owl care

Across the Pond with Raptor Care Rock Star

By Rachel Spagnola Taras, Senior Educator
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

Nearly a decade ago, Jemima Parry-Jones (JPJ), Director of the International Centre for Birds of Prey (ICBP) located in Newent, Gloucestershire, United Kingdom, answered an e-mail I sent to her hoping to gain insight on captive raptor management. Not only did JPJ promptly and thoroughly respond to my questions, she insisted that I visit her facility. With the generous support of Hawk Mountain Sanctuary friends Brian and Sandra Moroney, I completed my educational journey across the pond earlier this season to benefit our feathered educators and the volunteers and staff who work together to maintain best practices in raptor care management at Hawk Mountain. Education raptors help to connect learners of all ages to conservation with an up-close look at species that serve a vital role in our ecosytems worldwide. 

Jemima Parry-Jones and a barn owl welcom school children to ICBP.

Jemima Parry-Jones and a barn owl welcom school children to ICBP.

Located in the quaint English countryside, ICBP oversees nearly 300 birds of prey, including a diverse workforce of owls, eagles, vultures, kites, hawks, falcons, and harriers. During my stay, I was treated to a grand tour of the entire facility. Open to the public 7 days per week, 10 months of the year, visitors have the opportunity to see raptors on display in a zoo-like static setting and during multiple free-flighted training sessions throughout the day. During these flying demonstrations, ICBP trainers connect visitors of all ages to a fast-paced, exciting look at natural history in action.

One highlight of my visit was participating in training several  yellow-billed kites by cuing birds to fly over the field in front of visitors and signaling them to return, tossing meat straight up in the air to emulate their natural behavior of grasping prey in flight. Although I do not consider myself athletic, there’s nothing like being watched by countless visitors who are glued to your every move while one of the most famous falconers in the world is narrating and evaluating your meat throwing abilities. With the supportive direction of JPJ, I felt like an Olympian.  

An ICBP staff member monitors the weight of a white-tailed sea eagle.

An ICBP staff member monitors the weight of a white-tailed sea eagle.

In addition to shadowing the husbandry and training of some of the world’s largest and endangered raptors, I learned new techniques and skills to improve communication through body language and clear cues when working with animal colleagues. While working with a massive white-tailed sea eagle, I honed my ability to remain perch-like to provide a stable and trustworthy roost. If you see me lifting weights, you’ll understand why I want to build and maintain a strong  and stable resting place for a bird who weighs over ten pounds.

 Sadly, when visiting the on-site rehabilitation hospital building, I learned more about real-time conservation challenges like the direct persecution of raptors in the community. Unlike North America, migratory birds are not legally protected and are perceived as competition for resources such as small game.  I had the opportunity to meet with law officials who were inspired by Hawk Mountain Sanctuary’s rich history thanks to pioneer conservationists like Richard Pough and our own founder, Mrs. Rosalie Edge.  

On this side of our shared Atlantic Ocean, I remain proud to represent the world’s very first refuge for birds of prey and to help advance our mission by sharing our story and the need for continued research and education worldwide.

Help support our raptor care and public raptor education efforts by donating or becoming a member today.

Adventures and Advancements in Captive Raptor Management

By Rachel Spagnola, Senior Educator
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

Rachel and TRC’s Education Program Manager Gail Buhl work through passing off and handling a bald eagle.

Rachel and TRC’s Education Program Manager Gail Buhl work through passing off and handling a bald eagle.

Earlier this season, I had the incredible opportunity to attend The University of Minnesota’s 2017 Care and Management of Captive Raptors four-day comprehensive workshop from October 13-20, funded by a Philadelphia Foundation grant. With over 20 years of “talons-on” experience working with raptors in captivity, I have returned to Hawk Mountain Sanctuary from The Raptor Center (TRC) with a renewed sense of empowerment and motivation to propel our captive management practices to a world class status.

Prior to handling and training birds at the TRC, I successfully completed hands-on medical exams and necropsy under the direction of expert clinic staff. Although far from being Dr. Dolittle, after learning the best practices in diets, nutrition, equipment, and raptor housing, I am eager to implement modifications to provide the highest quality of life for my feathered coworkers.

Rachel assists Hawk Mountain's veterinarian, Dr. Pello, during a routine check up of our red-morph eastern screech owl. 

Rachel assists Hawk Mountain's veterinarian, Dr. Pello, during a routine check up of our red-morph eastern screech owl. 

Hawk Mountain Sanctuary’s Education Department is responsible for a collection of birds that require care and maintenance 365 days a year. In my role as senior educator and lead raptor care manager, I schedule, train, and supervise volunteers ensuring best practices and the safety of volunteers and birds. With the support of my education teammates Erin Brown and Adam Carter, I created a vetting process for volunteers to ensure consistency and high standards of care. Unable to send a text message or call staff when they are ill, we are responsible for feeding, cleaning, conducting routine health checks for the birds year-round. We take this responsibility seriously 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, monitoring bird welfare through polar vortex temperatures, mosquito-breeding season, and beyond. Attending the TRC workshop fostered my deeper appreciation for the role of avian educators as ambassadors for raptor conservation.

We also manage on-going training and enrichment for both the birds and volunteers throughout their tenure, aiming to provide a stress-free environment for our avian educators throughout their lifespan. Although young at heart, several members of our avian education team are entering their “golden years” and have geriatric needs. The HMS avian educators have individual special needs in addition to the natural history requirements of each species.  

Rachel hones her raptor training skills with TRC’s resident red-tailed hawk.

Rachel hones her raptor training skills with TRC’s resident red-tailed hawk.

In recent years, I developed a Raptor Care Advisory Committee consisting of an avian veterinarian, raptor rehabilitator, and professional bird trainer who share their unique knowledge, specialized skills, and experience to meet the needs of our captive raptor management plan. With the guidance of the International Association of Avian Trainers and Educators (IAATE), I’ve created a collection plan, training and enrichment plans, and a retirement position statement to ensure consistency and adherence to our mission of serving as a model facility.

Although the Pennsylvania Game Commission and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service require annual audits of Hawk Mountain Sanctuary’s collection of captive birds, we also undergo a yearly voluntary audit by an outside source. Most recently, my ultimate raptor conservation hero, (after Rosalie Edge, Maurice and Irma Broun, of course), Director of the International Centre for Birds of Prey, Jemima Parry-Jones conducted a thorough exam of all birds and an audit of our enclosures and indoor raptor care facilities.  

I owe a debt of gratitude to Hawk Mountain Sanctuary’s team of volunteers, advisors, staff, and mentors who continue to support me.  When you visit the Sanctuary and enjoy a live raptor program, ‘Raptors Up Close’ or meet one of our ambassadors at a festival or large event, please know that your support makes a positive impact!

Annual Raptor Care & Wellness

By Susan Pello, VMD, MS
Small & Exotic Animal Veterinarian

Hawk Mountain Sanctuary currently has 4 education ambassadors. Each bird is carefully monitored and cared for by the education staff as well as trained volunteers at Hawk Mountain. Our avian education ambassadors are trained to work with the staff to educate the public, and they represent their wild counterparts as they travel near and far. However, every bird requires daily care and yearly examinations. I enjoy travelling out to Hawk Mountain every spring to see the birds. At times, the birds will travel out to me for any issues concerning to the raptor care staff.

So, how do wild raptors become education ambassadors? Due to injury, amputation, blindness or imprinting, raptors that come into a rehabilitation facility are determined to be unfit for release and in turn become captive raptors for education. The federal government mandates specific guidelines and criteria which must be met prior to releasing a bird of prey back into the wild.  In raptors 6 weeks or younger, we worry about imprinting on humans. If this occurs the animal becomes non-releasable. We see imprinting commonly in baby cranes, vultures and other avian species.


A captive raptor requires yearly exams and wellness blood work just as our companion animals. Raptors are considered wild animals, even in captivity and their care is much different from that of a dog. Birds hide illness and therefore require a physical exam and blood work yearly.  The day to day care, includes monitoring their appetite, weight and activity. When a bird is transferred to a facility, an initial physical exam, x-rays and blood work are performed. During physical examination, I will evaluate the eyes, mouth, ears, listen to the heart and respiratory system and perform a full orthopedic examination. Feather and skin condition is also evaluated.

When housed in a captive setting, especially birds with orthopedic limitations or previous fractures, raptors are prone to feather damage and foot injuries. Together with the raptor care team, I will review options to help improve feather quality, foot care and cage enrichment. At Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, a physical examination is performed, blood is drawn and xrays are recommended. It is also recommended that all captive raptors be vaccinated for West Nile Virus (WNV).  The WNV vaccine is administered once a year prior to mosquito season. This is the only recommended vaccination.

At the time of intake, all of the birds are DNA sexed and this is because our female birds require higher levels of calcium and monitoring for egg laying behavior. The birds can produce an unfertilized egg, without a male present. Currently, all of the education birds at Hawk Mountain are female, except the newest member, a red-morph eastern screech owl.

The red-morph eastern screech owl was recently adopted by Hawk Mountain for education purposes. He has a right wing injury that limits his flight, therefore he has been determined unfit for release into the wild. He received his intake examination in January 2017.  The small owl was found to be dehydrated with multiple broken tail feathers and contracture to his right wing. Despite his severe right wing damage, he is still able to fly a little. During his examination we administered his WNV vaccination and took some blood to evaluate him for any illness.

During my visit, I also had the luxury of examining my favorite great-horned owl. GHOW is at least a 17 year old female who recently started laying eggs. She also has developed some abnormal wear to her beak and receives occasional coping (beak shaping).  

I look forward to my spring visit this year when I will have the opportunity to vaccinate and examine the entire flock of avian ambassadors at Hawk Mountain.