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Image of saw-whet owl.

Why Save This Bird?

Weekly for two months this past fall, I visited The Raptor Center at the University of Minnesota to follow an injured owl's recovery from a broken bone. I was writing a story about this northern saw-whet owl for this issue's Young Naturalists. When I finished my first draft, I gave it to my husband to read. "That owl's treatment takes a lot of effort and resources," he said. "Why do they go to all that trouble to save one bird?"

He's right about the resources: The Raptor Center raises more than a half million dollars in annual donations, not only to fund treatment of injured and diseased birds but also to do environmental education and international outreach work. In addition to its medical team, it marshals a corps of 350 volunteers, who transport injured birds, build perches, conduct tours, and do much more.

In a typical year, the center cares for more than 700 owls, hawks, eagles, ospreys, falcons, and vultures. Most raptor injuries result from encounters with human-related things and activities. Owls crash into windows. Hawks and cars collide. Eagles eat lead-tainted deer carcasses.

By altering habitat, humans also inadvertently make life harder for some wild birds. In North American Owls, ornithologist Paul Johnsgard writes: "The owls of the world, being mainly forest-adapted birds, are increasingly feeling the pressures of worldwide deforestation trends." Northern saw-whet owls need extensive woodlands with conifers and wetlands for roosting and hunting and mature forests with some dead trees and woodpecker cavities for nesting.

By rescuing injured birds, The Raptor Center is responding to some of the unintended consequences of today's environmental realities. Every bird brought to the clinic presents a learning opportunity. "They serve as sentinels for what is happening in their environment," says executive director Dr. Julia Ponder, "challenges that populations are facing."

The medical team trains veterinarians and consults with other raptor health professionals worldwide. For example, Dr. Ponder recently traveled to the Galápagos Islands to work on a project to protect Gal?pagos hawks.

The center's education team brings 33 ambassador birds to classrooms and events, reaching more than 250,000 people each year. Their underlying conservation message: People and birds can safely share the environment.

In his essay "Another Hurt Wing" in the Jan.-Feb. 1997 issue, Mel White weighed the value of saving a single common bird versus the importance of conserving large expanses of wildlife habitat. Convinced of the critical need for habitat protection, White said he always advised people not to fret over an ordinary bird with a hurt wing. Then one day White found himself taking a flightless kingfisher to a vet. He noted "the defiant gleam in the eye" of his captive, but soon he witnessed the bird's death, "the dying of the light." This encounter, he said, made him realize that the desire to rescue a bird and the desire to save habitat spring from the same motive.

"A conservationist is somebody who decides to draw the line someplace," White said, "and it just might be that the simplest, most atavistic instincts and emotions inside us—the joy in life and the sadness in death, even the death of one backyard bird—are more important and more persuasive than reason and research in giving us the will to do it."

In other stories in this issue, conservationists—farmers, foresters, wildlife researchers—draw and redraw their lines as time goes on and they learn more about grasslands, trees, and lynx. That is to say, knowledge and experience can lead to new conservation methods and goals.

As for the northern saw-whet owl with the hurt wing, she simply aims to live. During her captivity, she retained her fierce, autonomous nature. Her response to her human caretakers showed no hint of mutual affection. She defended herself against them.

The owl's full recovery was the aim of The Raptor Center staff and volunteers. Her release back into the wild is cause to celebrate.

Kathleen Weflen, editor

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