Saving Birds of Prey | WSU’s Raptor Rehabilitation Program
by Marcia Hill Gossard '99, '04
Down a long, narrow, dim hallway is a door with a gold metal number 10. We stop outside and listen to an owl hooting. Dr. Nicky Finch, wildlife veterinarian at the WSU College of Veterinary Medicine, opens the door a crack, then slowly walks in. “Gus,” a Great Gray Owl, is inside. He has strips of leather on his legs, called jesses. Dr. Finch puts on a leather gauntlet, which covers her forearm. She connects a short leather line to the jesses and Gus jumps from his perch to her arm. One large wing gracefully extends as he moves. The other wing, appears to only open part way.
Almost immediately, Gus, who has a round face and yellow piercing eyes, starts making a hissing sound and clacking his yellow beak, signaling to us that he is not very happy. “He doesn’t like me very much,” says Finch. Gus, like most wild birds, doesn’t show gratitude to the woman who saved his life. He came to the WSU Veterinary Teaching Hospital in 2009 after someone found him in a yard near Spokane. His wing was so badly fractured Dr. Finch had to amputate below the elbow to save him.
Because Gus can no longer fly, he is now a permanent resident in the newly renovated WSU Stauber Raptor Facility, named for retired wildlife professor Erik Stauber who devoted 40 years to caring for raptors. The floor in Gus’s mew, a house for birds of prey, is lined with river rocks. There is a wood block perch and other perches made from natural branches. At the back of the mew, narrowly opened wood slats let in fresh air and light. On the ceiling, a round half globe glows. “Each mew has a skylight so they have a natural light cycle,” says Finch. The natural lighting is also important for moulting, she says. Much like humans lose and regrow hair, birds naturally shed their feathers as new ones grow in. Natural light regulates moulting, which generally occurs once a year in most healthy birds.
Found in the northern United States, Canada, and Alaska, Great Gray Owls are one of the largest owls with the longest wingspan of any owl. They are also excellent hunters. “In the wild, Gus would be able to hear a mouse six to eight inches under the snow,” says Finch.
Dr. Finch gently places Gus back on his perch, and we walk to mew number nine where “Sprite,” a resident Great Horned Owl lives. Sprite was hit by a car. “Neurologically, he is not like a Great Horned Owl anymore,” says Finch. While he can no longer care for himself in the wild, he can serve as a surrogate dad for baby Great Horned Owls brought to WSU. “Babies stay with him to imprint and learn how to be an owl,” she says. To have a chance to be successfully released back into the wild, Finch says it is important the babies do not imprint on humans. “We try hard to teach them people are not a food source and are not to be trusted,” she says.
On this day, they are caring for three baby Great Horned Owls that were recently blown out of the nest, probably from wind, says Finch. When a bird is found on the ground, that’s when Dr. Finch will often get a call. Mother owls will take care of their babies on the ground and bring them food, she says, but sometimes the mother either isn’t around or isn’t feeding the baby owl. If possible they try to get them back in the nest, she says. On some occasions Avista, a regional electric utility company, returns babies to the nest using a cherry picker truck.
In another mew are two more baby Great Horned Owls that are almost ready to be released. “We have to finish creancing and live prey testing with them,” says Finch. Before releasing a bird, Finch and her team attach the raptor to a long leather creance line to make sure they are ready to fly. “We try to have them fly 150 feet,” says Finch. “Then we know they are ready to go back into the wild.” They also do live prey testing with the birds to make sure they can hunt for food on their own.
In between the mews are flights, big rooms where larger birds, like Gus, can spread their wings and smaller raptors, such as Screech Owls or Kestrels, can fly. “It can be used for little birds working on getting their conditioning back,” says Finch. The first flight we visit has a covered roof, so it is completely shaded and stays dry during rain. It is ideal for birds wearing bandages that cannot get wet, but who still need to jump and move around. One of its regular visitors is “Amicus,” a Golden Eagle who was brought to the WSU veterinary hospital when he was six months old. Amicus, or “Ami” as they affectionately call him, is completely blind. If put in a flight that wasn’t fully shaded, he would run the risk of overheating. “He would know he is getting too warm,” says Finch. “But he’d just have to walk around hoping to find the shade.”
In Amicus’s mew, which is at least twice as large as Gus’s, none of his perches are ever moved so he knows where to find them. They hand feed Amicus, because while eagles have keen eyesight for hunting, their sense of smell isn’t that acute. Because Amicus is blind he would have to stomp around to find his food, says Finch. Compared to some of the other raptors we visited, Amicus is extremely calm and not at all bothered by our presence. “He is very humanized,” says Finch. But he is not imprinted on humans. “He knows he’s a bird and he knows he is different,” she says.
Further down the hall is flight number one, which is three times the size of a normal flight. Sunlight streams through the screened-in roof. “Hudson,” a young Bald Eagle with an injured wing, is standing inside on the pebbled ground. The flight is large enough for Hudson to spread his wings, but when they test him for flight before he can be released they will take him outside and attach him to a long creance. Dr. Finch hopes one day the flights can be retrofitted with barn doors to create even larger flights so they can flight test larger birds indoors.
Renovations to this special facility began more than eight years ago. Because of funding, it was split into three phases. During the first phase, 10 mews and five flights were built in what was once a building that housed turkeys as part of the then Washington State College’s world-renowned poultry husbandry program. Originally named the Carver Building Raptor Facility in June 2008 after John S. Carver, longtime chair of the poultry husbandry program, the building was renamed in 2013 to honor Dr. Stauber and his distinguished career at WSU.
A prominent “Stauber Raptor Facility” sign hangs on the right of the light gray metal sided building. On the left is a large set of windows next to the front door. The space through the door and behind the windows will soon be an education center, which is part of the third and final phase of the building renovation expected to be completed by the end of 2016. Adjacent to the education room will be a work station with an anesthesia cart, surgery table, and medical equipment so Dr. Finch and the wildlife veterinary technicians can give birds physical therapy, wound treatment, oxygen, bandaging, beak shaping, talon trimming, and other minor procedures at the raptor facility instead of transporting the birds to the WSU Veterinary Teaching Hospital for routine care.
While visiting “Dakota,” a resident Red-Tailed Hawk who came to WSU after she had been shot by a pellet gun, fell to the ground, and was then hit by a car, veterinary technician Ashley Varner walks towards us down the hall. In her arms is “Miller,” a baby Swainson’s hawk. She brings Miller to Dr. Finch. “She feels hot,” says Varner. Dr. Finch tenderly takes the hawk, who is about the size of a large parrot, and holds him up to her ear. “I want to listen to his heart and give him fluids,” says Finch. They get a box ready to transport him from the raptor facility to the veterinary hospital. “When the workroom is done we will be able to do that here,” she says. “And not have to take him up to the hospital.”
Miller, who was found out of the nest, alone and dehydrated, stays in a mew with another Swainson’s hawk to learn how to eat and behave like a hawk. The goal is to release Miller, says Finch, but for that to happen, Miller needs to imprint on another Swainson’s hawk and not on people. “Widget,” a Barn Owl in mew number eight, fell out of the nest and unfortunately imprinted on humans. Because he does not have typical bird behavior and shows no fear of people, he is a permanent resident.
On one of our last stops we see “Tundra,” a male Snowy Owl found in Lewiston, Idaho. Tundra came to WSU with a badly injured left wing. He had a fractured humerus, the bone in his upper wing, and a dislocated elbow. Finch believes he was likely hit by a car. The bone healed, but the dislocated elbow did not. Tundra can no longer fully extend his wing and is unable to fly. Snowy owls are found in Alaska and Canada, so Tundra likes temperatures much colder than the summers on the Palouse. To stay cool, both Tundra and Gus love ice in their mews. During the hottest summer months, Finch and her team carry gallon buckets of ice from the veterinary hospital to the mews. “We would love to have an automatic icemaker someday,” says Finch.
Finch estimates they treat 200 to 300 raptors at WSU every year. Some birds like the baby Great Horned Owls need only minimal care before they are released. Others, like Gus, need lifesaving surgeries. While some injured birds become permanent residents, many raptors they treat are released back into the wild. The renovations to the facilities has meant that Finch and her team can care for even more of these special birds.
“I won’t turn animals away,” she says.