Rehab experts struggle to return birds of prey to the air

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

When Kevin Smyth fielded a harried call on a recent Sunday to treat an ailing red-tailed hawk, the Wayne County veterinarian rushed to the rescue.

Dr. Kevin Smyth releases a recovered red tailed hawk in Plymouth Township on October 11, 2018. Smyth, a veterinarian at Morrison Animal Hospital in Garden City, is among the few licensed wildlife rehabilitators in the state specializing in treating raptors.

Max Ortiz, The Detroit News

The request might have annoyed other professionals who were off the clock and asked to take on what could be a lengthy process of treating an animal free of charge.

But Smyth didn't pause. He's among a handful of people across Michigan known as raptor rehabilitators — animal enthusiasts trained to aid birds of prey that are sick, injured, or unable to fly. 

“He was so grateful that I would meet him, and I was the same way: ‘Thank you for being so interested in helping this animal out,’ ” said Smyth of the person who turned in the bird.

The work is intense, costly and emotional for those who try to cure the creatures — key reasons why so few in Michigan choose a path funded largely through donations.

The rare work is gaining more attention as residents spot feathered predators this season in southeast Michigan, considered one of the top fall migration sites on the continent.  Autumn is when many of the creatures typically head south for the winter along the region’s traditional bird migratory routes, where they risk bruising encounters that can leave them grounded.

Blame nature and the environment, experts say.

Dr. Kevin Smyth prepares to enter a flight pen where recovering birds of prey are housed in Plymouth Township on October 11, 2018. Smyth, a veterinarian at Morrison Animal Hospital in Garden City, is among the few licensed wildlife rehabilitators in the state specializing in treating raptors.

“There are a lot of the young raptors and they don’t know how to hunt very well, they don’t know how cars work,” said Ava Landgraf, a research associate with the Detroit Audubon. “In fall, when young hawks have fledged, a lot do end up getting hit by cars. That’s what people will find.”

That’s where raptor rehabbers come in — helping eagles, osprey, falcons and others recuperate and return to their habitat.

“If we can get them back in the wild properly, that’s a plus for them and us,” said Dave Hogan, a Monroe County-based rehabber who doubles as a falconer, a person who trains birds of prey.

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources lists some 130 licensed wildlife rehabilitators across the state.

Fewer than 10 are designated as specializing in raptors, and the rehabbers require state and federal permits, said permit specialist Casey Reitz. Training and work with a veterinarian or permitted rehabilitator typically is needed before approval.

Smyth, who works at Morrison Animal Hospital in Garden City, had long been a veterinarian and once focused on thoroughbred race horses before deciding on raptors — captivated by their wing spans, curved beaks, distinctive talons and piercing eyes.

Over the years, working with the DNR and caring locals, the Michigan State University graduate has tended to wayward kestrels, baby owls who have plunged from trees; hawks with broken wings, gunshot wounds or concussions; and eagles showing signs of lead poisoning.

Surgery and treatment can take place at the office but for some cases, Smyth has flight pens set up at his home in Plymouth Township and a creance, or tethering cord, so he can help patients regain their flying strength. 

Recovery can last months, depending on the condition. Medicine, food and other items can cost hundreds of dollars. Still, he says, “it’s been one of the most rewarding things I’ve been involved with because I get to see these beautiful birds released."

For Rebecca Lessard, who founded and directs the nonprofit Wings of Wonder in Empire, Michigan, the drive was borne of a chance encounter with a vet friend who nearly 30 years ago insisted she, an animal biologist by trade, treat a red-tailed hawk.

A red tailed hawk to be released by Dr. Kevin Smyth after a motorist found the bird along I-275 in Plymouth a week ago.  Smyth, a veterinarian at Morrison Animal Hospital in Garden City, is among the few licensed wildlife rehabilitators in the state specializing in treating raptors.

“When I first had that bird in my arms, it was amazing,” she said. “For me, it was the eyes. The eyes of a raptor hold so much wisdom. And I felt like this bird was looking right into my soul. It was remarkable. I still really remember that moment. I was just in awe of this bird. … that experience changed my life forever.”

Lessard went on to become licensed and launched Wings of Wonder, a raptor sanctuary and rehabilitation center for educating, rehabilitating and increasing awareness about wildlife, ecology and environmental issues.

She and a small team of volunteers can treat 80 to 130 birds annually. Fall can quickly bring a flurry of raptors injured from hunting accidents or struck feasting on roadkill.

“Every year there are more people in Michigan encroaching into areas that weren’t developed," Lessard said. "Raptors are being squeezed into smaller and smaller areas, so there’s bound to be more human interference that’s going to result in them getting hurt or sick.”

The birds during migration come because Michigan is surrounded by water, said Jane Ferreyra, executive director at the Hawk Migration Association of North America, which is slated to open its first headquarters at the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center.

“The ones that are sort of summering and breeding up in central Canada come down centrally through Michigan … The numbers are just huge and it’s because they follow the coast line and because of the lakes and the rivers,” she said.

Ferreyra estimates tens of thousands of raptors migrate seasonally through the region. Her group’s online HawkCount listed nearly 95,000 sightings at Lake Erie Metropark in Wayne County so far this fall.

Of those, about 60 were peregrine falcons. 

The peregrines are considered endangered in the state and had been in decline because of environmental contaminants. But since the state started efforts to save the peregrine population in the 1980s, by last year, their numbers had grown to 15 nesting pairs, according to a report released by the DNR and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

In July, the department reported about 40 falcon pairs actively trying to nest statewide, with one to two new pairs discovered most years.

Two years ago, birds reared 30 young with nearly half in southeast Michigan, an area considered a significant part of the peregrines’ habitat in the state, officials said.

Metro Detroit is among the urban areas where the DNR has banded peregrine chicks to allow scientists to track them.

“It seems like every year we’re always locating new nests,” said Corey VanStratt, the department's regional peregrine falcon nesting coordinator.

Nests have been spotted on tall buildings in Detroit and elsewhere since the structures “provide those necessary ledges that they need for breeding and mirrors their natural habitat of nesting on cliffs,” he said.

Food also draws the birds to the streets, Landgraf said. “The pigeons are what are taking care of the peregrine populations.”

Last year, Smyth learned about a peregrine found at an area factory complex after having flown through a large blast furnace, leaving her “completely singed,” he said. “She had no flight feathers.”

Smyth transferred the falcon to Hogan, whom he dubs “God’s gifts to these birds.” The rehabber in Monroe spent months teaching the brown-toned bird how to hunt and fly again as her plumage grew back.

Raptor rehabilitators can care for birds, including peregrine falcons such as the one Kevin Smyth took in last year after she flew through the blast furnace blow off pipe.

Released this summer, she was set to live on her own. Instead, the peregrine ended up at General Motors' Lake Orion plant, weakened and unable to fly. “I was quite surprised something happened to her,” Hogan said.

Smyth again tended to the bird, but she ended up “going downhill neurologically,” tested positive for West Nile virus and was eventually euthanized.

The peregrine falcon Kevin Smyth treated was found again last month and became ill with West Nile virus.

Despite the cost and time, and dealing with the loss of those that can't be saved, it's worth the effort, said Linda Born, who operates the nonprofit Spirit Filled Wings in Macomb County.

“It’s got to be in your blood. It’s got to be a passion, something that you’re called to do,” she said. “You’re not paid. You’re not funded. You have to work really, really, really hard. And your reward is knowing that you’re actually helping our planet and the species along.”