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High-Minded Friends Take Birds of Prey Under Wing

Richard Barnes spends his spare time cleaning out bird cages, a pastime that might not have universal appeal. But for the Laguna Hills resident, being of service to injured hawks, owls, eagles and falcons is a higher calling.

“They’re regal fellows,” Barnes said of the birds as he raked out their mews, or flight cages, at the Orange County Bird of Prey Center in Lake Forest.

Working with the raptors is “like being in the parking lot of an Air Force base full of F-16s,” he said. “They’re just waiting for the launch command.”

Barnes is among 30 volunteers under the direction of Lake Forest veterinarian Scott Weldy. The team helps to rehabilitate as many as 175 injured or sick raptors a year brought to the center by the public or by animal control workers.

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The mission is to treat them and eventually return them to the wild.

“We bandage them, [perform] surgery, whatever it takes to make that bird right,” Weldy said.

About half of the birds brought to the center are rehabilitated and released, Weldy said. The rest are either euthanized or adopted for educational purposes, he said.

For example, volunteers take “imprinted” birds--those handled by humans for so long that they have lost their capacity to live free--to school programs and bird shows in a campaign to educate the public about birds and their habits.

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“They’re sharks with wings, and we have to respect their behaviors,” Weldy said. “They are not pets.”

Since its founding in 1986, the center has treated and released about 1,000 injured birds, operating mainly from a makeshift facility in a Lake Forest back yard.

When Weldy learned earlier this year that the shelter violated city codes, he began working with county officials to establish a permanent facility at Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park near Trabuco Canyon.

Lake Forest officials have allowed the clinic to keep operating while details are worked out. The aim is to collect enough private donations for a veterinary center, educational facilities and large cages in which the birds could take off and land as they learn to fly again.

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Meanwhile, the raptor brigade is carrying on its work with unflagging enthusiasm. “It’s so neat to see them all up close and learn about them,” said volunteer Terri Bray, an Irvine resident.

Information: (714) 837-0786.


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