Raptor Rehabilitation Centre helps injured birds of prey recuperate

It’s 9:00am and veterinarian Jana Schader is conducting her daily checks of the birds of prey in her care.

The Raptor Rehabilitation Centre located at Fitzroy Falls in the New South Wales Southern Highlands is uniquely equipped to home up to 50 raptors at any one time.

A boobook owl looks like it’s on the road to recovery until Ms Schader spots a cataract forming in its right eye.

“That means that it’s probably not going to be releasable because they obviously need two eyes to hunt their prey,” she says.

Birds of prey, such as this boobook, aren’t the easiest patients.

Wildlife rehabilitator Mara Mohan says raptors have unique needs when they’re in care.

She weighs dead mice and slices a small dead bird in half with scissors — the perfect dinner for a wedge-tailed eagle.

“What they need to eat can’t be found easily,” Ms Mohan says.

“I mean, you can’t buy a dead rat at Woolies.”

The fact raptors are some of the largest birds in the world also makes them difficult to rehabilitate.

A wedge-tailed eagle, with its two-metre wingspan, sharp talons and beak made for killing prey, is a powerful bird.

Ms Mohan says it has taken her a long time to get comfortable handling them.

“It’s very easy to be nervous when you’re crouched down face to face with a giant wedge-tailed eagle whose body is about as big as my own,” she says.

While getting the birds into the rehab centre is the first challenge, getting them out is also a significant feat.

“It’s quite easy to get them to get some level of flight again, but to get flight and fitness that allows them to hunt in the wild again is a different level of fitness,” Ms Mohan says.

That’s when the centre’s unique facilities are put to work.

Raptor rehab
The loud flapping of wings rises above all other sounds on arrival at the rehab centre.

Wedge-tailed eagles and white-bellied sea eagles can be seen flying around the circular aviaries, trying out their wings.

According to Raptor Recovery Australia, the two circular aviaries at the centre are the largest free-flight aviaries in the southern hemisphere and are designed to stimulate the raptors’ natural behaviours.

“When we’re thinking about our standard rectangular aviaries we are really talking about a bird that’s flying backward and forward, often less than 10 wingbeats at a time,” Ms Schader says.

“For a wedge-tailed eagle to do 10 wingbeats, that’s quite a considerable distance.

“The special thing about a circular flight aviary, and particularly the central pavilion in the middle, is that birds are allowed to do continuous flight without stopping.”

The aviaries also have ponds where live prey, such as yabbies for the sea eagles, are planted and the birds can “hunt”.

Persecuted bird
From powerful owls and wedge-tailed eagles to goshawks and kestrels, the centre rehabilitates a menagerie of birds of prey that come with all sorts of injuries.

Byron Bay Wildlife Hospital chief executive Stephen Van Mil, whose organisation recently acquired the centre from its former owner, says raptors don’t have the best image in Australia.

“Historically, there was this myth that wedge-tailed eagles were stealing baby lambs,” Mr Van Mil says.

“They will occasionally take a baby lamb, but it’s generally one that’s not going to make it anyway.”

He says some of the wedge-tailed eagles at his centre have been shot.

“Some have been poisoned, some have been caught inadvertently in netting and chicken coops or hit by a car,” Mr Van Mil says.

“So, most of the problems that our raptors here face, and wildlife in general face, are man-made.”

Mr Van Mil says that by helping the birds and telling success stories about their rehabilitation, people will develop a better appreciation for their “magnificence”.

The release
Some birds stand staunchly on their perches within the circular aviaries, while others seemingly can’t stand still.

Ms Mohan says raptors “tell you” when they are ready to be released.

“We assess how strongly and how often they’re flying,” she says.

“If they’re ready, they’ll fly lots and lots around the aviary, displaying their natural behaviours.

“That’s when we know they’re ready to go.”

Ms Mohan says the release is a bittersweet moment.

“Any wildlife carer will tell you that the release is definitely the most special part of the process,” she says.

“You’re with these animals for so long, and you form a close connection, but I think it’s really great to see them go back out where they belong.

“When we can see the birds of prey out doing their thing and hunting and soaring the way they should be, it reminds you that no matter how much space you give them, it will never be like their homes.”