Ewwww. With disgust and fascination, students from Robert Shoemaker’s Ecology class watched a blue-grey peregrine falcon snap the neck of an already dead baby chick and swallow it whole.
“From an evolutionary standpoint, you’re looking at one of the marvels of the natural world,” Mike Billington of the University of Minnesota Raptor Center said.
Billington was in St. Peter on Thursday with four different raptors — a peregrine falcon, a bald eagle, a red-tailed hawk and a great horned owl. As well as teaching students about the birds, Billington explained the mission of the raptor center and described how each of the birds came to be there.
Founded in 1974 as an extension of the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine, the Raptor Center rehabilitates between 700 to 800 sick and injured raptors each year. About 400 of those are released back into the wild, and since the center was founded, 25,000 have been successfully reintroduced to their natural environment.
Others, like the four that travel with Billington to different schools and events, are injured too badly to fend for themselves and cannot be released.
“About 60 percent of our birds have suffered from miscellaneous trauma,” Billington said. “A lot of that trauma comes from interaction with people or cars.”
The Raptor Center, provides training in avian medicine and surgery for veterinarians from around the world, and identifies emerging issues related to raptor health and populations.
The birds Billington showed the students all suffered from different injuries: one had run into a power line and dislocated its elbow, another had been shot with a shotgun, one had imprinted on a human and one had contracted West Nile virus.
Maxime, the bald eagle, who came to the center before she had fully matured, also suffered from lead poisoning — a common ailment among many of the center’s visiting raptors and often a lethal one.
She now is an “education bird” at the center and was one of two bald eagles appearing at the Minnesota Twins home opener on April 1 during the national anthem.
According to its website, between 1980 and 1996, the Raptor Center reported lead poisoning in 138 out of the 650 eagles it treated. Since 1996, an average of 25 percent of the bald eagles admitted to The Raptor Center each year have toxic levels of lead in their blood.
Billington explained that the lead most likely comes from bullets or bullet fragments found in the entrails of dead deer, left behind by hunters. He encouraged any hunters in the audience to use copper bullets instead, and do what they can to help protect raptors who scavenge during the winter when natural prey is scarce.
“We see it every year,” Billington said. “In November alone, 12 bald eagles came in and 10 had lead poisoning.”
Reach reporter Jessica Bies at 507-931-8568 or follow her on Twitter.com @sphjessicabies