Raptor Center seeks to build new mews barn

By Jessianne Wright EBS Contributor

BIG SKY – Bozeman’s Montana Raptor Conservation Center has wrapped up its first year of on-site informational classes, making use of the newly constructed outdoor amphitheater. And after a successful summer of programming, MRCC is looking to expand their educational outreach by building additional housing for resident birds.

In addition to rehabilitating injured raptors from the area and returning them to the wild, MRCC has adopted 12 birds that live permanently at the center. These birds have either sustained debilitating injuries or have been imprinted by humans and would likely not survive in the wild. They include hawks, an owl and an eagle, and the new structure, a mews barn, would be their new lifelong residence.

Rehabilitation director Becky Kean said the new structure will be located near the amphitheater so visitors can easily see the education birds, while allowing them to remain comfortable in their home. “Giving them a good quality of life is everything,” she said.

Kean added that MRCC is in the early stages of planning and is currently raising funds for the new structure. She is hopeful construction will begin next year.

Every year an average of 200 birds receive critical care from MRCC, coming from areas throughout Montana and neighboring states. These raptors, all of which are birds of prey, often require specialized treatment for injuries that could inhibit their survival in the wild.

On Oct. 11, MRCC admitted a golden eagle from North Dakota, likely injured by a car. “He’s got a lot going against him,” Kean said.

According to her colleague, director of operations and development Jordan Spyke, the No. 1 injury they see at the center is caused by cars. They also see many gunshot wounds and injuries from electrocution.

The center is not open to the public, Kean said. “We’re mainly a hospital for these birds.” But in recent years, MRCC has been able to expand educational programming and hosts scheduled open houses and lectures.

In addition to the new amphitheater and the future mews barn, MRCC facilities include an office building with exam and X-ray rooms, a mews barn for injured raptors, and three flight barns used to exercise the birds.

The larger flight barn, designed by students in the Department of Architecture at Montana State University, is larger on top than it is on the ground, providing enough space for eagles—one of the largest raptors in North America—to fly in laps around the building.

A common injury MRCC treats are fractures, and since birds have hollow bones, a bone often shatters when it breaks, Kean said. With this kind of injury, a raptor will need at least two months of rehabilitation. “After they’ve been in this cage for so long during rehabilitation, their flight muscles have atrophied and we need to work on that before we can set them free,” she said.

Flight therapy occurs in the flight barns with the assistance of a staff member. “You basically approach them and they fly the other way, then you approach them again and they fly the other way,” Spyke said.

“They need to be pretty much back to normal before they can be released,” Kean said. “It’s a pretty tough life out there for raptors.

“I have a deep respect and appreciation for these birds,” she added. She described debilitating injuries they suffer and said, “For them to overcome that, and their will to survive is pretty amazing. I feel very fortunate.”

The birds in rehabilitation are fed a diet that mimics their food intake in the wild, and includes mice, quail, rats and game meat, the latter of which is solely dependent upon donation. The center accepts elk, deer, antelope and bison in trimmed cuts, and often receives donations in the fall as hunters clear their freezer of anything remaining from last year’s harvest. MRCC cannot accept burger, sausage or smoked/jerked meat, nor whole carcasses or entrails.

The smallest of birds might eat one mouse per day. “Eagles, they can eat 300 grams per day,” Spyke said. Three hundred grams is nearly the equivalent of 1 pound.

This fall, MRCC released some Cooper’s hawks and a female Merlin falcon near Three Forks. MRCC has also released several young Swainson’s hawks in time for their annual migration to Argentina, something Kean said was important because the young birds need to learn to make that journey. “We like to especially get these young hawks out so they can make their first migration to warmer weather and better food supply,” she said.

To learn more about the Montana Raptor Conservation Center, visit montanaraptor.org.