Saturday at the Kentucky State Fair means it is Eagle Day again. On the first Saturday and this past Wednesday, a volunteer staff from Raptor Rehabilitation of Kentucky brought Aquila, a 22-year old Bald Eagle and Shawnee, a female Golden Eagle who is 13, to the fair for viewing all day. One or both are here again for the final Saturday.
Hanging out at the fair in general can be challenging for anyone considering all the strange sights and sounds, but it’s very impressive to see these majestic creatures, along with all the other owls, hawks, falcons and vultures that come on other days, sit so patiently and well-behaved.
If you want to see a real raptor rock star, check out EO, a Turkey Vulture, who has his own Facebook page.
The mission for Raptor Rehabilitation of Kentucky (RROKI), which is run by Executive Director Eileen Wicker, is twofold. One is to take care of sick and injured birds of prey, and to get them ready for release back to the wild. Its other mission is education based, to get teachers involved and have RROKI staff give presentations in classrooms, businesses and corporate environments, where some of these magnificent birds can be showcased.
Kentucky is mostly a rural state and 20 years ago many farmers would shoot a Red-tailed Hawk if they saw it on their property. Flash ahead to now, and educational efforts from organizations like RROKI have brought about dramatic changes in attitudes.
“We give farmers and others a chance to see these birds up close and in greater detail so they gain an appreciation of these animals,” said Chris Allman, a spokesman with RROKI. “Now it’s a win-win, farmers are happy to see Red-tailed Hawks hanging around and the birds are pleased to feast on the array of small creatures that come running out when the fields get harvested.”
This is the 25th year Raptor Rehab has appeared at the Kentucky State Fair, and it is the organization’s biggest fundraising and recruitment opportunity. It’s not every day that one can stand across from a Bald Eagle that isn’t in a cage. Through t-shirt sales, other merchandise, donations and folks who sign up to become future volunteers, the fair is a fantastic outreach tool for these birds.
“The Bald Eagle is our national symbol and that is very important to veterans and other military personnel, so they respond by coming out to see them,” said Allman. This relationship between RROKI and veterans groups has resulted in a successful partnering with the Wounded Warriors program.
Fundraising is a critical aspect of Raptor Rehab’s ability to care for its patients. There are around 25 birds that are permanent residents, due to an inability to fend for themselves in the wild, and up to 130 temporary residents during the busiest summer months.
“Social media is really helping,” said Allman. “We can widely disseminate our message and people respond to assist with transporting wounded birds, which saves on time and gas.”
The number one cause of injury seen to the birds is getting hit by cars. Raptor Rehab’s overall success rate for getting them recovered and released back into the wild is about 60 percent.
One permanent resident I met was Grace, a leucistic Red-tailed Hawk. Usually they are brown in color, but her genetic aberration makes her white, which is unique. Grace was seen in the Jefferson Memorial Park area for more than 15-years, but was unable to hunt on her own anymore and had fed on a dead carcass that was contaminated with lead shot.
About 50 percent of all the vultures and Bald Eagles admitted to Raptor Rehab have lead poisoning. Grace came to Raptor Rehab last January with lead readings off the charts and a wicked case of arthritis. She has since recovered nicely, and is making her first state fair appearance this year.
With only one paid staff member, it takes approximately 25 volunteers to handle everything required to keep Raptor Rehab functioning. In addition to recruitment and the necessary fundraising, training is especially important, because one can’t just walk in an enclosure with birds of prey and hope for the best.
Handling these birds, giving them meds, cleaning poop from their living environments or conducting educational programs all take significant training in order for volunteers to get up to speed. Everyone has their own strengths, and RROKI tries to identify those and apply people to what they do best.
Volunteering can be tough work, but it’s a labor of love for many. They are out in heat, cold and rain often, and these are wild animals who don’t necessarily know that staff are trying to help them. You will get hurt. Puncture wounds are common. The big birds are incredibly powerful and pick up on vibe like you wouldn’t believe. Confidence, dexterity and the ability to read situations go a long way to helping staff limit their exposure to injuries.
“It’s such a privilege to work with these animals, to get them healthy and do releases back into the wild – to see the look on the faces of the volunteers and sponsors who helped make that happen,” said Allman.