After retiring to the Bitterroot Valley exactly a year ago, life for 19 incarcerated predators has never been better. After all, they get free housing and medical care, one square meal a day, and regular treats of wild game, chicken, mice and rabbits. At least one of the predators has a heated room, and all will benefit from an upcoming landscaping project.
All the carnivorous hunters have to do in return is agree to look majestic to an audience a couple times a week while their enthusiastic caretaker tells their story.
The incarcerated retirees belong to a noble band of high-flying birds called raptors - including hawks, falcons, ospreys, eagles, and owls - and each has its own story of how it came to reside at its new 10-acre home west of the Bitterroot River near Florence.
On May 10, 2001, the birds' caretaker, Kate Davis, relocated the successful Raptors of the Rockies program from its original home on a turn-of-the-century, former hog farm near Clinton. "Fourteen years and five Subarus ago" Davis started the fledgling rehabilitation program with "a couple of hawks and a couple of owls," she said. To date the non-profit educational organization's programs involve 19 birds and have reached more than 63,000 people and 75 schools.
"I never thought I would live in a cool place like this," Davis, executive director of Raptors of the Rockies, said with a sweeping gesture around the year-old, state-of-the-art facility. "When we moved here, everybody gave me deals. People came out to help and we had all the buildings up in one week. And after seven days we rested."
The buildings and pens vary in size and shape according to the size, number and needs of the birds they house, but most are 16 feet long and eight feet wide, open toward the south and have a sloped roof.
The largest of the bird houses is a 40-foot-by-30-foot pen that is home to two golden eagles, Max and Nigel. On order to keep the injured eagles inside and keep the soaring bald eagles outside the pen, Grizzly Fence recently added a wire ceiling to the nine-foot-tall structure, Davis said.
"We oriented most of the buildings to maximize the amount of sun in the winter and maximize the shade in the summer," Davis said. "The goal is to keep the animals safe and comfortable."
To that end, the buildings are anchored to the ground with cables to keep them from blowing over and most are equipped with amenities to keep terrestrial predators from getting in. Next week, volunteers from Bitterroot Restoration, Inc., of Corvallis will come to plant 80 native shrubs around the buildings to help moderate the temperature.
This spring, however, one hapless burrowing pocket gopher made the mistake of tunneling into the abode of two great horned owls, Davis said. "It was an unfortunate decision for the gopher," she said. "He appeared in the pen and lasted about an hour before they got him. I found his carcass stuffed into the corner."
An Ohio native, Davis' interest in raptors started in the 1970s when she worked at the Cincinnati Zoo. Afterward, she moved to Missoula, graduating with a zoology degree from the University of Montana in 1982.
She started Raptors of the Rockies in 1988 and, because of her experience at the Cincinnati Zoo, was able to get permits to house the birds. All 19 of the raptors residing at the center belong to the federal government and are on loan through various permits. The two golden eagles require an eagle exhibition permit, the falcons require a falconry permit and the rest are there by virtue of Davis' possession permits, she said.
"The feds say that each bird must be used in a minimum of 12 educational programs per year," Davis said. "So by taking the birds we are obligated to educate people about them."
Although Davis doesn't take every bird with her every time she does a program, the fact that she does about 70 programs a year more than fulfills her obligation.
All of the birds have names, and most will spend the rest of their lives with Davis.
"We are not actually doing much rehabilitation," she said, "but rather are taking care of birds that are injured to the point that they can't be released into the wild. The fact is released rehabilitated raptors have a 70 percent mortality rate in the wild."
A walk with Davis around the spacious facility offers a glimpse into the personality of each bird.
The 4-foot-by-4-foot prototype pen houses two of the smallest of the raptors, a northern pygmy owl named Dotcom and a northern saw-whet owl named Buster, after Buster Keaton.
"Dotcom is the calmest bird I've ever seen, " Davis said. "Buster takes mice and eats their heads off, then drapes their hind quarters on a limb in a decorative fashion. We call this caching food. Later, he will eat the carcass."
The mice Davis feeds to her feathered friends are donated by a genetics lab in Great Falls. Three times a year Davis drives to the lab and fills up her car with the dead mice which she later stores in a freezer for daily rationing.
"We use about 11,000 mice each year," Davis said. "Getting the mice was really a turning point for us because it allowed us to feed so many more birds."
The Cooper's hawk is named Alice after the 70s rock star - a joke that Davis said is lost on the majority of the school kids who meet the bird. Alice was one of the first birds to come to center and spent spent 13 years in a chicken coop.
"Alice isn't used to the sun," she said, "so we've put up shade cloth and are going to plant trees and shrubs inside her pen."
Another of the pens houses a prairie falcon named Kiko, a rough-legged hawk named Otto and a red-tailed hawk named Bayly. The three birds each have their own specific meals. Kiko gets a half a chicken each day, Otto gets mice and Bayly get game meat and heart meat. The chickens come from a local fly tier and the meat comes from Hamilton Packing Co.
"They have different brooding stations and they don't mess with each other's food," Davis said. "But with breeding season coming up, we wanted to give them some room to chill, so we added a screened porch to their enclosure."
Davis said they don't and never have done any breeding at the center, but added that "it's a distinct possibility in the future."
A northern harrier named Mika came to Davis four years ago after it lost its toes to a hay swather. Davis hand reared the bird, and, because of that nurturing, Mika thinks Davis is her mother.
Davis' favorite bird, she said, is the most recent arrival, a white Arctic gyrfalcon named Gunnar.
"Gunnar is the coolest animal on the face of the earth," she said. "He came to us as a baby from a captive breeding problem. He has a developmental problem and can't fly straight."
Native to Iceland, Gunnar's enclosure is equipped with a water-misting system and a fan to keep him cool.
When Davis isn't feeding, flying or flaunting her birds, she spends time in her office in full view of the brood. Fourteen years ago she began writing and illustrating species sheets on each of the 31 raptor species in the state. Those sheets evolved into a book, titled Raptors of the Rockies, which was just sent to Mountain Press Publishing this week.
Davis hopes that by September, 5,000 copies of her book will be on the shelves all over the region. The colorfully illustrated book is all about birds of prey in general, she said, and specifically those species inhabiting the Rocky Mountains of North America. In addition there is a section specifically devoted to the individual birds in the Raptors of the Rockies program that tells the story of how each bird came to the center. A portion of the proceeds from the book will go directly to Raptors of the Rockies.
Davis said the tremendous outpouring of support by the community has made Raptors of the Rockies what it is today. Every step along the way, people have generously donated their time, money and materials, she said. An example of this support came last December when Miles, one of the two great horned owls, had a punctured eye. Dr. James Randall, an on-call physician at Community Hospital came to the rescue and sewed up Miles' cornea. Randall even captured the surgery on film in order to present it at an eye surgeons' seminar this summer.
Davis is happy to report that Miles' eye has healed beautifully, thanks to Dr. Randall.
Raptors of the Rockies, as a non-profit operation, is managed by a board of directors and is funded by a variety of sources, including program fees, donations, grants, the adopt-a-raptor program and the annual auction held each September. Aside from Davis' salary, costs in maintaining the raptor program include food purchases, freezer space, enclosure maintenance, daily care, insurance, fuel and paperwork.
The program's educational program, not only includes presentations by Davis with live birds, but also features traveling educational trunks filled with taxidermy birds, skins, books and species sheets all neatly packed in a plastic trunk for teachers to use in the classroom. Currently, Davis is writing a curriculum to accompany each trunk.
The annual auction will take place this year in Missoula Sept. 28 at the Elks Lodge. Last year the auction provided almost a quarter of the yearly operating budget, Davis said. Patrons may also adopt a raptor for one year; this program accounted for almost 10 percent of last year's budget.
One of the most endearing donations, according to Davis, came from Garrison Elementary School. For six years students at the school put pennies in a five gallon jug every time they got an "A" paper. Last Christmas they cashed in their pennies and presented Raptors of the Rockies with a check for $97.83.
Raptors of the Rockies has a Web site - www.raptorsoftherockies.org - and will continue to do educational programs in western Montana, Davis said.
"I'm thrilled to death to be in the Bitterroot and I'm anxious to do more programs down here," she said.
Davis' goal, she said, is to reach a much wider audience through print media, film and art work. She recently hosted wildlife film makers from the International Wildlife Film Festival and hopes to add that component to her educational repertoire.
"My goal is to reach a worldwide audience while traveling less in my car," she said.