'Every bird gave me a gift': Founder of Leelanau Co. raptor sanctuary retires

Patti Brandt Burgess
Traverse City Record-Eagle

Empire – Rebecca Lessard released her last rehabilitated eagle on South Fox Island about a month ago, piling into a small chartered plane with the caged raptor and her assistant.

The eagle had come from the island and when it was released, soared down the runway before being joined by another eagle and taking off.

“It was a fun way to end,” Lessard told the Traverse City Record-Eagle. “It was a fun adventure and then my helper and I went out for ice cream.”

Rebecca Lessard of Wings of Wonder releases the first of two immature bald eagles on Dec 1, 2018, at the Homestead Township Hall in Honor, Michigan.

It has been 31 years since Lessard founded the Wings of Wonder raptor sanctuary at her home in Empire. Lessard retired this month after finding homes for her beloved birds and committing to helping another sanctuary get off the ground in Harbor Springs.

The new Tribal Eagle Aviary is a project of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians. Lessard, who has wanted to see an aviary established for about 15 years, will work with the tribe this year and next to help with its design and with training.

Tribal aviaries allow tribes to shelter eagles that have been rescued from the wild because of injury or illness, are rehabilitated and cannot be returned to the wild. Eagle feathers lost through molting are used by Native Americans for religious and ceremonial use, and the eagles receive care for the rest of their lives.

Rebecca Lessard, executive director of Wings of Wonder, shows a male barred owl  prior to releasing him into the wild on October 25, 2012, behind the Leelanau Montessori Public School Academy in Suttons Bay.

There are seven tribal aviaries in the United States and all are located in the southwest or the Pacific northwest. The Traverse Bay Band’s aviary will be the first one east of the Mississippi River, Lessard said.

“It’s putting a place on the map here,” Lessard said, and may be used as a model for more aviaries in the Midwest region.

Now that she has more free time, Lessard will begin work on a book project, a memoir of her life as a raptor rehabilitator. She is also working on raptor educational kits that will go to public libraries, where children can check them out and learn about the magnificent birds.

She’ll also spend time hiking, horseback riding, and looking at her calendar, where for the first time in many years there are four days in a row with nothing on it.

Lessard became a local celebrity through her work at WOW and people would gather to watch when an eagle or other bird was released. Some were not able to return to their natural homes and became her ambassadors, visiting schools and other organizations with her, many becoming celebrities themselves.

Homes have been found for the ambassadors, including Doolin, a turkey vulture who is now at the Michigan Avian Experience, a raptor educational center in Brooklyn.

Doolin, who was at WOW for 15 years, was named after a town in Ireland that Lessard visited with her late husband Don. The playful-bordering-on-naughty vulture was with her for 15 years and has his own cult following, Lessard said.

“We had a really great relationship,” she said. “He’s got a really good home now, so my heart is appeased.”

Lessard was also called on at all hours of the day and night when an injured bird was found and needed rescuing. She is still getting calls, but no longer has any supplies to care for the birds or the fly pens used in rehabilitation. All callers are now referred to the Department of Natural Resources.

Working with raptors for so many years has taught her many things, including that each bird has its own individual personality, she said.

“It became my personal challenge to get to know each bird and find out what its gift for me is. Every bird gave me a gift.”

Raptors speak through a body language of micromovements.

“They might move their tail a tiny bit, which means they’re going to launch off a perch,” she said. “I had to learn to listen to the bird and not get in the way, allow it to heal.”

Lessard says she is a better person for having worked with raptors.

“The birds over the years have really instilled a calmness in my life,” she said. “They observe their environment from a very still posture … They evaluate and assess their environment before jumping in.”

Humans don’t, she said, often to disastrous effect.

“We just have to learn to be still,” she said.