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Davis

Davis, California

Saturday, October 23, 2021

No ordinary birdhouse

Down Old Davis Road, just across the railroad tracks and under the freeway, sits one of Davis’ hidden treasures: the California Raptor Center.

On a recent morning, three volunteers arrived at 8 a.m. sharp for the day’s first four-hour shift. They started by distributing the daily meal of rats and chicks. One of the volunteers was only working his second shift, and he was already learning to catch birds for physical exams.

“That’s how I run this place,” said director Bret Stedman. “It’s very hands-on. Brand-new volunteers learn everything we do. They’re not ready to do everything we do, but they learn it. I want them to have some independence and responsibility. And that experience is obviously compelling for most people.”

It must be compelling, since every quarter the center is flooded with so many willing volunteers that Stedman has to turn away dozens. Each quarter, the center employs about 50 volunteers, at least 30 of whom are returning staff.

John Hsu, a senior Ph.D. candidate in mechanical engineering, loves getting out of his lab and working with birds.

“This place is unique in that you get a lot of exposure to things you’d never otherwise see,” said Hsu. “It’s really fun.”

Lis Fleming, a trim and lively silver-haired volunteer, has been working at the center for over 15 years. She got involved when her daughter was in second grade and the class visited the center on a field trip.

“None of this landscaping was here,” says Fleming, gesturing at the shady trees, native grasses and tidy pathways. “We sat on railroad ties.”

The center has grown since its founding in 1973. Besides landscaping, the center boasts new cages and offices, a museum and more information for the public, but its focus on rehabilitating injured birds of prey has stayed constant.

Now, research and education are part of the Center’s mission statement, as long as rehabilitation isn’t compromised. Scientists who want to conduct behavioral studies and noninvasive experiments are welcome.

“We don’t do terminal studies,” said Stedman. “That would be counter to our central purpose of trying to save these birds.”

Education, too, has to accommodate rehab. None of the 200 to 250 raptors that the Center rehabilitates each year can meet the public. The center does keep a full house of resident birds, though. These are raptors that can’t be released into the wild, for a variety of reasons.

Cowboy, a sleek peregrine falcon, has a bowed leg from a broken bone that healed crooked. One of the barred owls has a lick of feathers on his chest that sticks out like a cowlick, tripping him when he walks. Another resident, a ferruginous hawk named Thor, was hit by a train and rode along in the grill until the engineer pulled him out.

When the difference between dinner and death is a fraction of an inch, vision and control are vital. So, the center can’t release birds with such impairments.

This year, the Raptor Center is threatened by budget cuts.

“We lost all of our funding this year,” said Fleming. “It costs $110,000 a year for our daily operations. We only have two paid employees. Our entire budget has to come from donations.”

“[UC Davis] still pays for medical treatment of the birds,” said Stedman, “but the operational cost of the center is no longer supported by the school. We don’t know our plans yet, but the place will not continue if we cannot get that funding.”

In hopes of stimulating public interest, the center is holding an open house on Oct. 23, from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. There will be flight demonstrations, a Hawk Walk (bring binoculars) and opportunities to get up close and personal with eagles, kestrels, owls and more.

Visit vetmed.ucdavis.edu/calraptor for more details.

EMILY GOYINS can be reached at science@theaggie.org.

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