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Many ways to help raptors

Mike Billington, an interpretive naturalist at the Raptor Center in St. Paul, returns an injured red-tailed hawk to a cage after therapy on the bird. The bird will be released back to the wild when fully healthy.

ST. PAUL — Best known for its surgeons who developed techniques now used internationally to fix broken bones in eagles, hawks and owl, the Raptor Center also has a major educational and research component.

In fact, education and research make up the majority of the work, said Mike Billington, an interpretive naturalist at the center on the University of Minnesota campus in St. Paul.

The center does about 1,000 programs a year, mostly in Minnesota but also in Wisconsin and Iowa, he said. Those programs touch about 200,000 people; about half at at the center, the other half in schools and other places.

A program typically lasts about an hour, and a naturalist will display three or four raptors that have been injured and can't be returned to the wild or were imprinted on people and wouldn't know how to survive in the wild, he said.

That alone is a lesson, he said. "The (large) majority of the birds that come in to the Raptor Center are because of interaction with people," he said.


The center fixed up 699 raptors last year, and of those, many had collided with cars or buildings, were shot or ate dead deer that contained lead from hunters' bullets, he said.

As part of the programs, center officials suggest people not throw food scraps out car windows because they attract rodents that attract raptors that get hit, that hunters change to non-toxic slugs and that people quit using chemical mouse poisons.

People may also come to the center to see some of the 33 injured birds from sparrow hawks to bald eagles, and they may attend 1 p.m. programs each Saturday and Sunday.

Dr. Pat Redig, one of the two men who started the center in his basement in 1974, said the center is trying to tell people how their health is connected to the health of the environment. One way to tell an ecosystem is healthy is by looking at the top predators, he said, because they exhibit symptoms first.

Redig and others help with research into diseases that affect birds and humans. For example, they worked with West Nile virus that showed up in birds before people. While interest in the virus has been on the back burner because it has been quiet, he is sure it will come back.

When he began, bald eagles were in tough shape because of DDT that thinned their shells. The chemical was banned, and eagles have come back in numbers far exceeding hopes.

One of the biggest changes he's seen since he started the center has been in perception of raptors. "In days gone by, it was 'I shot three red-tails today,'" he said. People thought nothing of killing raptors.

Now, it's uncommon. "It's a whole different attitude," he said.

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