The majestic birds of our blue skies can’t always escape our modern conveniences. Sometimes, these large birds end up the worse for their encounter with our contemporary world.
When these national treasures are injured, there are men and women specifically trained to help them, and permitted handlers who can house the birds that will not be able to be released back into the wild.
Long time Peralta resident Laura McCann is a wildlife educator and raptor specialist who takes care of five birds, but has the facilities to care for up to eight birds of prey.
These beautiful sentinels of the sky are now co-teachers with McCann as they accompany her when she is invited to present her educational program at public parks, organizations and schools. She teaches students about wildlife conservation as well as a lesson about raptors.
McCann brings two or three birds to small events, and all of them when she has a booth at a larger event.
The fee is $100 to cover gasoline expenses, and also to help McCann with the costs of feeding the wild birds.
The birds’ cages are large, custom-made wooden structures surrounded by a canopy of trees in McCann’s backyard.
The designs for the cages were fashioned after the cages Corrales resident Jack Kendall built for his wife, Shirley Kendal, who was a raptor rehabilitator for more than 40 years, McCann said.
Some of them have a safety room just before the entrance into the actual cage, for double protection, and they are constructed in such a manner that there is nothing inside the cage that could cause the bird to injure itself.
A group of volunteers who love raptors helped McCann build the cages.
She is quick to point out that the birds aren’t hers, and that they are not pets.
“We never claim that these are Laura’s birds, because, technically, you cannot have a bird like this as a pet,” she said. “You have to have state and federal permits in order to house and care for these birds.
“So I like to think of them as the public’s birds,” she said. “These birds have to go out into the public and teach others about wildlife and about their species. I’m merely the caregiver.”
Recently, McCann received a new tenant, a Western screech owl she named Houdini before she knew the bird was female.
Houdini will close her eyes when she is trying to camouflage herself, McCann said.
Owls get very quiet when they are trying to hide, she said.
Damage to Houdini’s right wing has ended her flying days. The little owl was quite defensive when she first arrived, but this didn’t phase McCann who has been working with wild birds for nearly a decade.
The single mother of three had already earned a degree in sign language with a minor in biology before she began her journey as a raptor specialist.
“The draw was, I was a bird watcher, and I was fascinated with these animals,” McCann said. “I volunteered with various organizations to learn how to work with them, until I got to where I was able to take handling classes.”
She trained with various organizations in Albuquerque and also attended raptor care and management classes at the Minnesota Raptor Center.
She volunteered with Wildlife Rescue of New Mexico and was later hired as an educator for Hawk Watch International, eventually getting her own permits with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the New Mexico Game and Fish.
Kree, a Swainson’s hawk, was wounded on a power pole north of Española.
The bird’s right foot and left wing simultaneously touched a power line while she was attempting to perch. This created an electrical circuit and gave her an electrical shock that injured the tip of her left wing and took one of her toes, McCann said.
Because her wing is now a little bit shorter than her other wing, she can’t fly normally.
If Kree was a short-distance migrant, such as a red tailed hawk who just flies back and forth from the mountains to the valley, she could probably be released. But Swainson’s hawks migrate as far south as Argentina for the winter, and with a migration of thousands and thousands of miles, they deemed her non-releasable because she wouldn’t make it, McCann said.
Kree has been in captivity since about 1998, and in McCann’s care since 2005.
“She’s 14 going on 15 years old,” McCann said. “She was originally housed with Hawk Watch International and with various housers.”
McCann met Kree while volunteering at the organization when it was based in Albuquerque. It is now based in Salt Lake City, Utah.
“They still do counts here in the mountains, in the Manzanos, in the fall, and the Sandias in the spring to help keep track of raptor populations to gauge the health of our environment,” McCann said.
When the organization was preparing to move, she was asked if she would take care of Kree. Now, they are a harmonious educational team, working together to teach people about raptors.
McCann says a raptor’s feet, rather than their beak, are the most dangerous part of handling the birds.
“They’re less likely to grab with their beak,” she said. “Now, if they’re threatened for their lives, sometimes they’ll attack with all they’ve got, so they’ll bite you with their beak, too. But really, the beak is mainly their instrument for ripping and tearing their food, since they eat meat and they don’t have teeth.”
Birds of prey use their feet to kill, and have a powerful grip.
“Kree can probably grip with about 200 pounds of pressure, so the feet are very dangerous,” said McCann.
Rescued raptors are fitted with permanent anklets that have grommets, metal rings through which the jesses, leg straps, are threaded.
The anklets are made of leather that have a lot of give, so if the bird flies up, the restraint isn’t painful.
The jesses are attached from each ankle, and a modified deep-sea fishing swivel is attached for a lead that acts like a leash.
McCann made her own jesses and leads out of 500 pound-test parachute chord for extra strength.
When a bird does fly up, she deftly swoops her hand behind the bird’s back to gently guide them back onto the leather glove in one graceful movement.
As she talks about the equipment and the birds, her steady, even voice is as calming as it is instructional.
On her keeper’s arm, Kree has a gentle, delicate cheeping voice rather than the piercing cry heard from the sky.
“It’s very similar to a red tailed hawk cry, it’s just higher pitched,” McCann said.
She has a bird-call app on her cell phone, iBird Plus, so she can play the voices of the different birds when she presents her educational program. Sometimes these recordings will elicit a response from the birds.
The raptor’s quiet attentiveness to McCann gives the illusion of the same type of relationship as with a family pet.
“There’s not as much emotional resonance for a bird that is wild, because they’re not domesticated like your cats and your dogs,” she said. “They don’t connect with you on a level like that. It’s more a bond of trust.”
Raptors aren’t social creatures, and they are independent except in the breeding season. That’s also why they don’t develop emotional bonds, she said.
McCann brings the birds into the house when she needs to administer medicine or to trim their beaks.
She trains the birds using morsels of food, and says that negative reinforcement with raptors never works in training.
“Food is their positive reinforcement,” she said. “Food and that you didn’t harm them.”
McCann and the Santa Fe Raptor Center, along with about 10 birds, will be down at the Bosque del Apache on Nov. 17 for the Festival of Cranes.
If you ever find injured or orphaned wildlife, it is very important to call licensed wildlife protection services who knows how to handle them and can take the animal to the appropriate facility, McCann said.
“The best organization to call is New Mexico Game and Fish,” she said. “They generally don’t do rehab, but they know who all of us are. Each officer in your area will know who to get the bird to, who’s licensed and has the proper permits.
“The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1971 is the law we all have to follow. That law protects all native birds,” she said. “If a bird is native, you can’t kill it or mess with its nesting or take it as a pet, you have to have proper permits.”
Laura McCann can be reached at 866-9999 and she has a Facebook page for her nonprofit organization, New Mexico Raptors.
New Mexico Department of Game and Fish in Albuquerque can be reached at 222-4700. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service External Affairs office can be reached at 248-6911.
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