A Rehabilitation Facility in Dedham Helps Iowa’s Raptors Soar
Story by Tim Ackarman
Things were not looking good for Moonface last January. Lost, alone, injured, and starving, he had a slim chance for survival.
Snowy owls like Moonface inhabit the Arctic tundra — over 1,000 miles from Iowa. Sightings of the regal white raptor in the state are unusual. Yet every six to seven years, for complex reasons that may include fluctuating prey densities, the continental United States receives an influx of snowies consisting primarily of adolescents.
During last winter’s large influx (an “irruption” in birder lingo) the Iowa Ornithologists’ Union documented 154 snowy owls in Iowa. These inexperienced hunters had entered an unfamiliar landscape; at least 33 died in the state, while many more likely perished attempting to return home.
Moonface was nearly among those casualties. Already facing long odds, the young male’s chances plummeted when he dislocated an elbow. Because he was unable to travel, hunt, and defend himself, the question was not whether he would die but how and when.
Then Moonface caught a break. A motorist spotted the crippled visitor and contacted Carroll County naturalist Matt Wetrich, who knew to call Kay Neumann in nearby Dedham.
The owl was critically malnourished, weighing only two pounds rather than the expected four. “Actually, the injury probably saved him,” says Neumann, founder and executive director of Saving Our Avian Resources (SOAR). “He was down and available for us to get before he starved out.”
An internship at a raptor center during college led Neumann to a love of falconry. She soon became the go-to expert for people with injured raptors. Her hobby eventually grew time-consuming and expensive.
“We either have to really do it or we have to quit,” Neumann remembers telling her husband, John. In 1999 she decided to “really do it,” forming SOAR as a nonprofit organization and full-time labor of love.
SOAR receives about 150 birds annually, primarily raptors. Common patients include red-tailed hawks, kestrels, great horned owls, screech owls, and bald eagles. Some of these birds are stricken with infections such as West Nile virus. Others are injured in collisions, often with cars, power lines, or fences. A few are deliberately shot or poisoned.
Not all poisoning is intentional. Many birds succumb to lead toxicity, most after ingesting lead shot or fragments of lead bullets discharged by hunters. Bald eagles, which scavenge gut piles and unrecovered deer carcasses, are particularly susceptible. “I’d hardly ever get to see an eagle for rehabilitation if it weren’t for lead poisoning,” laments Neumann, “which would be fine with me.”
Her experience has moved Neumann to advocate for lead alternatives. She has worked with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources to develop educational materials for outdoor enthusiasts, helps with Iowa State University studies on lead levels in raptors, and lobbies the Iowa Legislature for restrictions on lead ammunition. “It’s not that we can’t stand to see animals die,” explains Neumann. “We see animals die every day. It’s just that there would be something so easy to do to fix this.”
Her efforts to replace lead haven’t yet produced the results Neumann would like, but persisting in spite of setbacks is something to which she’s grown accustomed. Seven of the nine snowy owls recovered last winter died before or shortly after arriving at SOAR. Neumann chooses to focus instead on the victories. A female snowy rescued in Wright County made a full recovery at SOAR. Neumann worked in cooperation with the Raptor Research Project (of the Decorah Eagle Cam fame) to fit the owl with a transmitter before releasing her in October. If all goes well, tracking her movements will allow scientists to add to a growing body of knowledge regarding these birds.
Some victories are partial. Although Moonface regained normal strength and weight, his injured wing didn’t recover adequately to permit release. Some such animals are sent to other licensed facilities in need of birds for display. Others, including Moonface, remain at SOAR and are used in educational presentations at schools, nature centers, and similar venues.
Neumann believes these feathered teaching assistants can inspire students in a way human teachers cannot, fostering a new respect and concern for the natural world. “It gets other people involved who may go on to have careers [in conservation]. People are concerned about individual animals, [but] you may spark them to something much larger than wanting to help a single kestrel.”
Learn more online at www.soarraptors.org.
An avid hunter and conservationist, freelance writer and photographer Tim Ackarman of Garner encourages his fellow enthusiasts to protect wildlife by using only non-toxic ammunition in the field. (firstname.lastname@example.org)Photos courtesy Matt Wetrich, and by Tim Ackarman