Inside This Ohio Rehab Center, The Patients Are Birds Of Prey

Aug 11, 2017

Rebecca Jaramillo insists that every bird has its own, distinct personality. She would know—she spends almost every day around them, while they’re at their most vulnerable.

Standing in front of a cage, Jaramillo tries to feed bites of mouse to an old red-tailed hawk inside. The hawk refuses the offer, until her cage is covered with a blanket and she's given a bit of privacy.

"Sometimes they don't want to eat when there's a great big ape thing staring at them, which is understandable," Jaramillo jokes.

Jaramillo directs the Glen Helen Raptor Center, a wildlife rehabilitation nonprofit in Yellow Springs. Tucked into the middle of the forest, the center takes in and cares for injured birds of prey from across Ohio, with the aim of releasing them back into nature.

Their patients include falcons, eagles, hawks, owls, and even some vultures (which are technically scavengers), all native to the state.

Every morning starts with Jaramillo and her assistant, Nicole Kabey, making rounds in the clinic. These are the birds that just arrived, that are too sick to eat on their own or are healing from broken bones. Each was brought in from concerned citizens or other animal centers, and each requires an individualized touch.

One patient, a small American kestrel, fell out of her nest before she could fly.

"Because she’s so young, we really want to be careful to minimize any human contact with her so she stays wild, she doesn’t get associated with people and will be able to be successfully reunited with the parents," Jaramillo says.

Glen Helen Raptor Center keeps around 30 birds as permanent residents to act as "ambassadors" for educational programs.
Credit Gabe Rosenberg

Jaramillo says kestrels used to be everywhere around Ohio, then dropped off in population. This summer, though, has seen an explosion in kestrels coming into the clinic - though Jaramillo says it's too early to call it a rebound.

With just Jaramillo and Kabey, Glen Helen Raptor Center sees around 200 birds a year. Red-tailed hawks are their most common, but they've worked with bald eagles, peregrin falcons, Cooper's hawks and others.

Three-quarters are victims of car collisions. 

"These guys are sitting up on the road, they’re hunting along the road, maybe they’re going down for road kill, they’re not paying attention to the car, they’re paying attention to the food," Jaramillo says.

Others are victims of disease, like another red-tailed hawk that's suffering from West Nile Virus.

"He can see, but he just doesn't have the best grasp of spacial relation yet," Jaramillo says, trying to feed the hawk bits of chicken. "He's biting at the food, but he's still trying to recover from that balance."

West Nile Virus affects the brain of this red-tailed hawk, affecting its spacial relations. Raptor Center assistant Nicole Kabey feeds him chopped chicken soaked in a nutrient mixture.
Credit Gabe Rosenberg

West Nile Virus affects the bird's brain, and all the center can do is give him fluids and food and hope he recovers. The rest is up to him.

"This is huge progress, even from two days ago," Jaramillo says. "Two days ago we had to physically open his mouth and put the food in there, and now he's able to bite at it himself, recognize it as food. He's got a long road still, but it's progress."

Last year, the average stay of patients was two weeks—if they left at all. Only about half of the birds can be released back into the wild.

"As long as we see progress, however slow that progress is, we'll continue to work with them," Jaramillo says.

Raptor Center assistant Nicole Kabey prepares food for the clinic's 30 permanent residents.
Credit Gabe Rosenberg

Glen Helen Raptor Center, founded in 1970, runs through nearby Antioch College and is one of dozens of wildlife rehabilitation centers across Ohio. It's one of just 10 that work with raptors.

Outside of their day-to-day caretaking, though, the center makes a concerted effort to educate people about what they do—and what exactly raptors are. Jaramillo says they teach over 7,000 people every year, through hundreds of programs and demonstrations. Thousands of others walk through their outdoor enclosures on self-guided tours.

Jaramillo hops into her car to drive to a daycare in Kettering. She loads three passengers in the backseat of her "bird-mobile": a kestrel, a barn owl, and a red-tailed hawk.

These are some of the center’s permanent residents, birds who could never make it in the wild by themselves but can be trained as "ambassadors" for their kind.

Rebecca Jaramillo shows off Theo, an American kestrel, to students in a daycare. Theo was caught in a sticky trap as a young bird and never learned how to live in the wild.
Credit Gabe Rosenberg

Like Will, the hawk, whose foot muscles never fully healed after his car collision. He's one of the center's most used ambassadors, because he adapted quickly to captivity and can be handled easily. Every so often, he does what Jaramillo calls his "little tap dance" to shake out his leg.  

Theo, the kestrel, was caught in a mouse trap when he was young, so he never learned how to be a grown raptor in the wild. 

With preschoolers gathered in a classroom, Jaramillo tells the room to stay silent so they don't frighten the birds. She takes out one at a time, each perching on her leather glove.

“Any bird that comes to us that’s injured that we can get them all the way better, what do you think we do with them? Do we keep them, the ones that’s all better?" Jaramillo asks the room. "Yeah, we want to release them, we want to get them back out in the wild where they came from, that’s our job. But sometimes we can’t make them all the way better.”

Rebecca Jaramillo answers questions from daycare students about owls, like the barn owl she's holding up.
Credit Gabe Rosenberg

For all of Glen Helen Raptor Center's successful releases, just as many birds die or have to be euthanized. That part of the story Jaramillo spares from the preschoolers. 

Jaramillo says that when she started in wildlife rehabilitation, she had to learn that she couldn't save every bird. For some birds, the right decision is to release them from their pain.

Soon enough, though, a new bird will come in who needs their attention and care. 

“Some of those birds, you leave at the end of the day and you wonder, are they going to survive the night?" Jaramillo says. "And you come in and they’re still alive and they’re still fighting, and you can just see that desire and that fight.”