Adventure of the Week: Raptor Center's goal is education

If you discover an injured bird, take the advice offered by many wildlife centers:

Find a box with a lid and poke some holes in it. Line it with newspaper – after you've read it, of course. Keep the bird warm, and bring it to a rehabilitation center.

While the bird mends, the staff and volunteers will expect your calls. Rescuers often phone or visit to inquire about the bird's condition and future prospects, says Bret Stedman, the operations director for the California Raptor Center in Davis.

Injuries sometimes end a rescued bird's days in the wild. At an open house Saturday at the Davis center, rehabilitated, unreleasable birds of prey will take center stage in educational presentations – even if they can barely spread their wings.

About 200 raptors limp their way into the center's hospital each year, and 60 percent of them will fly home after receiving medical attention.

"The majority are found by people in local communities on the road or yard, or found hit by a car, or starving to death," Stedman said.

The center, which collaborates with other local animal rescue centers, opened in 1973 and educates children, bird lovers and other curious folk. Only a handful of centers throughout California specialize in raptor care.

"People come here because birds are attractive to them," Stedman said. "They come to observe them up close."

And each bird has a story.

One bird, a ferruginous hawk named Thor, began its journey in Winnemucca, Nev. It was struck by a train and was pancaked onto the locomotive's grille until it made a stop in Sacramento.

"It was an amazing case that it survived at all," Stedman said. The hawk is a fixture within the center.

Another bird, whose rescuer frequently inquired about it, lived for 20 years at the center, which is about 15 years better than the average wild barn owl enjoys, said Lis Fleming, one of the center's 40 volunteers. The bird had brittle bones from lack of calcium. Another bird at the facility cannot go back into the wild because it has only one eye.

The center's primary mission is to educate, Stedman said. The list of lessons includes the bird's natural history, ecology, anatomy, and its place in the overall ecosystem. By looking at the population of raptors and other birds, scientists get an indication of how healthy our ecosystem is.

The center, which includes a small museum, welcomes about 150 visitors each month, mostly children and their parents. But the level of intrigue is the same despite the age difference, says Fleming.

Many of the raptors, including red-tail hawks, saw-whet owls and falcons, are popular while others, naturally, are not very approachable.

"One turkey thinks he's human," Fleming said with a chuckle. Another bird is a bit confused about mating.

Whatever the case, Fleming says working with the birds and teaching others is a "feel-good" experience, one that might just make you sing.