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The Journal Gazette

  • Cathie Rowand | The Journal Gazette Soarin' Hawk volunteers and neighbors stand on a plot of land the group bought near Huntertown that they hope will become the site of a headquarters for rehabbing birds of prey.

Sunday, May 27, 2018 1:00 am

Soarin' toward 1st home

Bird-rehab group buys land for centralized HQ

ROSA SALTER RODRIGUEZ | The Journal Gazette

For  the last two years, Soarin' Hawk has been searching for a place to build its nest.

It hasn't been easy for the Fort Wayne nonprofit group. After all, the group's board President Mike Dobbs said, appropriate – and affordable – places to house, feed and exercise a growing number of injured and orphaned birds of prey aren't exactly common.

And especially not in a county with a large urban area and rapidly suburbanizing countryside. 

“We must have looked at 100 places,” Dobbs said last week.

But Dobbs thinks the group has found a spot for what he calls its “forever home” –  Soarin' Hawk's first centralized headquarters in its 22-year history.

The site is a small farm north of Huntertown. The group this month bought the land and started site preparation work for $125,000, Dobbs said. Next month, Soarin' Hawk will seek from the Allen County Board of Zoning Appeals a special-use exception for the agriculturally zoned 8.6 acres.

Also to begin next month: a fundraising campaign for $300,000 to restore the location's cropland to native prairie and riparian, or waterside, habitat – and provide a 1,000-square-foot building for bird rehab and the group's other activities.

An unusual part of the project is an outdoor flight cage – a 2,400-square-foot, mesh-fabric hoop house 12 feet high. Similar to structures used for greenhouses, the enclosure will allow volunteers to exercise birds outdoors in a contained area.

The birds need exercise to strengthen them for eventual release or keep them healthy for educational program use if release isn't feasible.

The project also includes outdoor enclosures for permanent-resident birds, which now number 17, and recuperating raptors, a class of birds that includes hawks, eagles, ospreys, falcons and owls.

The proposed headquarters building, about the size of a three-car garage, will house a recovery room and food preparation kitchen for the birds, which are meat eaters. There will also be a restroom, office and meeting space. 

Dobbs said growth in demand for the group's work has made a specialized and dedicated space more urgent. During its early years, Soarin' Hawk worked with about a dozen raptors annually. But in each of the last two years, it rescued about 225 raptors for release.

Volunteers are called in to help through a rescue hot line at 260-241-0134 by residents and animal control and law enforcement officers who find birds.

The group is one of only four approved wildlife rehabilitators in the state to work exclusively with birds of prey, according to the Indiana Department of Natural Resources. 

A handful of other permitted rehabilitators list raptors among creatures they will accept. But Soarin' Hawk's specialty has led to rescues throughout northeastern Indiana, northwest Ohio and southern Michigan, Dodds said.

Soarin' Hawk has the donated services of a bird veterinary specialist, Dr. Patricia Funnell of Fort Wayne, who can diagnose and treat illnesses and perform surgery on injured birds. The practice with which she is affiliated, Pine Valley Veterinary Clinic in Fort Wayne, donates the use of the facility and provides materials at cost.

Recuperating birds have been scattered in several places where volunteers are able to house and care for them, Dobbs said.

Longtime Soarin' Hawk volunteer Bob Walton of Huntertown said birds often suffer injuries inflicted through contact with humans.

Birds fly into windows, buildings, towers and power lines. Raptors, at the top of the food chain, get poisoned from eating prey exposed to pesticides. Sometimes birds are shot. And, they're hit by vehicles while chasing or eating prey along roads, he said.

Because of a population crash between the 1950s and 1970s caused by pesticides and habitat loss, several raptor species were placed on endangered or threatened species lists.

Maintaining the populations by attending to individual birds became important, Walton said.

“Taking care of these guys is keeping things in balance,” he said. “That works to the benefit of us as well.”

Dobbs said Soarin' Hawk's contact with neighbors near the proposed headquarters has been positive. Some, he said, were “delighted” when he told them he was not another developer but an “undeveloper.”

The group expects little neighborhood disturbance because it has no plans at this point to open the property to the public, he said. The center will cause little noise in an area where homes are not nearby, he said, and no odor. 

Although there may be up to 40 raptors on the property in some cases, Dobbs said, they are securely confined and their stays are temporary because the goal is to release the birds in about three months.

The proposal will have a public hearing at 1 p.m. June 20 in Room 35 of Citizens Square, 200. E. Berry St.

Dan Ernst, vice president of Earth Source, a Fort Wayne supplier of native plants and seeds, said Soarin' Hawk's plan to restore the habitat is ambitious but feasible.

More commercial establishments and private landowners are turning to restoring native-plant-based environments instead of installing conventional landscaping, he said.

The native habitats should have payoffs in being aesthetically pleasing and attracting pollinators – bees, butterflies and other birds, Ernst said.

“The native prairie and riparian (vegetation) makes a great backdrop and setting for what they (at Soarin' Hawk) want to accomplish,” he said.

rsalter@jg.net