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Davis, California

Friday, February 23, 2024

The California Raptor Center: rehab and research


Director, operations manager, volunteers discuss center’s goals

Since 1972, the California Raptor Center (CRC) has been rehabilitating and releasing injured and orphaned birds for the purposes of education and research.  Each year, hundreds of these predatory birds are brought in; 60 percent are released back into the wild.

On Oct. 17, the center had their fall open house, which showcased the birds, rallied for donations and brought in over 500 people from around the Davis area.

“The greatest satisfaction is hearing from people that [they used to come here as kids], and now they’re bringing their children,” said Michelle Hawkins, the CRC director. “It was so important to them that they brought their kids back.”

Hawkins said that although the program has had many years to expand, the center has kept its primary goals of rehabilitation, education and research in the forefront since its inception 43 years ago.

“From the rehabilitation side, once we have gotten [the birds] the medical care, we want them out [of the vet hospital] as soon as we can,” Hawkins said. “They are high level predators, so when we see problems in their populations we know that there’s a problem in that ecosystem […] and then we can figure out what we can do otherwise, in terms of research to try to […] further improve the health of those animals. Rehabilitation and education are the two primary parts of that mission.”

Hawkins has served as director of CRC for the past three years and has been credited with the program’s recent successes in finding new funding and university outreach. Despite the administrative support provided by the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, the center still has financial goals to meet in order to increase capacity and better the livelihood of the birds.

“There’s a potential [for expansion] and  […] we’ve definitely set our sights on raising the financial support to build a new education center,” Hawkins said. “We want to have bigger facilities, and that potential to expand the volunteer base and the education program as well. The goal would be to heighten awareness and get more people to come to the center. We are definitely research-driven, but we are driven to the benefit of the animal.”

Operations Manager Bret Stedman has been working on the grounds of the Raptor Center for over 23 years. He believes that no matter what the center may look like, it is the mission that keeps the center going strong.

“We’ve made small improvements, [and] do the best with what we have; the place looked pretty sharp [at the open house], and I think people were pretty impressed,” Stedman said. “[The physical facilities] have never been an impediment [when it comes to] the education level [or] rehabilitation. You can be in a beautiful center, but if you don’t really know what you’re doing, you’re not going to be successful in treating [the birds], and you’re not going to provide educational experiences for your volunteers [that make them] come back all the time.”

Stedman depends on the work of more than 50 volunteers each quarter to run the center. The waitlist to be a volunteer gets longer each year, even without direct advertising.

“Some of my best [volunteers] are in unrelated fields; they’re just here because they enjoy it, or [initially] because of curiosity,” Stedman said. “This [center] would be worthless if I didn’t have a good component of volunteers, and they have to be motivated within in order to do thatthat’s one of the strengths that we have.”  

One of these volunteers, Jessica Schlarbaum, chose to spend her time at the CRC to get a closer look into wildlife rehabilitation.

“This is probably one of the best hands-on experiences that I’ve ever had,” Schlarbaum said. “It was the reason why I changed my major to wildlife conservation.”


Another volunteer, Billy Thein, has been working at CRC for 20 years, and has enjoyed presenting the birds to the public for multiple open houses.

“As a volunteer, you do everything. That includes feeding, [some] vet treatment and education,” Thein said. “One of the things that’s really special around hereeveryone has to do the dirty work, but we get to do the fun stuff too. [These open houses are] one of the [only] times you can come out and see all the birds up close.”

Thein said that working with the raptors is “very hands-on,” and he has picked up on the birds’ many peculiar habits throughout his experience at the center.

“We try our best to get them back, and that is how they’re benefitting; the permanent residents [are benefitting through] education,” Thein said. “We have people that ask, ‘oh, it’s a bird, why should it be in a cage?’ and that’s really anthropomorphizing the bird — we will never know [how they feel]. We can only go by the objective ways we can tell [their level of happiness]how’s their health; are they eating?”

At the open house, Thein showed his wealth of knowledge by pointing out the birds with particularly fascinating personalities.

“After 20 years, [holding the birds] is so mundane for me […] we try to take them out at least once a week,” Thein said. “They all have their unique quirks. [For some birds] this is their first open house, so they might stay out. Mikey [the Red Shouldered Hawk] is a little butt; he has a time-scale [for being outside]. Spar [the American Kestrel] is pretty photogenic.”

For public outreach, representatives from the School of Veterinary Medicine’s One Health Institute update the website, organize online fundraising campaigns and recognize the needs of the center to improve the life of the rehabilitating and resident birds. October’s open house brought all of these outreach themes together, and included wine and beer tastings as well as spreads donated from Whole Foods.

“People can be counted on to come twice a year, so the stuff that we’re doing is just bells and whistles to elevate it further,” One Health Institute representative Justin Cox said. “The place is definitely headed in a great direction; we’re already doing what the place has been doing, and [the open house] is just some help to get the word out.”

Another health representative for CRC, Desiree Aguiar, said that nowadays, the most important component to keeping the center successful is awareness and outreach.

“I think [the center] is a great example of how getting the word out can really make a difference, and have some real physical results,” said Aguiar.

The center is open Monday to Saturday for school groups and walk-ins, with another open house scheduled for the first Saturday in May. Currently, the center has been focusing on educating the public on rodenticide usage, how it is killing the raptors and how it affects the ecosystem surrounding them. To learn more, get involved in the center or donate to the cause, CRC officials encourage all who are interested to visit their website.

“There’s probably a large cross section of people that don’t know that we’re here,” Stedman said. “We encourage people to […] just drop by and see what [they] think of the facility.”


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