It’s a chilly Friday morning in March when four members of Soarin’ Hawk Raptor Rehabilitation Center gather in the parking lot of Snider High School. School was out that day, which is disappointing because a rare show is about to take place.
Bob Walton steps out of his van, greets the other three volunteers and together they survey the lay of land. Pulling out a pair of binoculars, Walton observes what one of the other volunteers had noticed when arriving. Over to the west, perched on the topmost branches of barren trees were a pair of red-tailed hawks, their size making them visible without binoculars even at a distance.
"I wonder if we want to release her here," says Walton, looking around cautiously. "Those two up there might not take too well with it."
After a long moment, the two hawks lift off and drift away to the south. Taking in the new developments, the decision is made to go ahead with the release. "Well, I guess we can let her go here," Walton says, walking back to his van.
Opening the door, he pulls out a cardboard cat carrier and sets it on the ground. As Walton opens the box carefully, volunteer Ruth Guerin, wearing thick, protective gloves, reaches in and pulls out a red-tailed hawk.
Easily the size of a small dog, the hawk appears apprehensive, looking around for an escape, but Guerin’s hands have it secured. Everyone gives space as Guerin extends the hawk away from herself. The hawk, sensing its freedom flaps its wings and tries to break away, but Guerin isn’t quite ready to let go. Repositioning herself, Guerin lifts the hawk and lets go as it breaks away and glides over the parking lot. It’s soon out of sight, off to the west, returning once again to its natural habitat.
The release of the hawk was a culmination of a three-week rehabilitative effort. Found on the side of the road stunned, the hawk was diagnosed as having a concussion, probably the consequence of some altercation with another raptor, possibly an owl. Taking it in, Soarin’ Hawk gave the hawk the time it needed to regain its senses and take flight again.
This is what makes it all worth it for the directors and volunteers of Soarin’ Hawk.
Although Soarin’ Hawk Raptor Rehab has been around since 1996, it hasn’t been until recently that the organization has really seen itself in the public spotlight. They’re hoping to use that exposure to help the group expand its operations to make it more open to the public.
Soarin’ Hawk has grown from its core mission of rescuing and rehabilitating injured hawks, owls and other raptor species to embark on an ambitious course of expanding beyond just a hospital for raptors and becoming a wildlife community center specializing in the education about raptors.
But first, it’s going to take some help with resources, such as money and land.
Located on the northeast side of the city, Soarin’ Hawk is based on private property. "It’s always been meant as a temporary location," says Pat Funnel, president of Soarin’ Hawk, "and since it’s on private property, we can’t have people come and visit, so that’s really the purpose of our expansion.
"We want to become a public entity that people can come to, more of a tourist attraction or a zoo for raptors. So that’s why we really need our own place so we can do that."
What Soarin’ Hawk envisions is a Midwest Raptor Center, which would be something like a wildlife hospital/exhibit in a natural park setting. Plans for such a center have already been established.
"IPFW’s technology department took it on as a senior project and they’ve developed building plans, plans for the site, the walking trails and all the habitats," says Mike Dobbs, director of development. "We have all the development plans ready to go as soon as we find money to go with it. The media exposure has been helping. In the last six months we’ve been on some form of media probably twice a month now and that is getting people to know who we are, know what we do. We do get emails almost every day asking us what our needs are."
Christopher Guerin, a member of the organization’s development committee, says there are some nice properties in the county that would work well for the group’s purposes. "We just need to work out an arrangement where they give us a long-term lease or some arrangement donated to us that we can live with financially," he says.
Guerin says after that, the organization is going to need money to help build such things as an education center, a hospital, an auditorium for presentations and a place for rehabilitation of the birds.
Dobbs says the organization currently raises a modest amount of money through donations and educational programs, but with the formal plans and presentations in hand, the group is ready to begin the process of raising the capital necessary to acquire a site and begin construction.
"We’ve been at this for a while; we’re just being patient about it. We’ll get there eventually," Guerin says.
In the meantime, Soarin’ Hawk will continue with its education of the public on what it does.
Rescuing close to 150 raptors annually, Soarin’ Hawk this year has released 84 birds of prey back into the wild or placed them in various habitat facilities, such as the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo, which received a red-tailed hawk and a pair of Eastern screech owls, and the Tracy Aviary in Salt Lake City which was a beneficiary of a bald eagle.
In addition to the released birds, Soarin’ Hawk has resident and tame birds used for education presentations.
"We have what we call our education birds; our ‘Ed birds,’ " Guerin says. "These are our birds who were too damaged to go back out into the wild, and so we do education programs with them. Right now we go out into the community and we would continue to do that, but we could have schools bus in (students) by the hundreds to view these birds, So we need a facility that would accommodate all of that."
"When we teach about raptors, we not only teach about conservation with them, but their environment, too," Funnel says. "Raptors are the top of the food chain, so if we pay attention to what’s going on with them, we’ll see what’s going on with the rest of the environment, too. So that’s why it’s really important to pay attention and get the news out about them.
"Anytime somebody can see a raptor up close, then they pay more attention to them. Anytime you drive down the highway, you’ll see red-tailed hawks and Kestrels on the fences, and I’m always amazed how many people have never seen those before until after they’ve seen one of our programs; then they’re paying attention. So anytime you can get people to pay attention to the environment, then that’s really a huge advantage."
Public outreach was the basis for the Raptor Expo, an event now in its fourth year that showcases Soarin’ Hawk’s mission and helps educate the community about raptors. Last year, the event drew about 800 people, Funnel says. This year’s event is slated for May 14 at Franke Park.
"It’s just an all-day event where we have the birds out and where we do two presentations with the them," Funnel says. "We also have some X-rays on display, pellet dissections (shows the eating habits of the birds) and activities to do. It’s just a fun day where people can come in and spend as much time as they want getting to know the birds and getting to know us."
And public awareness is needed as raptors continue to make homes and hunt in urban and suburban areas.
Guerin says he and his wife are avid bird watchers, and they have noticed an increase in the population of raptors in the area.
"For the first time ever, we’ve seen red-tailed hawks and owls in the woods at Foster Park," he says. "Last year, we twice had a barred owl in our backyard, and we’ve lived there for 30 years. Also, eagles have been nesting in woods in the southwest area, two nesting pairs, in the last couple of years.
"Harrier hawks have appeared recently as well and we’ve never seen them before at all."