“If hawks and owls weren’t eating gophers, there’d be a million more.”
It started as a storm water retention site, which it still is. But 20 years later, it’s a full-fledged nature centre specializing in saving injured raptors.
“Quite often all you hear about is the extreme stories, where hawks and owls are being threatened, but I have yet to meet a farmer or rancher who is not positively geared towards nature,” says Colin Weir, managing director and president of the Alberta Birds of Prey Centre in Coaldale.
“Farmers and ranchers want hawks and owls on their property to control gopher, mice and grasshopper populations.”
Weir says producers will call about everything from baby hawks and owls falling out of their nests to trees being blown over to birds stuck on barbed-wire fences. There are also many concerns in the summer about running over the nests of short-eared owls in the fields. “They want to know how to attract more birds of prey,” says Weir. “If hawks and owls weren’t eating gophers, there’d be a million more.”
The Birds of Prey Centre offers advice to farmers and ranchers about maintaining bird populations and attracting more by building nest boxes and baskets. Weir notes that most of the rescue birds at the centre come from the agricultural regions of Alberta.
One of the centre’s champions is Spirit, a golden eagle who was rescued from the roadside and brought to the centre in 2007. At first, staff thought Spirit had been hit by a car because his head was so swollen and his right eye was swollen shut. Examination by veterinary Dr. Jacob Adserballe of Uplands Pet Hospital in Lethbridge revealed some startling news. Spirit had been shot – a pellet went through his eye and was lodged in the back of his head; two more pellets were in his chest.
As it was too risky to remove the pellets, Spirit would remain permanently vision impaired, preventing his return to the wild. Although virtually blind, Spirit
learned to trust the staff at the Birds of Prey Centre, as they gently touched his beak with morsels of food. He is now an ambassador for the centre, travelling to various venues for educational and media purposes.
Most of the birds at the centre do not make public appearances, but for those birds who are the right fit and cannot be released to the wild, such handling and travelling is enriching for their lives in captivity.
Weir, who has been involved in bird rescue in southern Alberta for about 25 years, says the centre’s success is linked closely to connections with the rural community.
“I don’t think anyone else could’ve pulled it off anywhere else in Canada. Everyone here really bought into the concept and has supported the centre.”
Weir is the only year-round full-time staff. He is a jack-of-all-trades and is just as comfortable in the office or making public appearances or mucking out the pens. Many of the responsibilities during the open season from May 10 to September 10 are met by volunteers and summer students.
The Birds of Prey Centre has evolved from being solely a rescue organization, opened in 1991, to a full-fledged nature education centre, complete with gift shop, duck ponds, a flying field and one of the largest flight aviaries for eagles in North America.
When the idea for the centre was first born, the town of Coaldale was experiencing severe flooding from storm water runoff. At that time, Weir proposed a creative solution to build a rescue facility in conjunction with a storm water retention site by restoring a drained wetland – the entire site would be called the Alberta Birds of Prey Centre.
Today, the centre is the site of Alberta’s first privately licensed (registered charity) raptor rescue and conservation organization. It operates on donations and admission fees, as well as municipal or provincial subsidies. Grants and major donations from government or private industry are on a project-by-project basis.
For its environmental efforts and wildlife rehabilitation, the centre received an Emerald Award this year. In the future, Weir says the centre hopes to partner with the Oldman Watershed Council to provide education about the importance of water conservation and wetlands.