The flight to freedom

The Raptor Center rehabilitates hundreds of predatory birds every year.

A raptor is released on stage, Saturday at the Carpenter Nature Center in Hastings, MN.

A raptor is released on stage, Saturday at the Carpenter Nature Center in Hastings, MN.

Melissa Steinken

Gasps escaped from the gathered crowd as a bald eagle soared overhead Saturday at a nature center near the St. Croix River in Hastings, Minn.
 
“Boy, that’s a showstopper,” Jennifer Vieth, executive director of the Carpenter St. Croix Valley Nature Center, said to the crowd as the bird sailed past. 
 
That wasn’t the only flyby the crowd witnessed that day.
 
Five other birds of prey flew over the nature center as part of the University of Minnesota Raptor Center’s annual release of rehabilitated birds.
 
The birds — two broad-winged hawks, a cooper’s hawk, a red-tailed hawk and two bald eagles — were released back into the wild after weeks and months of treatment at the center. Caregivers granted the predators their freedom after they passed a final veterinary check. 
 
Julia Ponder, executive director of the Raptor Center, said the center treats about 700 raptors each year. 
 
“Raptor is not a scientific classification,” she said. “Raptors are birds that have keen eyesight, hooked bill and kill or get their food with their feet.”
 
Among the reasons birds arrive at the center to be rehabilitated are collisions with cars and buildings, intentional harm caused by humans and diseases such as West Nile virus, Ponder said.
 
She said most of the center’s raptors come from Minnesota and surrounding states like North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa and Wisconsin. 
 
To help raise awareness about the dangers raptors face in the wild, the center invites the public to witness the birds’ release.
 
“We want to teach children and people of all ages about these raptors,” Ponder said. “Part of science is adapting knowledge and learning from it.”
 
The event also offered apple picking, children’s activities and orchard hay-wagon tours. 
 
“They have so much outside education happening other than the main events,” said Allison Bye, an environmental sciences, policy and management junior who witnessed the releases. “It’s not just a 40-minute release show.”
 
Although the center intends to eventually release birds it treats, some of the animals end up permanently living there. 
 
Even after healing from their afflictions, some birds are deemed unfit to be released into their natural environment, Ponder said. 
 
At the release, a turkey vulture named Nero — who has been used for research since he hatched in 1974 and is accustomed to humans — simply looked on as the newly released birds flew off, said Heather Edgerton, a Raptor Center education crew member.
 
“When the raptor is born, it relates to the mother figure,” she said. “If it sees a human, it doesn’t know if it’s a bird of prey, and then it can’t mate with its species.”
 
Birds with human imprints are rare at the center, Ponder said. 
 
Raptors often run into issues when interacting with humans, she said.
 
“The greatest challenges in the [Raptor Center] are at the intersection of humans and the natural world,” Ponder said.