Days like this are why I blog. Days like this are why I started my career as a newspaper reporter. To have the extraordinary opportunity to spend a day behind-the-scenes with dedicated and passionate people, to capture and share the experience with my skills and every once in awhile to help is the ultimate reward.
SORCO Raptor Rehab Centre, near Oliver, British Columbia cares for injured and orphaned raptors including: eagles, hawks, ospreys, vultures, falcons and owls until they are ready to be released back into the wild. Like all not-for-profits helping our wildlife, SORCO walks the funding tightrope with ever-growing numbers in need of help.
“We have a houseful right now,” says SORCO Manager Dale Belvedere. “Because of our mild winter the great horned owls had two different matings, one at the beginning of February and another in mid-March.” Dale adds that eight of their current batch of chicks were unnecessary rescues by the well-meaning public worried about chicks on the ground.
Chicks often spend a few days out of the nest with the parents keeping a close watch and “rescuing” them often means the parents won’t take them back leaving them to spend time at the rehab centre until they are old enough to fend for themselves.
“We ask people to call us first or talk to a conservation officer before assuming the bird needs rescuing,” says Dale. The centre’s higher-than-average numbers at the moment have lead to a temporary shortage in the rats they are fed and an emergency call to the coast to resupply until the centres’ own rat breeding program can catch up. “It’s a bit of a touchy situation but we will deal with it.”
The temporary rat shortage is nothing compared to the bizarre and disturbing vandalism the centre coped with last June. Someone broke onto SORCO’s property by forcing open the front gate, got into the food centre where the rats are raised to feed the raptors and poisoned their food. All the rats were found dead two days after the break-in and pathology tests confirmed that the rats died from a poisonous substance.
“SORCO uses a variety of foods depending on the particular needs of the recovering bird. However, rats are the primary food source. Before a raptor can be released back into the wild, they need to demonstrate their ability to hunt for live prey.”
Even more devastating, the centre’s mascot and education bird, Houdini had eaten some of the poisoned rats during the two-day period between the poisoning and the rat deaths. The rescue owl had a long six-month recovery from the poisoning.
As a result of the unsolved incident, SORCO has had to spend precious resources to add security systems to all its facilities.
A great counterpoint to this dark day in the centre’s history is the building of the new treatment clinic in 2014 by the students of Okanagan College Penticton’s Residential Construction program. The new 1,500-square-foot structure provides room to care for the raptors when they first come to the rehab centre and replaced a cramped and noisy 250-square-foot room that was completely inadequate.
The centre is on track for a record year of “patients” which is not good news for our wild bird populations. Dale says they are under threat by the removal of trees for development, the addition of more and more glass windows and topless glass patio railings and increased car traffic. So far they have had 20 more predators in the centre compared to the same time last year. In 2012, SORCO cared for and released 60 raptors and more than doubled just three years later with a total of 150 in 2015.
One of their more serious cases was brought in in January with injuries from being hit by a car. Named Archimedes by its rescuer, the great horned owl was hit by a car near Rock Creek and treated by the vets at the Penticton Veterinary Hospital before being brought to SORCO. The owl was found standing on the road with a serious head injury, the yellow of both her eyes was bright red with blood and her mouth and beak were full of blood. She has made a good recovery although she has a partial separation of the left retina and will have limited sight in that eye. She won’t be released until she learns to hunt with the changes to her vision.
One of the centre’s newest arrivals is pretty special. This small streaked Western Screech-owl is endangered with only about 50 to 200 individuals left in the Okanagan Valley which is its only home in British Columbia. This little guy, found in a Kelowna parking lot, prefers the bottomlands which is habitat more likely to be developed. Timber harvesting and the removal of dead trees that serve as potential nest-cavity sites had lead to the decline in Western Screech-owl numbers.
Of all the birds at the Raptor Centre, the great horned owl chicks stole my heart. Here are some of the many, many photos I took of Peanut, Popcorn, Pinto and the rest of the gang.
Here is how we can help SORCO Raptor Rehab Centre. Go online and donate or offer to volunteer. Plan a visit to the centre at its open house in May, which is its biggest fund-raising event. This year’s event was a few weeks ago and hosted more than 1,500 people. The centre is not open to the public but occasionally its possible to watch a raptor release and many educational programs are offered throughout the year where Houdini often makes an appearance. Take some time to review the “Found a Raptor” link on their site so you are armed with accurate information.
Thanks Dale for an amazing day with these invaluable birds. Without birds of prey our Valley would be overrun with rodents. The magical sightings and sounds of owls and other birds of prey in the wild is priceless. Thanks too to the dedicated SORCO volunteers, board members and all who have donated to the centre.