AVIAN AMBASSADORS

Birds of prey land at Bonduel Elementary School
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Leader Photo by Lee Pulaski - Fonzie, a horned owl, spreads his wings for the students at Bonduel Elementary School during a presentation Monday as Katie Needles, a raptor educator with Raptor Education Group Inc., keeps a hold on him. Besides Fonzy, there are 25-30 birds with REGI that serve as education birds.

Leader Photo by Lee Pulaski - Katie Ibsen, a raptor educator with REGI, holds up Ruby, a red-shoulder hawk, during Monday's presentation at Bonduel Elementary School. Ruby was one of the more vocal birds in the group, letting out a high-pitched shriek every so often as Ibsen spoke about hawks.

Children at Bonduel Elementary School might have previously seen hawks and other birds of prey from afar, but they got the chance to see the birds close up Monday.

Raptor Education Group Inc. visited students in the third through sixth grades to educate them about the birds — emphasizing why it’s important to leave them alone in the wild, and why they would not make good pets. REGI’s presentation was made possible by the Mason Woods Lodge in Cecil.

“We want to teach the kids, and the best way to do that is to show them what the birds are and how they survive,” said Carl Loving, who coordinated the school visits on the lodge’s behalf. “I think the kids learned a lot. They were very attentive.”

This was the first time the Masons had invited representatives from REGI, based in Antigo, to the area schools, and Loving hopes to expand the visits in the future. After Bonduel, REGI also presented at Gillett Elementary School.

“I’ve had these people with the birds at Mason Woods,” Loving said. “I’ve been associated with REGI for a number of years, back to when I lived near Antigo. I think a lot of their program, and I want to get it out to as many kids as we can so they can have a better idea of what’s going on.”

REGI’s main mission is to rehabilitate birds injured in the wild and release them back to their native habitats. However, some birds are not able to return to the wild for various reasons, and those birds remain at REGI for the rest of their lives. Some of them become the group’s education birds and are taken to schools and civic groups to promote better understanding of the raptors and the role they play in nature.

The first bird students got to view was Ruby, a red-shouldered hawk. Ruby came to REGI in 2013 after falling out of the nest as a fledgling and breaking its wing. Because it was not brought to REGI for care until a day later, the bones healed incorrectly, and Ruby is unable to fly more than a few yards.

“We want to make sure our birds are 100 percent better before we release them into the wild,” said Katie Ibsen, a raptor educator with REGI. She noted there are 20 bald eagles alone in REGI’s rehab facility. “We want to make sure they can survive on their own.”

The Bonduel students were also introduced to Benji, an American kestrel, which is a type of falcon; Storm, a barn owl; and Fonzie, a great horned owl.

Benji was an example of a human imprint. Ibsen said he was brought to the facility sitting atop an 8-year-old boy’s shoulder. She said that meant Benji had bonded with the humans and saw them as his family.

“Benji thinks he’s a person,” Ibsen said. “Because of that, Benji would have no idea how to survive in the wild, because he thinks all food comes from all people like us. He wouldn’t be able to communicate with other kestrels.”

Ibsen encouraged the students to remain quiet during the presentation, as the birds have keen hearing and could spook from loud noises. She pointed out that Storm’s hearing was sensitive enough to hear the heartbeats of everyone in the gymnasium.

Barn owls like Storm are disappearing, Ibsen warned. They don’t build nests like other birds, so they settle in the nooks and crannies of wooden barns. But with many of those barns being replaced by metal and steel barns, their habitat is changing, she said.

Barn owls also nest in grassland areas, she noted, but many grasslands are being altered due to housing developments.

Ibsen pointed out that great horned owls like Fonzie have tufts that allow them to camouflage themselves.

“Now, I know you’re thinking, ‘How can these tiny feathers help with camouflage?’” Ibsen said to the students. “Darker forests with lots of evergreen trees, that’s where great horned owls would live.”

REGI was started in 1990 by Marge and Don Gibson originally just to educate, but it soon became obvious that education was not enough to help the birds; rehabilitation had to be a factor, too. There are 25-30 education birds, but REGI has rehabilitated more than 100 birds so far this year.

“It’s really rewarding,” Ibsen said about visiting schools like Bonduel Elementary. “I think sometimes birds of prey get a negative view because they are predators. People think they’ll go after their dog or their pets. But birds of prey have some amazing adaptations, and sharing these adaptations is something that we enjoy doing.”

ONLINE

To learn more about REGI, go to www.raptoreducationgroup.org.