Today I felt a bird fly. Sounds like some weird form of synesthesia, right? You would typically see a bird fly, not feel it. But I did, albeit for only a moment. I watched this magnificent Swainson’s Hawk spread his wings to greet the breeze and felt the weight of his body lift up from my hand, talons releasing one by one, until eight toes hovered above my glove. Through the leather jesses that connected us, I felt the upward pull of the wind supporting his wings and the way his body shifted in response to the blustery skies. It was a beautiful moment. An incomparable feeling, to be sure.
It all started in 2012 while I was still in California, preparing to move to Colorado and start the next big adventure with my fiance. I applied to many jobs along the Front Range with zero success and I reached a point at which it became clear that I would be moving to Colorado jobless. However, I was determined to spend my time doing something useful. Before leaving Yosemite, I did two things: arranged a part-time volunteer position with the Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory (which lead to my current full-time job) and signed up for a birds of prey class offered by the Rocky Mountain Raptor Program (a rehabilitation center for injured birds of prey), both of which began within 5 days of unpacking my suitcase in our tiny Fort Collins apartment. Little did I know that both places would take me from where I was (an avid birder, but not by profession) to where I am now: Birds 6 days a week (and getting paid for most of it).
Shortly after completing the birds of prey class (which was taught by the program’s executive director, no less), I submitted a volunteer application to the Rocky Mountain Raptor Program. I was impressed by the fact that such an ambitious program (which takes in roughly 300 injured birds every year) would have such a welcoming, grassroots feel to it. Their mission is to “[inspire] the protection and appreciation of raptors and the spaces where they live through excellence in rehabilitation, education, and research.” As a volunteer, you choose which aspects of the program you’re involved in with the primary areas being rehab and education. The decision to join the education team was easy for me since interpretation of the natural world has always been an integral part of my career and personal life. Well, that and my total inability to keep it together around broken bones made it an easy choice.
Currently, the educational program houses 24 permanently disabled raptors—birds that cannot be released to the wild due to the nature of their injuries. Rather, these guys and gals serve as the ambassadors to the program, helping us teach others about not only the individual species, but also the importance of wildlife conservation, habitat preservation, and the reality of human-wildlife interactions. If we give people something more tangible to experience, something more than just words—a chance to observe the brilliant blue and gold tones in a Barn Owl’s feathers or watch a Red-tailed Hawk tear into a mouse or feel the movement of air from the flap of a Golden Eagle’s wings—they will come away with much more than just a handful of facts about birds.
So about a year after signing on and becoming a certified “Husbandry” volunteer, I began the arduous training regiment that would, in the end, allow me to handle these birds on the fist (a gloved fist, mind you). The certification process includes a handful of classes, but is primarily observation and experience-based. You begin by watching other handlers, move on to handling small birds yourself and then large birds. Lastly, you learn the process of restraining them for physical assessments and as a safety measure, should a bird require restraint in an emergency situation. Admittedly, I have moved through the training process more slowly than some folks because I can only give one day per week of my time and I leave for 3 solid months during the field season. But in retrospect, I have appreciated the slow pace and how much more experience I’ve gained as a result. I was a little bit surprised at first—and sometimes still am—at how natural working with these birds feels to me. Never in a million years did I expect to feel a bird fly. Or get paid to go birding, for that matter.
I sometimes have to pinch myself to make sure it’s real. By profession, I am a geographer and field biologist. I have no formal degree in ornithology or even wildlife biology (unless you count watching Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom as a kid). My love of birds and other animals has always been a part of me, but never something I considered as a career. For the last two years I’ve wondered if quitting my “dream job” for the National Park Service and starting over in a new place was really a good idea. But here I am, working with two amazing non-profit organizations to conserve birds and their habitats and to inspire others to do the same. It’s a pretty remarkable feeling to realize that I really, truly am doing what I love and I can’t help but feel like I have finally grown in my flight feathers.