to know about treating a vulture.
“Fortunately, The Raptor Center has given our students and veterinarians decades of hands-on experience working with birds, so we are able to do great work when a falcon or owl comes to us in need of care. As the world’s leading authority on avian orthopedic surgery, we were once recruited to treat the world’s only surviving wild-hatched California condor for a broken bone about ten years ago — if you want to be the best in the world at something, you have to do something that no one else does.
“Our work extends beyond the birds who are brought to us by good samaritans, too. When an invasive species control effort once put the Galapagos hawk population in jeopardy, we traveled there personally to help sort out how to rid the island of rats without putting the awesome, threatened bird at further risk. I believe that science affords few opportunities more satisfying than helping to save an entire species from annihilation.
“While saving birds has always been our goal, so too is raising awareness of conservation efforts. Raptors’ beauty and charisma make them the perfect poster children for that cause. I don’t want to marginalize other species, but we are lucky to work with such brilliant animals so we can help people see just how vital protecting the environment is.”
The Raptor Center at the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul campus is open to the public, so you may go there for a “beak to nose experience with the birds” as Dr. Ponder put it. While the injured raptors are not for visiting (you would probably not want to go beak to nose with an irascible wild osprey anyway), the Center is home to several sociable ambassador birds including eagles, hawks, kestrels, and owls that aren’t fit for life in the wild. Tours of the facility run every 30 minutes six days a week, and educational programs for groups of children and adults alike are held both on weekends and by special appointment. To learn more about The Raptor Center’s mission, the educational opportunities they offer, and how you can help to support their admirable cause, please visit raptor.umn.edu.
By David Scheller