HARBOR SPRINGS — A popular educational organization based in Emmet County is moving in a new direction after losing the ability to care for its beloved raptors.
NorthWings, which is part of the See-North organization and has been a well-loved attraction at area events for years, recently lost three of its raptors to medical issues, and while the remaining four are showing signs of improvement, they will not be returning to the Harbor Springs based organization.
Earlier this month, the News-Review contacted NorthWings after noticing the organization was not present at area events this summer. Phone calls and emails went unanswered.
The organization’s website offers the following statement:
“Our raptors are currently not at our site at Boyne Highlands. All our birds have been taken to a rehabilitation facility for health treatment. It is our primary responsibility to ensure the health of the raptors in our care and they will be gone for health care during the month of June. We appreciate your patronage and ask for your continued support of our birds and their care. Please make your donation and know that it goes to support the well-being of the raptors we all love. Thank you and hope to see you at the site in July.”
When contacted earlier this month, Eric Davis, a NorthWings board member, confirmed that all educational programs had been canceled for now, and that the birds have been removed from the site at Boyne Highlands and had been receiving medical care for a couple months. He added that the organization was looking to head in a new direction.
Rebecca Lessard, the executive director of Wings of Wonder, which is based in Empire, later contacted the News-Review and confirmed that all seven of the NorthWings raptors had been taken to her organization for medical treatment.
Lessard also told the News-Review that the NorthWings board of directors fired its executive director, Jim Tisdel, earlier this summer. Davis later confirmed Tisdel’s firing. However, Tisdel told the News-Review he was not fired and instead resigned.
Lessard, who has been familiar with the NorthWings program since its inception in the late 1990s, said she became concerned over the raptors’ welfare after several recent employee turnovers.
“Over the years, there have been several different staff come on board, and I always offered myself as a resource to them,” Lessard said. “But then I started seeing turnovers ... and the last couple years I’ve been extremely concerned and began raising some questions.”
She became more concerned this spring when she visited the raptors in Harbor Springs, and noticed many with overgrown beaks.
“I suggested medical treatment, then noticed one of the birds had a foot infection. It was just the beginning of bumblefoot, a bacterial infection of the foot that is extremely serious,” Lessard said. “You always have to monitor their feet because when a bird gets bumblefoot, it can die in the matter of a week.”
In June, Lessard said one of her colleagues visited NorthWings and interviewed for a position. When she returned, she told Lessard that both feet of a red-shouldered hawk were also seriously infected.
By the end of June, all seven of the NorthWings raptors were being treated by Lessard in Empire. However, three of the birds — Lucy, a red-shouldered hawk, and Marley and Maggie, both red-tailed hawks — had to be euthanized.
“One of them had cuts so deep in its foot, a Q-tip couldn’t find the bottom of the cut,” she said.
The four remaining birds are recovering.
Luna, a barred owl, now has a permanent home at Braveheart Raptor Center in Muskegon.
Chilli, a screech owl, is in the care of West Bloomfield Parks and Recreation and is living at a municipal park.
Lessard is still searching for a permanent home for Coop, a Cooper’s hawk, and said she plans to keep Koda, the golden eagle.
“Every center with birds has a mishap, but seven out of seven birds is unheard of,” Lessard said.
Larry Harrison, an administrative specialist who handles migratory bird permits with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service did confirm that the birds from NorthWings were taken to Wings of Wonder for care, but could not say if there was an ongoing investigation in the case. Harrison explained that the department does not release details on any such investigation.
Tisdel said since he is not a raptor specialist or handler, he did not know the birds were sick. He said at the time of his departure from the organization, which was an unpaid, volunteer position, he was in the process of working with the board on a vision for the future.
“I went into a board meeting for what I thought would be about bringing on a new raptor specialist, but it turned out to be a very negative meeting and I said I was just done,” he said.
Tisdel said he then told the board that if they wanted him to continue, they could contact him, but was told a couple days later that the board decided to go in a different direction.
Davis, while he declined to comment on much regarding the case since the NorthWings board of directors is still in the process of deciding what direction the organization wants to go, said the organization plans to reevaluate its educational program and work with Lessard on new programs.
“We can still get birds later, but need to do revamping, get our education program in line and hire a qualified handler and specialist,” he said. “It’s for the best of the birds to have them relocated.”