Finding Life in Captivity
While the birds living at Eugene’s Cascades Raptor Center will never be able to survive in the wild due to debilitating injuries and other deficiencies, the serene, forested facility offers them a new lease on life.
Puck is convinced he is human. It is with humans that he shares his food, offers his home, and attempts to mate. He is most comfortable when his fellow humans are around. But Puck is not a human. Unbeknown to him, Puck is an American kestrel, the most common North American falcon and raptor (a classification of bird that hunts using only its talons), and a permanent resident of the Eugene-based Cascades Raptor Center (CRC). Despite being a visibly happy and healthy raptor in a comfortable environment, Puck is a victim of human imprinting.
Puck, as a kestrel, is an altricial species, meaning when he hatched he was completely dependent on the first creature he saw. For Puck, whose first sight was a human, proper kestrel upbringing did not occur. His comfort level with humans far exceeds that of a normal raptor, allowing him to override proper animal instincts and interact with humans in ways unheard of for a normal raptor.
In 2005, Puck landed on a boy’s hat during a baseball game, begging for food. From there, he was brought to Lindsay Wildlife Museum in Walnut Creek, California, and then transferred to the CRC, where he has lived for almost six years. About the size of a Nerf football and with the energy of a toddler, Puck is a member of the smallest species of falcon in North America. An instantly noticeable burnt-orange color, Puck’s most arresting features are his inquisitive black eyes framing his impossibly tiny beak.
The sociable raptor prefers his human associates over birds. Despite having a cage to himself, he’ll chirp at any person passing by and, with a curious tilt of his head, attempt to strike up a conversation. By far the most talkative raptor at the refuge, Puck will immediately fly forward to greet newcomers. Located near the center’s check-in office, he strives to fulfill the role of doorman to the world of raptors. But his behavior is abnormal.
“If you put him with another male or female kestrel, he’ll recognize them as a predator, but he doesn’t even recognize them as being the same species he is. As far as he’s concerned, we are what he is. It’s a permanent disability,” says Brian Schug, a raptor center volunteer for over four years.
“The brain is in the head, but it’s not all wired together,” Schug explains. “It is going to wire itself together based on what he sees. His brain programs itself: that’s what you’ll eat, that’s what you’ll look like, who you’ll socialize with, who you’ll breed with—in the case of Puck, it was people.”
Puck’s imprinting is most likely due to being illegally raised by humans. Many people choose to keep found eggs or raptor babies as pets, unknowingly destroying that bird’s chance at both reproduction and survival in the wild.
“Their self-identity is basically ruined,” says CRC Education Director Kit Lacy. “Puck has no idea that he’s an American kestrel. He’s soliciting humans to go into his nest box. He’ll attack certain individuals because he sees them as a threat to his space, just as if it were another kestrel. He never got the training of how to hunt or how to survive on his own.”
Puck is physically healthy, besides having impaired vision caused by a retinal tear in his right eye, but he is a non-releasable resident of the Center. He will never be able to reproduce, as he is mentally incapable of mating with another kestrel or hunting live prey. Puck, as with all the imprints, prefers his food chopped up and dead.
Being a human imprint, Puck is one of the few raptors at the Center who can be handled by all the volunteers. Non-imprint raptors take months to develop a rapport with even a single human handler. But perched upon Schug’s gloved hand, Puck looks very much in his own element, preening, chirping, and often enthusiastically attempting to copulate with Schug’s thumb. Since its founding in 1987, the Cascades Raptor Center has provided a home for Puck and other raptors like him who would not have been able to survive in the wild.
The Center, located in East Spencer Butte City Park outside Eugene, has about 100 volunteers, and receives no state or federal funding; all supplies, housing, and food for the raptors are donated or paid for by admission fees. The nonprofit raptor hospital and housing facility provides the public with entertainment and education and its avian residents with hope and a longer life expectancy.
According to Lacy, the resident raptors’ most common cause of permanent disability is vehicle strike, followed by hitting wires, being orphaned due to unsafe nesting or tree extraction, predator attack, flying into windows, gunshot wounds, poisoning, or, as in the case of Puck, illegal rearing. However, in many cases, the cause of injury remains unknown.
Not every bird treated at the Center can find a permanent home. Only raptors who can develop a camaraderie with the handlers find themselves educational residents.
“They’re really special individuals that can work closely with people,” Lacy says. “For most wild animals, captivity is worse than death. These are a very select few individuals have a very high quality of life in a captive situation. What we’re giving them is a second opportunity. They’re not predators in the wild anymore; they’re educators now. Without this opportunity, they would all be dead.”
Celilo is another such bird. Originally a resident of Nebraska, the bald eagle ended up at an education facility in South Dakota after she was discovered in 2002 with a permanently injured wing. The injury was most likely inflicted by a midflight collision. She was transferred to Eugene last fall.
She arrived at the Cascades Center with a Lakota name, Wowicake, meaning “that which is real,” but the name was considered too difficult to pronounce in English and was changed after a contest put to the Eugene public.
Celilo’s name wasn’t the only thing that changed upon her arrival. As raptors have no external reproductive organs, if size and coloring isn’t substantially different enough between genders for that particular species, it is often impossible to determine the sex without a blood test. In April, a blood test confirmed that Celilo, who had been considered a male since discovery, was
actually a female.
A recent addition to the Center, Celilo is still building relationships with her handlers. Schug has been handling Celilo for only a couple of months, but can already read the bird’s gestures and predict her behaviors.
“Once you have the routine down, you can get into the circle of working with that bird,” Schug says. “You want them confident. If things aren’t consistent every day, they aren’t going to be confident. They’re not going to want to come out because they’re not going to know what to expect.”
Unlike Puck, Celilo’s demeanor is anything but inquisitive. This raptor is fierce and overwhelmingly daunting, seeming to personify the phrase “silent but deadly.” In contrast to her neighbors, Celilo remains quiet when not confronted by another eagle, but her calm confidence only adds to the inferiority one feels when in her presence.
While bald eagles inspire awe in their brilliant colors and imposing expressions, they are not the only raptors capable of impressing. Dimitri, a Eurasian eagle-owl, claims to be the Cascades Center’s “networking specialist.” (At least, that’s what it says on his Facebook.) A lucky visitor might arrive in time for his show, where Dimitri will fly from one post to another, queued by a handler’s whistle, collecting bits of rodent as a reward.
“You haven’t lived until you’ve cut up a rat with a pair of scissors,” says Sandy Jenness, one of Dimitri’s two handlers.
With a wingspan of over six feet, Dimitri—often referred to as “Di”—lives up to his species’ reputation as one of the largest owls in the world. While weighing only about four pounds, he is easily bigger than an alley cat and has mesmerizing orange, half-dollar eyes. Because owls are unable to move their eyes, Dimitri’s whole head is able to swivel 360 degrees to cautiously watch his captive audience.
While one might expect a dignified hoot to come from such a majestic beast, Dimitri is still growing into his low, smooth call. These days, he expresses himself with a curt and raspy growl, like a tire spinning in gravel. Regardless, he’s the most intimidating one-year-old at the Center. Dimitri is not native to North America, and is not as legally restricted as other raptors. Due to the 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act, wherein all native North American species of birds cannot be possessed without permits, many raptors at the Center are limited in their ability to be handled. Dimitri, conversely, is an educator and fundraiser, and can leave the facility to attend birthday parties and other events, coining one of the Center’s key mottos: Di likes to party.
But partying is just the beginning of what the Center has to offer the inquiring visitor. The classes and the demonstrations draw the crowds, but a visitor needs real one-on-one time to get to know the residents. Everyone from short-eared owls Hermione and Griffin to the bald eagle couple McKenzie and Aeolus—who are currently incubating an egg together—has their own story and personality.
And if you’re not patient enough to wait for a conversation, there’s always the ever-present chatterbox named Puck.