Wild Wednesday: Get to know Florida’s Remarkable Raptors

On a quaint street in Maitland, Florida, in the small historic Town of Eatonville (a place previously known only to me as the home of Zora Neale Hurston), nestled off the shores of Lake Sybelia, sits the Audubon Center for Birds of Prey. You might drive past it at first, like I did, if you’re not paying attention. But once you find it, you’ll soon realize that you’ve stumbled onto something quite interesting –  a sanctuary for some of Florida’s most marvelous creatures.

Compared to the many extravagant theme parks Central Florida is known for, the Audubon Center for Birds of Prey is a modest facility –  you won’t find any high tech laser shows or fancy animal stunts here, but their efforts to protect Florida’s raptors are nonetheless extraordinary and the staff there are clearly passionate about their work. The Audubon Center is focused on the rescue, rehabilitation and release of birds of prey. They recently released their 540th bald eagle back into the wild and estimate that they have positively impacted the lives of 1/3 – 1/2 of the eagle population in Florida. The Audubon Center also facilitates environmental education programs for all ages, and strives to provide the public with the knowledge and skills needed to build bird-friendly communities in and around Central Florida.

I sat down with the Audubon Center’s Education Manager, Michael Goldman, to learn more about their efforts and the amazing birds they provide a home for. Here are some of the things I learned…

Doris pictured with a northern eagle on December 7, 1987 – picture and caption retrieved from the Orlando Sentinel

1. Behind every great man story, is a great woman: Like so many environmental conservation efforts, this one begins with an intriguing, insightful woman. Doris Mager, a.k.a ‘Eagle Lady’, was working in Maitland in the 1960s for the Audubon Society when she realized there were no local experts or specific centers dedicated to the care of raptors. In 1979, she helped kick-start the Audubon Center for Birds of Prey, and gained national attention when she spent a week in an abandoned eagle’s nest to help raise money for the Center. She is now 90+ years old and although she is no longer involved in the Audubon Center, she hasn’t slowed down very much and continues to spend her free time traveling the country in a van filled with raptors, hosting educational seminars and discussions about birds of prey. Skip your daily dose of funny cat videos and google Doris – trust me you won’t be disappointed. And can someone make a documentary about her please? Because this is a story I’d love to know more about.

2. Raptors are fascinating! These fast and ferocious predators are truly remarkable. But what makes a raptor different from other birds?  As Michael explained to me, the term raptor comes from the word rapacious which means ‘to grasp’. Raptors grasp easily using their razor sharp talons. Having a sharp curved beak is another defining characteristic of raptors and helps these carnivores capture their meals. Coupled with their speed, agility and keen hunting skills, these features make raptors some of the fiercest animals on the planet. As evidence, I present to you this video of a peregrine falcon as it hunts down a pigeon by doing an epic ‘dive bomb’, approaching 200 mph, making it one of the fastest animals on the planet.

3. Birds of prey are under constant threat: air pollution, habitat loss and climate change are just some of the many challenges that threaten the lives of Florida’s raptors. Mostly everything that exists within a human-centric suburban environment poses a challenge to their survival. The Audubon Center houses birds that have been injured by planes, cars, boats, caught in nets, etc. Amelia, a peregrine, was hit by a cruise ship and injured so badly that she cannot be returned to the wild. One of the most common health issues Michael and his colleagues come across are birds that have been poisoned as a result of eating mice or other rodents that people tried to exterminate with poison.Because of the many challenges they face, several Florida raptor species are considered threatened or endangered, including the American Kestrel and Borrowing Owl.

Hello, Gorgeous. This bird knows how to strike a pose. Stop by the center and get some Instagram inspiration from this lovely American Kestrel named Kiki.
This photogenic fellow is a Burrowing Owl named Gopher.  Fun fact I learned from Michael: owls have 7 extra vertebrae in their necks and can turn their heads 270 degrees.

Another very sad threat which I was unaware of is “imprinting”  (and i’m not talking about the ‘twilight tween werewolves find their soulmates’ kind of imprinting). Imprinting in this manner occurs when a bird lives and interacts too closely with humans and actually begins to believe they are the same species as humans. The resulting risk is that imprinted birds may not acquire the skills needed to survive in the wild or interact with other birds.

Merlin was raised by a family and as a result, he suffers from imprinting. He doesn’t understand that he is an owl and he was sadly attacked by other owls, likely because they were confused by his behavior, and lost his eye. #RaptorsAreNotPets

Take note, people: unless you’re the Eagle Lady (who clearly knows what she is doing), don’t try to raise a raptor… just don’t. The Audubon Center for Birds of Prey provides a safe home for birds that can sadly never be released back into their natural habitat.

4. Despite the challenges that remain, Micheal says “generally speaking, raptors are doing pretty good” and there are some great success stories regarding Florida’s birds of prey. In 1973, there were only 88 active Bald Eagle nests in Florida and today, there are about 1500. This is a promising sign and a testament to the efforts of organizations like the Audubon Center for Birds of Prey. Michael remains optimistic about the future of Florida’s raptors. When I asked him if Central Florida – a seemingly never-ending expansion of suburban sprawl – could really be a bird friendly place, he didn’t hesitate to say yes. Increased public awareness of environmental issues and the importance of protecting Florida’s wildlife, as well as new government-led initiatives may be forging the way for a more sustainable society. The City of Orlando’s One Person, One Tree program is a notable program that aims to increase Orlando’s tree canopy by 40 percent by 2040, a feat which would surely help create more a suitable habitat for Florida’s birds.

5. There is more that needs to be done to help protect raptors – and you (yes, you!) can help. Michael says that planting native trees and plants are one of the most significant ways you can help create bird-friendly communities. He also notes that littering is a huge issue: birds get hit by cars when they swoop in to snag mice and rodents that are snacking on roadside litter. He mentioned it’s usually fast food litter which makes me wonder if there is some kind of correlation between people who eat fast food and the likelihood of someone littering… but that’s for another time.

It is also crucial that all of us continue to educate ourselves about local environmental issues and how our actions impact birds of prey. And while we can’t all be bird experts, we can certainly support organizations and individuals that are passionate about the protection, rehabilitation and release of Florida’s raptors. Speaking of support, the one thing Michael really wants everyone to know about the Center is that “it’s baby season!”

baby bird shower

April – June is the busiest time for the Audubon Center for Birds of Prey as they receive an estimated 40% of their patient load. Last year, nearly 400 birds were brought to the Center during this time. These are mostly babies that have fallen out of their nests, or hurt themselves while learning to fly. And they need your help!

This Saturday, May 7th, the Audubon Center is throwing a baby shower for all of the new baby birds and in lieu of paying an entrance fee (typically $8 for adults), they are asking you to please bring an in-kind donation that will help them offset some of their operating costs during this critically busy time. Requests include paper towels, laundry detergent, cotton balls, bed sheets and trash bags. Learn more about the event on the Center’s website or on Facebook.

IMG_4838 (1)
Michael Goldman, Education Manger at the Audubon Center for Birds of Prey, stands with a Bald Eagle named Trouble, for his troublesome nature.

If you aren’t able to make it to the baby shower, you can still learn more about raptors by visiting the Audubon Center for Birds of Prey at another time. Review their website for visitor times, events and other program information. You should also check out Michael’s awesomely enthusiastic videos about bird feet and skulls, which remind me a bit of this Robin Williams dinosaur video from Mrs. Doubtfire, and I mean that in the best way.

Thanks so much to Michael for taking the time to chat with me, and for giving me a tour of the Center. He clearly possesses a passion for raptors and I can’t help but contemplate the similarities between the photo I snapped of him and the previous picture of Doris Mager, and the symbolic ‘passing of the torch eagle’. While I remain concerned about our collective ability to create a more bird-friendly society, the fact that people like Doris, Michael, and their colleagues and others like them exist, does makes me feel a little bit better about the world and the future of Florida’s remarkable raptors.

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