Healed raptors take to the air

A hush went over the crowd as the red-tailed hawk was taken out of its cage. The chocolate-feathered, white-breasted raptor struggled against the grip of its handler.

The bird was taken to the edge of the stage while the crowd shouted, “One, two, three.” On “three,” the handler threw the bird in the air. It swooped a foot above the crowd until it caught a wind that carried it into distant trees.

This bird’s flight of freedom was the main event at the University’s Raptor Center’s Spring Release on Saturday at Battle Creek Regional Park in St. Paul.

Since 1974, the Raptor Center on the University’s St. Paul campus has specialized in the medical care, rehabilitation and conservation of hawks, eagles, owls and falcons.

The center has trained veterinarians from 24 countries, educated 150,000 people from the community about raptors and rehabilitated 800 birds last year.

The red-tailed hawk released Saturday was suffering from soft-tissue damage and head trauma when it was brought to the center in December.

“Veterinarians did wound management for the bird,” said Julia Ponder, the center’s interim director. “We then had volunteers take the birds out on test flights to rehabilitate the wings.”

Volunteers take the birds out to local parks to practice flying. The birds have leather bracelets on their feet, and volunteers hold a line attached to the birds’ feet to prevent them from flying away.

The other birds released Saturday were a sharp-shinned hawk that was shot and a

Cooper’s hawk that flew into a window.

Ponder said approximately 1,500 people attended the event.

Volunteers, such as Chuck Chur, answered questions about the center’s display birds. These birds are permanently disabled and are used to educate the public at different events.

Chur answered questions about the owls on display.

“The most common questions asked were what the owls eat and if they can turn their heads all the way around,” Chur said.

“They can turn their heads around but only 270 degrees,” he said.

Other activities at the event included owl-hooting contests, making raptor masks and learning how to identify different bird calls.

The center has 300 volunteers, and some of the volunteers are University students, said Jen Vieth, the center’s assistant bird curator.

“I think it’s a way to celebrate a success between the public and the Raptor Center,” Vieth said. “We wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for them.”

The event was put on by the center and Ramsey County Parks and Recreation. The event was sponsored by the 3M Foundation.