"I learned a lot about birds and look at them more often now. When I go outside, now I look for birds. I love them!". These words came from 2nd grader Sarianna Lerch at Rattlesnake Elementary School, written in a thank-you note after a visit from Raptors of the Rockies. And it is music to the ears because that is exactly the goal of the Raptors project - to inspire young and old alike to venture outside and observe their wild surroundings. Raptors of the Rockies is an educational program using live birds and is now in its 18th year, a generation of raptor admirers later, with nearly one thousand appearances across Western Montana. The teaching team is made up of twenty birds of prey, a large variety of species from Northern Pygmy-Owl to Bald Eagle and each bird has a unique story and personality. A favorite is Max the Golden Eagle who was poisoned as a fledgling 16 years ago, and with the associated brain damage has not flown since. The two Great Horned Owls were collision victims, one with a power line and the other, a vehicle. This is the most common injury, although several birds were shot . In programs, the laws protecting wild animals are discussed, and surely shooting is the most preventable injustice they can suffer. The Northern Harrier named Mika was run over in the nest by a hay swather and is missing toes, and Graham the Barred is blind in one eye after bouncing off a truck. Both birds can fly perfectly well, but as youngsters their chance of making it in the wild would have been slim. Raptors have a 60% or greater mortality rate that first year, and with these injuries it was decided to add them to the teaching team.
Educational presentations begin with wildlife rehabilitation. Occasionally a bird is non-releasable due to a permanent disability, and yet does well in captivity. Each individual is placed on a Federal Possession or Eagle Exhibition permit, and all are kept year-round in spacious outdoor facilities. In addition, a Peregrine Falcon and two Harris’s Hawks are held on a Falconry permit, and they have provided many flight demonstrations over the years. The facilities are on the banks of the Bitterroot River, with all new enclosures constructed in 2001 thanks to local grants and help from area businesses. Functioning as a non-profit, nearly half of the funding for the program comes from individual donations and sponsorship in the Adopt A Raptor Campaign. They enjoy a hard core following of supporters, and there is always room for new “Raptor Backers”. Although the facilities are not open to the public, an open house is celebrated every summer, and this year it will be in mid August.
Executive Director, Kate Davis is the caretaker, bird handler, lecturer, permit holder, chauffeur, butcher, fundraiser and grant writer for the program. She also produces a quarterly newsletter the Raptor Round-Up and maintains the web site, www.raptorsoftherockies.org. On- line people can meet the birds, see the ranch and artwork, keep updated on events and download species accounts and range maps of 31 western raptor species. She also authored and illustrated the book, Raptors of the Rockies. Kate feels that it is a privilege to be allowed to keep protected birds, and an honor and responsibility to educate the public with her raptor friends. After all of these years, several individual birds have been around for as long as it takes a first grader to get through college. Alice the Cooper’s Hawk is at least 17 years old and is enjoying semi-retirement after hundreds of appearances. Kate hopes to do the same and cut back on the hectic program schedule a bit to work on her writing, artwork, and filmmaking.
In the meantime, the programs continue, always concluding with the audience promising they will go outside and try to hoot up an owl. After a little demonstration from Kate, the gymnasium or classroom or park comes alive with participants imitating a Great Horned Owl. This is always a moving experience and hopefully many of those hooting will notice birds more when they are outside, like young Sarianna. As she put it in her letter to the Raptors, "Thank you for teaching me how to speak owl. It is fun to speak owl."