Raptors Wow Birders

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Lance Armstrong made them duck.

Maverick made them swoon.

photo

Lady Liberty, a bald eagle, poses on the glove-sheathed arm of Terry Stevens, rescue and transportation coordinator with Liberty Wildlife, a Scottsdale-based wildlife rescue center.

Hedwig made them laugh.

Baily made them gag.

And Lady Liberty just plain blew them away.

The oooohs, ahhhhs, laughter and little gasps of surprise zigged through the room like a flock of starlings on Tuesday, Jan. 16 at the Payson library where 50 bird lovers flocked to see a gaggle of raptors displayed by speakers from Liberty Wildlife, a Scottsdale-based wildlife rescue center that takes in injured wildlife from throughout the state.

Lady Liberty, an imperious bald eagle that has headlined the donation-supported rehabilitation center's education program for 17 years, drew audible gasps and cheers when she emerged from a crate, to perch on the glove-sheathed arm of Terry Stevens, the center's rescue and transportation coordinator.

The wildlife rehab center each year treats 3,000 to 4,000 birds, foxes, coyotes, Gila monsters, rattlesnakes and other critters -- including many animals rescued in the Rim Country. The center survives on private donations and the efforts of 300 volunteers, including Payson area coordinators, who transport injured animals to the Valley.

The members of Payson Birders formed an appreciative audience for a talk loaded with surprising tidbits about the headliners -- a Harris hawk, a peregrine falcon, a great horned owl, a turkey vulture and a bald eagle.

Liberty Wildlife got its start 27 years ago when Scottsdale vet Kathy Orr started treating injured wild animals brought to her by residents. The operation grew from three volunteers for one or two animals a month to a statewide organization that has raised enough money to handle thousands of animals annually and plan a new, five-acre facility adjacent to the Phoenix Zoo, said Stevens.

Lance Armstrong, a Harris hawk, set the tone for the adventure by flying back and forth across the room from trainer to trainer, ruffling hair, provoking ducks and drawing cheers.

Named for the champion cyclist who also defied the odds to survive, Lance came to the center with a broken leg and an infection.

His injuries healed, but left his talon too weak for him to survive in the wild. Instead, he was trained to fly free as an education bird. Harris hawks take well to training because of their communal lifestyle. A half-dozen birds will cooperate not only to raise their young, but to hunt down jackrabbits and other prey. Arizona hawks have even learned to stack one on top of other, so they can all perch on top of the same prey-spotting vantage point atop a saguaro -- one of the few high perches offered in the desert.

Baily the turkey vulture, generated distinctly more grimaces. Baily was hatched 20 years ago at the Phoenix Zoo before keepers realized that young birds handled by people not only lost their protective fear of people, but also lost interest in mating with other birds.

Now, bird rescuers turn baby birds immediately over to the care of feathered foster parents, with as little human contact as possible until they're ready to release. Liberty manages to release about half of the animals that come to it, a relatively high percentage for a rescue operation.

However, they're no denying turkey vultures have some odd personal habits sure to disgust your average adult and delight any third-grader, said Anne Peyton, a wildlife artist and senior trainer at the center.

For instance, the vultures urinate on their own legs, which both cools them down and applies an antiseptic that speeds healing -- a practice called urophydrosis.

Moreover, turkey vultures enthusiastically vomit on their handlers, actually an adaptation to help them make a quick escape from a carrion feast when disturbed by a predator -- another detail that always gets a big reaction at school presentations.

Sure enough, Baily proved irresistible to the youngest member of the audience -- Michael Staudt, 5. "Will a turkey vulture eat a tiger?" asked the young bird lover, to the delight of the mostly retirement-aged audience.

Well, yes actually -- if they're dead and stink enough to reach the exquisitely sensitive nose of one of the few birds that even has a sense of smell.

"Michael's really into tigers," his grandmother, Lois McClusky, explained later.

The audience also learned about Maverick the Peregrine Falcon, the fastest species on the planet, whose kind were nearly exterminated before making one of the most heartening comebacks in wildlife history.

The small falcon can fold its wings and dive on its feathered prey at up to 250 miles an hour, but that didn't protect it from the effects of the pesticide DDT, which caused a fatal thinning of the bird's eggshells. Banning DDT in the US prompted a peregrine comeback, especially in Arizona where habitats such as the cliff face of the Mogollon Rim provide prime nesting sites.

Finally, Hedwig the Great Horned Owl delighted the audience by taking advantage of the 14 bones in her neck to rotate her head nearly 360 degrees as Stevens moved behind her with a morsel of food. When Hedwig reached the limit of her rotation, she whipped her head around to keep tracking that morsel -- which made the audience gasp.

"He does have his exorcist moments," observed Peyton.

All of which got the crowd ready for the appearance of Lady Liberty, the regal star of the show. DDT also nearly finished off eagles, but they've made such a comeback that they're one of the few species to ever make it off the endangered species list.

The stately bird, with enormous talons that can exert 300 pounds of pressure, provoked murmurs of admiration.

But then, reading a shift in his stance, Peyton moved hastily out of the way, just as Lady Liberty expelled a mighty white poop.

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