Perched for educationChildren gasped in awe of Elise, a 24-year-old killer, Sunday at the Sports and Recreation show at the Civic Center.
By: Ben Rodgers, The Jamestown Sun
Children gasped in awe of Elise, a 24-year-old killer, Sunday at the Sports and Recreation show at the Civic Center.
John Halverson, co-founder of the Black Hill Raptor Center, held his arm steady as he walked the quiet, 3-pound red-tailed hawk perched on his forearm though the hundred or so people there to learn about birds of prey.
“She is very elderly, very special to us and very much a prima donna,” said Maggie Engler, the other Black Hills Raptor Center co-founder.
Elise eyed up the audience the same way she would eye mice, snakes, rabbits and squirrels in the wild.
“When we say to you she’s hunting right now we mean it,” Engler said.
Like all birds at the Black Hills Raptor Center in Rapid City, S.D., Elise is non-releasable.
Originally illegally taken as a chick from her nest in Arizona, Elise was fed a diet of hotdogs, baloney and hamburgers. She grew up around people and wouldn’t survive in the wild.
Now she’s more accustomed to the food that red-tailed hawks normally consume, like squirrels, mice, snakes and rabbits.
Elise is a regular around schools in the region and has done about 1,900 shows like the one this weekend in Jamestown.
“It was kind of big and kind of scary,” said Justus Naumann, a 13-year-old, of Elise.
The next bird of prey Halverson showed was smaller, weighing in at only 4 ounces. Hendrix is roughly the size of a stick of butter.
Named after the song “Little Wing,” the American kestrel feeds on mice and grasshoppers. But on Sunday he sized up a plush “bird” slightly bigger than himself.
“He’s bowing down and it’s not because he’s observant, it’s because he’s going to kick the butt of that stuffed toy,” Engler explained to the crowd.
Capable of reaching speeds up to 50 mph, Halverson explained how Hendrix’s wings make him the fighter pilot of kestrels.
Like Elise, Hendrix is imprinted on people. Both birds consider themselves people after those they grew up around.
“Last spring he actually tried to feed John a piece of mouse leg,” Engler said.
After the presentation Anne Hauer, 9, learned that in the wild Hendrix would eat the head of a mouse first because the brain is the most nutritious part. Still, it was her favorite bird of the bunch.
“The American kestrel, that was a cute one,” she said.
The final bird, Icarus, a great horned owl, was more of a wild bird. It took nine months for Icarus to able to be around large groups of people, Engler said.
Each of his eight talons is capable of exerting 30 pounds of pressure, so Halverson wore an extra glove made of buffalo hide for protection over his standard falconry glove.
“The fact that this owl will actually sit on a human’s glove and go up and down the aisles is pretty remarkable,” Engler said.
After suffering a clipped wing while hunting Icarus still doesn’t know he can’t fly. He tried to fly the coop at least once at the Civic Center.
Capable of jumping near to waist level on an adult, Icarus eats more mice than anything.
Engler explained that two mice will eat up to 8 pounds of grain a year.
“Owls and hawks and falcons are actually a huge help to human beings because they help keep the mice population under control,” she said.
Halverson and Engler have shared birds from the center with the public at the Sport and Recreation Show for the past three years.
“We want kids to get excited about birds of prey and nature,” Engler said.
For Halverson education is key to future conservation.
“This type of wildlife education is too important,” he said. “There’s a concept going around — nature deficit disorder — kids and adults, even they just don’t know enough about the outdoors around them.
“Of course what you don’t know, you don’t understand, and what you don’t understand, you don’t care about,” he said.
The non-profit volunteer organization primarily focuses on education, but ultimately would like to have a rehabilitation permit from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Last year alone there were 50 calls for injured raptors in the Black Hills. Halverson said it’s his calling to help the birds and educate youth.
“It’s what I do to live, rather than what I do to make a living,” he said.
Sun reporter Ben Rodgers can be reached at 701-952-8455 or by email at email@example.com