SPENCER, Ohio — The elusive barred owl, the symbolic bald eagle and the large-eyed horned owl are some of the most photographed birds of prey in the region appearing on the feeds of Facebook groups and Instagram accounts. While documenting these birds thriving in their natural habitats has turned into a hobby for some during the pandemic, those with or without a camera have become more observant in a slowed-down world, noticing more birds in distress and in need of a helping.
But what happens when someone comes across an injured bird in their backyard, hike or on the road? Some take these birds to the Medina Raptor Center, where a small staff and army of volunteers step in to rehabilitate these birds and give them another chance to soar the skies.
Located off an inconspicuous driveway a short distance away from the Spencer Lake Wildlife Area in Medina County is the Medina Raptor Center, a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization working around the clock to rescue, rehabilitate and release birds of prey that includes vultures, raptors, eagles and owls.
Impact of COVID-19
Over the past year, while everyone was at home during lockdown looking at the same walls day after day, wearied eyes shifted to what was going on outside as people found appreciation in their own backyards and neighborhoods. Observant eyes, most times, were the factor between a bird living or dying.
In just one day, the center received over 400 calls from concerned residents who spotted an injured bird. For an entire year, a surge in calls and an influx of bird patients thereafter has kept this small, but mighty center busy as it navigates a different normal.
“It's because everybody was at home and became a wildlife specialist because they were actually looking out their window at home,” said Susan Stone, the volunteer coordinator who has been at the center for 13 years.
Staff and volunteers became teachers over the phones in all things birds of prey, educating and giving guidance to residents whose vehicles unintentionally came in contact with a beloved bird or whose backyard now served as a crash landing pad.
Melissa Jordan, the operations coordinator at the center whose parents Laura and Bill Jordan started the Medina Raptor Center over 30 years ago, said the pandemic took a toll on even day-to-day operations and the volunteers.
“I think our total numbers were about 50% for whatever reason because we're now at home—parents could come in while their kids were at school,” Jordan said about the drop in volunteers. "Fear. You know, we put in a lot of policies here. We are still probably one of the most strict places in terms."
It takes a village
If there was a melting pot where people from every career field would volunteer, it would be the Medina Raptor Center.
“It's really amazing the uniqueness everybody brings,” Jordan says, talking about the various professionals who find themselves in the trenches rehabilitating birds of prey.
The spectrum of those who have volunteered at the center at one point or another includes bartenders, waitresses, NASA engineers, lawyers, vet techs and students.
“Our volunteer base is what makes this organization successful because you can't do it without volunteers and they're the ones giving up their holidays and asking their family, ‘hey, can we push back Thanksgiving by a couple of hours? I gotta go feed the birds,’” Stone said.
A love of wildlife, particularly birds, keeps volunteers going even on emotionally draining days. Working with the birds is more than a volunteer gig for people like Heather Eaken, who is majoring in biology at Kent State.
"I'm getting real-life experience working with these birds that I wouldn't otherwise get in a typical internship," she said.
Each year, over 400 birds are brought to the Medina Raptor Center with injuries sustained in the wild or caused by human activities. Most of the birds that come to the center are released back into the wild, but they cannot release some because of permanent injuries.
“Our number one goal is to always get them back into the wild,” Jordan said.
Jordan estimates that 80 to 90% of injuries are caused by humans such as motor accidents, farming and keeping birds like American Kestrels as pets.
A Great horned owl, like resident Juniper, came down in Wellington on private property and got stuck in some netting.
A volunteer immediately went and cut him out of the netting and brought him to the center. The owl was eventually untangled and suffered a lot of abrasions and started to self mutilate, as many birds do, when they want out of something.
“It was a long road with him, but yesterday (April 14) he was released,” said Jordan.
She adds, "The ones that go out and get the big great horned owls are the 70- and 80-year-old women. They call us and say 'hey I already got my dog crate in the barn."
“It makes it all worth it. Right. So yesterday we came in to a woodpecker had passed away that we had gotten in, you know, and so that’s like all the hard times, right. And then on the positive, we released four birds,” said Jordan.
Those who are not so fortunate to return to the trees they once perched on become part of the center’s educational program to teach the public about conservation and preservation of their habitats.
Birds like Aurora are one of the few whose past traumas happened to her twice. She was first admitted to the raptor center as a first-year bird with West Nile Virus in October 2002. She recovered and was released in April 2005 only until three weeks later she was readmitted after being hit by a car in Medina County, suffering head trauma and impaired vision.
Longtime resident Juniper, who came to the facility in 2008 as first-year bird after she was found in a field where a farmer was fertilizing, is a favorite to visitors who are amazed by her mesmerizing eyes.
This is the main predator for any small bird in Ohio. It holds about 700 pounds of pressure per square inch in their feet.
"She could crush my arm if she wanted to. When we bring them into rehab, it’s an extremely dangerous situation because they’re very strong birds," Jordan said.
Jordan said no matter how long a bird has been at the facility, they are not treated as pets.
"No matter how long they've been with us, we don't treat them like pets. I would love to scratch her belly. But at the end of the day, she is still a wild animal."
The new 'normal'
The center’s busy time is seasonal depending on the nesting and migration with winter typically considered a slow time. The pandemic, however, made every month busy, with dozens of calls coming into the center from members of the public concerned about an injured bird.
"I don't think we will ever slow down from where we were at pre-pandemic times," Stone said.
Because of the pandemic, though, the facility's intake procedure has changed. The public is asked to call ahead first so staff can best advise on how to help a bird in question.
During uncertain times, comes resilience; and for the Medina Raptor Center, the global pandemic put strains on an organization where life literally was hanging in the balance. While caretakers saw uncertainty looming as the pandemic grew longer and longer, hope and gratitude were visible.
Members of the public can sponsor a bird, like resident Juneau, a snowy owl who was rescued at an Arcelor Mittal steel mill in Cleveland. He had a badly fractured wing and underwent two surgeries to reset his dislocated wing. When his joint failed to heal, vets recommended that no further surgery be attempted on him. While it’s not the outcome staff hoped for, he is now an educational ambassador.
With educational programs and visitor hours paused at the onset of it all, Jordan pivoted and continued a grassroots approach, raising funds through an Amazon register to get supplies like paper towels, food and other essential items that were much needed to perform some of the most basic tasks.
“It [the support] was rather surprising,” said Jordan. “We felt extremely scared for a while, people losing their jobs. People are losing their homes. They're losing everything. But we still had just this amazing amount of outpouring donations. It was a humbling feeling.”
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