Back on the Rise

The U’s world-renowned Raptor Center

raptor - Andrew Tomten

Illustrator: Andrew Tomten

Next time you have the temptation to squash one of those pesky pigeons bobbing underneath your feet in downtown Minneapolis—think twice—you could be stepping on someone’s next meal.

The connoisseur in question is the peregrine falcon. Just 30 years ago, there were only two nesting pairs left in the North American Midwest. Today there are more than 200 pairs. This is just one of the many accomplishments attributed to University of Minnesota’s Raptor Center, which celebrated 40 years of research, medicine, and conservation in 2015.

What started with a modest grant of $5,000 from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service back in 1975 has now become a universally renowned center for birds of prey. Through diligent work and philanthropy, the Raptor Center evolved into the state-of-the-art facility it is today. The $2.5 million, 21,000-square-foot facility built in 1988 is located on the University’s St. Paul campus.

The purpose of the Raptor Center is to educate the public and provide in-house medical care for birds. Although internships and externships are limited to those with degrees in veterinary medicine, students and community members are encouraged to volunteer and take part in educational workshops. The Raptor Center has programs for younger enthusiasts as well, some of which include field trips, summer camps, and birthday parties.

Raptors are distinguished from other birds by their incredible eyesight, curved beak for tearing meat, and talons for gripping prey. In North America, they range from the kestrel falcon, weighing about as much as a stick of butter, to the golden eagle, which has a wingspan of upwards of seven feet. Hawks, owls, ospreys and vultures are also classified as raptors—some of which were endangered prior to the creation of the Raptor Center—the first of its kind in the world.

One of the biggest threats to raptor populations in Minnesota is lead. In the last 24 years, over 500 eagles received or admitted to the clinic have either been euthanized, or died as a result of lead poisoning. Bald eagles in particular rely heavily on lakes and rivers as hunting grounds. Although the use of lead ammunition for hunting waterfowl was banned in 1987, lead poisoning continues to be an issue. The use of lead slugs for deer hunting is largely to blame.

One of the biggest threats to raptor populations in Minnesota is lead. In the last 24 years, over 500 eagles received or admitted to the clinic have either been euthanized, or died as a result of lead poisoning.

Dr. Patrick T. Redig, co-founder and director emeritus at the Raptor Center, has held clinics for hunters demonstrating the shrapnel-like effects of lead bullets. Fragments are present in deer guts left behind by hunters for scavengers, as well as the meat hunters feed to their families. Copper bullets are one of a few alternatives, which are comparable in price and can travel at higher speeds.

Efforts to ban lead ammunition have outright failed. Even legislation to promote educational programs regarding the issue have come under fire from groups like the National Rifle Association (NRA). Convincing the hunting community to change its methods has been an uphill battle as well.

“It miffs me that the hunting community doesn’t get out in front and put their white hats on to do something about this,” Redig said.

While there is still progress to be made, the raptor population is on the rise in recent years. One successful recovery, Pi the bald eagle, is a bit of a celebrity around the Twin Cities. He is the figurehead of several ceremonies throughout the year, perhaps best known for his annual appearance at the Twin’s opener. There is also Nero, the old man of the house, a 41-year-old turkey vulture. He was one of the first birds ever to be equipped with a radio-transmitter, playing a role in the California condor restoration project.

Pi the bald eagle is the figurehead of several ceremonies throughout the year, perhaps best known for his annual appearance at the Twin’s opener.

Julia Ponder became the executive director of the Raptor Center in 2007.

“I have always been a bird lover. Before moving to Minnesota, I had an interest in environmentalism and conservation,” Ponder said. “Also, with my veterinary background, the Raptor Center seemed like a perfect match.”

While admission fees and government subsidies make some contributions to the Center, Ponder was quick to congratulate individual donors.

“We are very grateful to our philanthropic donations. We couldn’t do it without the support of the community,” Ponder said.

The new Vikings Stadium, which has been criticized for its hazardous glass frame, is more of a concern for songbirds than raptors, according to Ponder. She admits that while there has been some progress in mitigating the risk, not nearly enough has been done thus far.

The Raptor Center is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and noon to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Tours are available every half hour.