Raptor Center revives national symbol

Professor of veterinary medicine Pat Redig began treating injured birds in his basement in the early 1970s.

Mike Rose

Just six days before America’s 231st birthday, the Department of the Interior removed the avian equivalent of Uncle Sam – the bald eagle -from the endangered species list.

And the symbolic bird can thank the staff and volunteers of the University Raptor Center, where work helped pave the way for the June 28 announcement.

How did the Raptor Center save the bald eagle?

The official national bird since 1782, the bald eagle has faced hard times during the last century, said Julia Ponder, executive director of the Raptor Center.

She said the bald eagle was hunted heavily prior to World War II, when population numbers dropped.

“They were just persecuted,” Ponder said.

The 1940 Bald Eagle Protection Act outlawed eagle hunting, but pesticide use and loss of habitat continued to hurt the bald eagle population, Ponder said. The low point came in the early 1960s, when there were only about 400 pairs of eagles in the country, she said.

The Raptor Center has worked in various ways to help save this bird.

The center has focused on translocation, or moving eagles to another state, Ponder said.

According to the Center for Biological Diversity, Minnesota has the largest bald eagle population of the continental states, with more than 1,000 pairs. This, Ponder said, makes Minnesota an ideal place from which to draw eagles.

The Raptor Center has also worked to identify and treat chemical problems like lead poisoning in bald eagle chicks, Ponder said. Another emphasis has been to carefully monitor eagle habitats.

These measures, along with the Raptor Center’s efforts to raise public awareness, have helped bald eagle numbers rebound. Today, the bald eagle population exceeds 11,000 pairs in the United States, according to the CBD.

More than 1,600 bald eagles have visited the Raptor Center since its inception.

Jan Williams, communications director for the College of Veterinary Medicine, said the recovery of the eagle has been a great accomplishment.

“The sentiment at the college was one of victory,” she said.

From humble beginnings

In the early 1970s, when many bird populations were perilously low, veterinary professor Pat Redig began to treat injured birds in his basement.

By 1974, he moved the operation to the basement of Temporary East Haecker Building on the St. Paul Campus, starting the Raptor Research and Rehabilitation Program.

“We started out very humbly,” Redig said.

Back then, funding was low and scientific knowledge of birds was rudimentary at best, he said.

By 1988, however, the program had a new name, the Raptor Center, and a new and improved home – the Gabbert Raptor Center, where the operation remains.

In the beginning, the focus of the center was mainly clinical, Redig said. Today, the center studies bird population trends, monitors ecosystems and reaches out to the public while still maintaining a world-class clinic for sick, injured and rescued birds.

In the clinic

Clinic manager Lori Arent said the clinic is really a trauma center.

“Birds come in all the time,” Arent said. “And sometimes you just have to drop what you’re doing.”

Arent’s day begins with morning rounds, when all the birds are tended to. Next, the clinic staff goes over its plan for the day. Bird surgeries are usually planned for late morning or early afternoon, Arent said.

She said some birds have trouble coping with captivity. Whether out of fear or unfamiliarity, some birds refuse to eat and others chew on their bandaging.

Many students volunteer in the clinic, Arent said.

“The students we get, they really want to be here and learn,” Arent said. “They’re sponges.”

To learn more about the Raptor Center, find volunteer oppurtunities, or learn more about the bald eagle at: http://www.cvm.umn.edu/raptor/home.html

Shalini Latchman, an animal sciences senior, has volunteered at the Raptor Center for two years.

“It’s a lot of fun,” she said. “It makes you appreciate what the vets do.”

Latchman said she was pleased with the species’ recovery, but said caution is still needed.

“I’m elated that it’s happening, since we worked so hard,” she said. “But part of me is concerned. If (bald eagles) are not endangered, I don’t know how much they will be protected.”