Dancing With Raptors

A Catalina man rehabs injured birds and educates the public about them

When living with raptors, even these fierce birds of prey become family. Take Yo-Yo, the Harris hawk. Or King Tut, a Western screech owl known for wiggling his head back and forth "like an Egyptian."

Then there's Bash, a magnificent peregrine falcon now perched, hooded and curious, atop a broad table. Considering that falcons dive-bomb prey at speeds nearing 200 mph, his name may seem an obvious choice. But, in fact, Bash's moniker honors a benefactor of this one-man organization called the Raptor Rehabilitation Project.

Occupying a hilly Catalina acre, and run by a barrel-chested former construction manager named Ben Schwartz, the project has nursed hundreds of injured raptors back from the brink of death. Now, a handful of those beautiful creatures are part of an educational program Schwartz takes to local schools and groups.

At least such presentations get him off his raptor-laden homestead. "You see, I really don't go anywhere," laughs Schwartz. "I'm pretty much here all the time, taking care of my birds."

Work by Schwartz and other rehabbers is crucial as suburbs spread into wildlife habitat. While many raptors have done surprisingly well in cities ranging from New York to San Francisco, they also suffer endless injuries in brushes with man. Some are poisoned by pesticides and industrial chemicals; others are shot by hunters. Then come endless burns and electrocutions from power lines.

Restoring birds to health is painstaking, involving hand-feeding and slow, painful flights. It's also complicated: Rehabbers must have a license from state and federal governments, usually requiring apprenticeships and tests.

But over recent years, the effort has become broad-based and effective. There are big operations, such as the Audubon of Florida Center for Birds of Prey, which has treated approximately 14,000 native raptors since it opened in 1979, and is staffed by six staffers and 70 volunteers.

And there are small-fry operations, such as the Catalina compound, where Schwartz shifts raptors from cages large and small, and slowly works them back to health in a 60-foot-long, 17-foot-high flight pen covered by a dark screen and creeping catclaw.

What drives people to devote their lives to such work? "We're a small, rather insane bunch," says Lee Hiestand, spokeswoman for the Minnesota-based National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association. "And we're all conservationists at heart."

Hiestand, who spent 15 years rescuing everything from sea turtles to birds, says Schwartz and other rehabbers provide "a great service to the public, as more animals are having encounters with people. And while saving one animal won't save the species, saving an individual adds to the (genetic) diversity of the group."

Then there's the small picture, and occasional heartbreak. Even in rehab, 30 percent of birds die, and others must be euthanized. Schwartz has often made that tough decision, such as with a Harris hawk that had been shot. "It was missing half its wing and a thumb talon," he says. "It continued to live a long time, and I tried to use it for my education program."

That hawk possessed a fierce, relentless spirit. But it couldn't hold perch, as required by the state for a bird to be kept. "I worked with her for weeks," Schwartz says, "and she would never let go. It was a tormented life for her, out of the wild." Eventually, the hawk was euthanized. "I could see that she was finally at peace."

Such wildlife crises run the gamut, says Wendy Burroughs, a former rehabber who now runs Pima County's Environmental Education Program. The general public "is not equipped or able to respond" to injured wildlife, she says. "As a result, often times, specific situations are misunderstood. For example, a young bird leaves the nest and can't fly. So people find that baby bird, and make the assumption that it has been abandoned."

When that happens, "my first response is to try to get the bird back into the wild if it's not too late," says Schwartz. "Once they lose their fear of man, it's too late."

As it was for Oswald, a great horned owl that's become a big hit on the grade-school circuit. "He was found by a couple of college kids in the middle of Tucson," says Schwartz. The students kept the baby owl in a box for a week, and by that time, "the bird was covered with down, and it had already become accustomed to humans."

At one point, Schwartz was taking in 25 to 30 birds a year, but has been slacking off since he started doing educational speaking in schools. Now he does 120 speaking engagements annually and only takes in five or six birds.

Wendy Burroughs calls such educational outreach vital. "It gives people a perspective," she says, "and can spark a lot of interest in wildlife."

Ben Schwartz couldn't agree more. "I've played Santa Claus a lot of times," he says, "but it doesn't compare to taking these birds into the classroom." It's one thing for children to see pictures of animals, "but it's completely different when kids see these animals face-to-face. It has a powerful impact, and hopefully makes them feel a little more connected to the natural world."