SardisRaptor Center a refuge for injured birds

Published on Thu, Aug 10, 2006 by Jack Kintner

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Sardis Raptor Center a refuge for injured birds

By Jack Kintner

Sharon Wolters began getting phone calls on a recent Sunday night about two young eagles whose nest in a popular Bellingham park seemed to be falling apart.

Three days later the nest was gone but the young birds were safe, having become the newest residents of the Sardis Raptor Center on Valley View Road in Custer that Wolters founded and still directs.

Though only about 12 weeks old, the dark brown male and a female siblings are already nearly as big as their parents and, because of the down in their feathers, they look noticeably bigger, especially the female.

When the nest, high in a cottonwood tree near the west end of Lake Whatcom, began to come apart over the July 16 weekend the eaglets got excited and began hopping around, prompting the calls and probably hastening the nest’s demise.

“They were a good two weeks away from flying on their own,” said Wolters, “so when the nest went the next day [Monday], the two fledglings eventually ended up on the ground. They still have a lot of blood feathers so we know they weren’t yet ready to fly.”

Blood feathers have an active and generous blood supply through a central shaft, as long as they’re still growing, that can bleed profusely if injured or damaged, which was the chief risk the birds faced as they hid out in the brush surrounding a nearby pond.

“The danger was from people, finding them and chasing them,” Wolters continued, “but the birds could pretty well handle a coyote or a dog.”

Wolters discussed the situation with Tammy Tate Hall of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the federal agency that controls access to federally protected birds, and then dispatched Sardis volunteers Sarah Mintz, Kevin Schwitter and Joe Flynn to the site the following Wednesday where they found the two young birds taking refuge on a little sand bar in the pond.

The smaller male was captured first without much trouble, “but the female took off and of course couldn’t stay in the air and ended up in the water,” said Wolters, “and then did what they always do when cornered – turned upside down and showed her talons. But our Sarah’s pretty quick, too, and managed to capture her without any damage.” Because of her feisty antics the volunteer crew and Sardis staff named the female Swamp Mama, after the blues band Swamp Mama Johnson. The more laid-back male was named Scudder, after the pond where he was captured.

Wolters found the birds exhausted, dehydrated, hungry and covered with lice.

“They were in pretty bad shape, but at least one of them was still being fed by its mama because we found food in her crop,” Wolters said, adding that the adults would accept the fledglings back “for about a week or so until they just wouldn’t come back, as the mortality rate among raptors is quite high. Then the problem is one of taking over for the parents if we ever hope to release them.”

The birds are healthy and good candidates for eventual release back into the wild. To do that Wolters will feed and care for them for up to a year or more as their natural mother would do. To minimize human contact they’ve been put into seclusion in an enclosure big enough for them to practice flying. They will not be put on public display to minimize the danger of imprinting. They’ll eventually be released in the Mt. Baker foothills where an area fish hatchery will help out by leaving a lot of salmon carcasses around for them to find and eat.

For more information, contact Sardis Raptor Center at 366-3863, or go to www.sardisraptor.org.