UC Center Is for the Birds--of Prey
Sidney and Harry are majestic bald eagles who share a large cage, daily meals of bloody white rats and a nasty history.
Sidney was found between Redding and Susanville in February 1990, shot in the wing. Harry was discovered near Lake Almanor in July 1992, starving and unable to fly with a broken wing tip. Both had wings amputated; Harry is also blind in the right eye.
The artificially flightless birds now hop around the cage that is their permanent home at the California Raptor Center at UC Davis. They splash in a small pool. Harry turns an imperious and unblinking left eye on visitors eager to see the nation’s avian symbols.
The center rehabilitates injured and orphaned raptors--birds of prey--and returns as many as possible to the wild. It also uses the birds that cannot live on their own to educate hundreds of schoolchildren on field trips, UC Davis veterinary and zoology students who take classes, other visitors and the volunteers who help care for the birds.
One such volunteer is Logan Kalfsbeek, 17. He sits stiffly on a bench outside Sidney and Harry’s cage, his left arm at a 90-degree angle, his hand covered with a thick leather glove.
Perched on his glove is Clacker, a great horned owl who is at least 21 years old and has been at the center since 1978. Clacker swivels his head impossibly far to the left and the right, his round, yellow eyes watching everything around him, his ear-like tufts alert.
Kalfsbeek has been volunteering since October to get credit for an animal health care class at Woodland High School. He wants to be a game warden and loves working with the beautiful birds.
“It’s the only place you get to hold an eagle or a hawk,” he says.
On a sunny day in early March, the center has about 70 hawks, owls, eagles, vultures and other raptors, says Assistant Director Bret Stedman. About 40 are permanent residents, most of them birds that could not survive in the wild because of missing wings or vision problems.
Others are too accustomed to humans. There is Balzac, the turkey vulture with the red beak and dusky black feathers. He hatched in 1981 and was a control bird in a veterinary school experiment that led to the banning of a bait poison that was killing raptors feeding on the dead animals.
Spring brings the center’s busiest season. It will soon have up to 150 orphaned or hurt birds. They’ll eat about 300 mice and 150 baby chickens a day, Stedman said.
About two-thirds of the 250 raptors the center receives each year are returned to the wild.
Birds are brought to the center by individuals, veterinarians, state and federal agencies and other animal rehabilitation agencies. State and federal law prohibits anyone without a special permit from keeping raptors or any part of them, even feathers.
The center has all the required permits.
“By and large, they are victims of human interference: finding orphans (whether or not they are); hit by a car; or shot by a gun,” Stedman explains.
Most “orphans” that well-meaning people bring in are really juvenile birds whose parents are nearby. The birds are simply trying a few tentative steps away from the nest, Stedman said.
“Unless they’re in absolute immediate danger . . . they really would be better off leaving them alone,” he said.
The center was started in 1972 by Frank Ogasawara and three students of the UC Davis Avian Science Department. Local falconers suggested such a center to start a captive breeding program for peregrine falcons, which at that time were declining because of pesticides.
The center outgrew its small house near the university airport in 1974 and moved to an unused plot south of the campus. It now consists of a series of weathered wood cages of various sizes, a museum, classrooms, offices and the veterinary clinic.
The center was transferred in 1980 to the School of Veterinary Medicine. The school provides $40,000 a year for the center’s basic operating budget; other funding comes from private donations, including an “adopt-a-bird” program.
From the start, the center combined treatment of injured birds with learning for veterinary and zoology students, school groups and the general public. The center is open weekdays and Saturday mornings.
Stedman, 39, a UC Davis zoology graduate, volunteered for 10 years. He has been a paid, full-time worker for three years.
He walks into the bald eagle cage, where Harry and Sidney are ready to devour two dead white rats. The birds dash to one corner and stare warily at the humans who interrupted their rodent repast.
“They’re just like any animals or people,” he said. “They’re extremely variable as individuals. They all have their own personalities. They all have their own tendencies.”
Some species, like bald eagles, do tend to be more nervous than others, he said.
Clacker, the veteran great horned owl, is less nervous. He is one of the eight to 10 birds that center workers can take out of their cages to show groups or take to schools. He was found injured in Fair Oaks, and part of his right wing had to be amputated.
“He’s been our main educational bird for the last 20 years,” Stedman said. “He’s really good for teaching beginning people in handling birds.”
Meanwhile, UC Davis student Melissa Spellman, 21, of Santa Rosa, who wants to be a vet, steps inside Balzac’s cage with a plastic container full of tiny poultry.
“There you go,” she says.
She plops two dead chicks down on a wooden slab. Balzac and the other bird sharing his cage eat like birds--vultures.