Still, Lori Paras and her cadre of volunteers ignore the exhausting, smelly, gross aspects of the work for the love of helping injured and orphaned owls, hawks and eagles at the Santa Fe Raptor Center return to the wild.
Sometimes Paras, the center’s only paid staff member, is amazed that the center she founded in 2004 is still going and growing. “You look back and think, ‘My gosh, this actually worked,’ ” Paras said recently from the center’s new home in El Rito, a mountain village near Abiquiú.
In November, volunteers helped Paras take apart the 12-foot-high, 100-foot-long, outdoor wooden cages and move the center from Eldorado to a 14-acre parcel of land in El Rito.
Paras said that, unlike some residents of the Eldorado subdivision south of Santa Fe, her new neighbors in El Rito have been welcoming. “They are very excited,” she said. “They stop by to find out what we’re doing.”
In the new location, Paras has been able to expand, adding more cages to accommodate the number of raptors the public and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ask her to foster each year.
Currently, she has 11 baby barn owls, five great horned owls, juvenile kestrel and marsh hawks, along with several adults, at the center. She expects more baby owls and hawks soon as juveniles fall or are blown out of nests by seasonal winds. The center also cares for a dozen raptors that can’t be released into the wild because of injuries or imprinting on humans; those birds foster babies and travel to schools and special events as part of the center’s education program.
In 2014, Paras and the volunteers raised 13 young Swainson’s hawks and 15 young kestrels and successfully released them back to the wild.
Paras said the center has taken care of a lot more Swainson’s hawks than usual in recent years. The hawks migrate from Argentina. “They would be fledglings and absolutely starving to death when we got them,” said Paras, who attributed the influx to drought and lack of food along the migration route. “With all this rain, I’m hoping they do better this year.”
Unfortunately, Paras said, well-meaning humans often pick up fledglings when they shouldn’t, thinking the parent has abandoned them. But it isn’t unusual for babies to fall on the ground as they are learning to fly, she explained, and the adults even will feed their young on the ground, if need be, until their flight skills improve. Paras recommends people do not baby birds they find on the ground, unless they are injured.
When baby birds end up at the center, Paras and volunteers hand-feed them if they’re only a few days old. But the minute they are strong enough, she puts them with adult birds of the same species that foster the babies. She said her crew works hard to discourage the raptors, hawks and eagles from imprinting or relying on humans.
“You really want a tough, vicious bird that doesn’t want to relate to humans if they are going to survive in the wild,” she said. “If the birds don’t like you, you know you are doing things right.”
The center’s new home helps with human avoidance. The facility borders federal public land, and there are no other buildings in the immediate area. Trees shade part of the property, and there are some sagebrush flats with an irrigated field not too far away. Plenty of wild birds make noise in the forest nearby. The whole feel of the land, Paras said, is wild. “It is a nice place for birds to look out at.”
Paras, 52, was a Peace Corps volunteer, a teacher and a veterinary technician before she started the center. She learned the basics of wildlife rehabilitation while working for five years at The Wildlife Center near Española, a nonprofit facility that rehabilitates injured wildlife of all types. She said she continues to receive advice and help from Kathleen Ramsay, the veterinarian who started The Wildlife Center.
Paras’ last vacation was Thanksgiving. She works seven days a week, devoting many hours to the center, especially in the summer with all the babies coming in. She has a staunch group of volunteers, but they have to travel farther to help her now.
There’s always a foot to check, a bird to move, dirty laundry to wash, a cage to fix. “People romanticize what we do. Some of it is really nasty,” Paras said. “We have to slice up mice. We’re dealing with poop and guts all over.”
And there are the 3 a.m. feedings. Even when foster birds are caring for the little ones, Paras has to defrost the groceries before the fledglings can dig in.
But all the work pays off when volunteers get to release a raptor, like a golden eagle named James Dean, and watch it safely take flight into the wild.
Paras welcomes volunteers to help feed the baby birds. The babies eat twice as much as the adults do, which means the summer feed bill runs $4,200 a month or more, she said.
Paras orders mice, rats and quails to feed the birds. People bring her “live, mean rats,” as well. “These rats aren’t domestic. They fight back and bite the birds’ feet,” she said. “That’s what these birds may face when they return to the wild, so they need to know how to deal with it.”
In 2013, the center received $83,150 in donations and grants. The center spent $73,500, with more than $31,000 used for food. Half of the remainder went to rent, utilities and upkeep, according to the group’s last report filed with the Internal Revenue Service.
The Santa Fe Raptor Center welcomes donations. To help, people can buy a ticket to the center’s annual fundraiser, donate online or send a check. Tickets to the fundraiser, which will take place June 12 in the Farmers Market Pavilion at the Santa Fe Railyard, are $50 each and include dinner catered by Hotel Santa Fe, wine, live music and some of the center’s feathered ambassadors. To purchase tickets, call 920-9223.
To check out new feathered arrivals, visit the center’s Facebook page. More information about the center is also available at santaferaptorcenter.org.
To visit or volunteer, call Paras at 699-0455 — and forgive her if she’s grumpy when she talks to you. It’s probably been a long night.
Contact Staci Matlock at 986-3055 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @StaciMatlock.