Owls and falcons perched on their gloved fists, three students outside Jerry Thompson's Simi Valley garage practice the fine art of "manning"--or handling--birds of prey. The birds are, after all, wild--a poorly controlled bird can rip his handler's face--but there's not even a peck as Thompson moves about, keeping up a commentary rich with lore gathered during more than three decades as a falconer.
Thompson is in his element. He is working with birds of prey, classed as "raptors"; he is increasing the public's awareness of these majestic but often misunderstood birds, and he is helping the sick and injured raptors of Ventura County regain sufficient vigor to be released back into the wild.
Most importantly, as raptor coordinator for the Animal Rehabilitation Center now operating under the auspices of Moorpark College, he is building a network of knowledgeable people designed to guarantee the continued effectiveness of the organization.
"It's not a one-man job," he said.
The program fills a gap left after Ventura veterinarian Ron Delzell closed the rehabilitation operation after 17 years.
Delzell said he was discouraged by a "lack of any cooperation or consideration from the wildlife agencies and the public." He said people who found wounded birds were abusive to his staff, sometimes demanding "visiting rights" and the release of the birds in their own back yards. "Our whole society has become too self-oriented," Delzell said.
But Thompson has high hopes.
Since March, when he took the first patient into his makeshift convalescent hospital, Thompson has worked with 80 birds. During the nesting season, which peaks between March and July, there were 40 owls, hawks and falcons under the Thompson roof.
Thompson gestured to a nearby student, Darwin J. Long IV. "During that period, I had D.J. helping me much of the time. We spent three hours every morning and four hours in the evening, just feeding. I'm not counting any time for medication or therapy."
For Thompson, it's a labor of love. Birds of prey have fascinated him from boyhood. As a teen-ager in Burbank, he scoured mail-order catalogues for falconry books and equipment. He remembers hunting jack rabbits with red-tailed hawks in fields near Los Angeles International Airport.
Until a congenital hip ailment forced him to quit, Thompson had turned his hobby into a profession. He trained birds for films and TV shows, including a National Geographic special and several episodes of "Lassie." He was a regular at a now-defunct animal park in Buellton.
The four students assembled at his home on a recent Saturday afternoon were working on phase two of the Thompson rehabilitation class, which he offers in cooperation with the Moorpark College Exotic Animal Training and Management program.
Through an agreement with the state Department of Fish and Game, the program evaluates and treats all types of sick and injured wild birds and mammals brought in by the public. The program then farms the birds of prey out to Thompson for their recovery period. Thompson's course consists of five sessions of classroom work, followed by at least 10 hours of hands-on experience with raptors. Upon successful completion of the course, students will be permitted to rehabilitate raptors in their homes with Thompson overseeing the process--an unprecedented arrangement in California, according to state Department of Fish and Game officials.
Of the four students visiting Thompson this Saturday, only one is now employed in a related field. After a stint as a technical assistant to a veterinarian, Trish McElroy works part time in the aviary section of the Los Angeles Zoo.
Jeff Ferguson is a truck driver whose interest in raptors evolved during 20 years' residence in rural Moorpark. His close friendship with McElroy led him to a more direct involvement with the birds.
The great horned owl on Ferguson's arm is nearly ready for release after arriving as a nestling almost nine months ago. Thompson explained that in most cases, candidates for release are handled as little as possible. But accustomed to hand-feeding by humans, this particular owl has "imprinted" on Thompson and his wife, Kathy, as it would have on its own parents in the wild, delaying its release.
While Thompson demonstrated the correct way to hold the "jesses," leather thongs attached to the legs of raptors to ease handling, he exchanged ideas with McElroy, the zoo employee, on ways to prevent imprinting.
She brought up the special screen used to shield zoo condors from their handlers. He countered with the use of puppets at feeding time and enlisting mature birds as foster parents.
"That's what I like about having a network," Thompson said. "We're sharing knowledge as well as labor--it's like having a mini-think-tank."
Pete Trim, an employee of the U.S. Navy who has worked with reptiles and songbirds, spent part of Saturday's session manning a diminutive screech owl. Because an injured wing healed imperfectly, the owl is one of the few birds Thompson will keep for use in his education program.
"Fish and Game doesn't want a lot of crippled birds around," Thompson said. Raptors that do not regain full flight capability usually are euthanized.
But educating young people about the role of birds of prey in nature's design is a key part of the Thompson rehabilitation plan and another aspect in which he hopes to involve graduates of his program. He has made numerous school visits and urges interested rehabilitation students to do so as well.
During Saturday's session, D.J. Long handled a prairie falcon, another bird whose diminished flight ability destined it for many classroom appearances. A student completing basic course work at Moorpark College, Long hopes to enroll in the animal training and management program. He has also recently acquired from the Fish and Game department an apprentice falconer's license, which will permit him to keep and handle a red-tailed hawk or a kestrel.
As daylight faded, Thompson led his students indoors to work on other aspects of bird rehabilitation. Housed in cardboard boxes and pet carriers, the birds are shielded from light to keep them quiet, and to reduce stress.
A red-tailed hawk had had surgery on a broken wing five days before, and was due for an antibiotic injection. Using a towel to shield his hands, Thompson cornered the bird, wrapped it and took it to a kitchen table, where a student restrained it with a firm grip on the bird's legs. "Control the feet, and you control the bird," Thompson reminded his charges.
During the examination, the bird's head was kept covered to keep it quiet, in much the same way that a falconer uses the traditional hood. Thompson worked quickly to minimize trauma. "You have to watch the breathing, so you can tell how stressed the bird is getting," he said. He pointed out the best sites for intramuscular injections, and was pleased that the surgery was healing cleanly.
His satisfaction changed to concern though, when Pete Trim emerged from cage-cleaning in the garage holding the stainless steel pin that a veterinarian had inserted to keep the hawk's wing aligned for proper healing.
"Well, it's back to the vet Monday for this one," Thompson said. Veterinary care is provided free of charge to birds in the rehab program by the Angeles Animal Hospital in Simi Valley and Conejo Valley Vet Clinic in Thousand Oaks.
Thompson then evaluated a red-tailed hawk whose wing had been wounded by a shot from a .22-caliber rifle. The injury has healed well, but release will be delayed until the hawk grows new primary feathers. In some cases, Thompson grafts feathers onto such birds, using replacements from a half a dozen or so dead specimens kept in his freezer.
Next, students take part in a brief therapy session on a kestrel, which had shown a slight imbalance in flight. Thompson asked Ferguson to flex the bird's wings. "Feel the difference in the range of motion?" For three minutes, Ferguson worked the wings gently back and forth. The small bird kept up a piercing cry that made Thompson smile.
"Fierce little guy, isn't he? A real go-getter."
With small birds such as the kestrel, Thompson evaluates flight by letting the bird loose in the house. Larger hawks and owls are evaluated while attached to a long line, or "crance," in Thompson's back yard. They may spend several days on the crance, honing hunting skills and readjusting to the outdoors.
Thompson wants to build at least one large flight cage--a plywood shed about 20 feet wide and 40 feet long. "With just the one crance, we're limited to evaluating one bird at a time. It slows us down, and we have to keep the birds longer than we'd like," he said.
Lynn Doria, assistant director of the animal training program, said a grant has been applied for through the state's environmental license plate program. If funding is received, a flight cage could be built at the new wild animal compound soon to open at the college.
Doria stressed that funding for education of the public is equally important. "With Christmas coming up, I'd like to get across to all the people buying their kids BB guns and .22's. Every January, without fail, we get at least eight or 10 hawks injured by bullets and BBs."