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Let Them Fly

How The Raptor Trust is Aiding New Jersey’s Wild Birds

By Taylor Smith | Photos courtesy of The Raptor Trust

The Raptor Trust is a leading bird rehabilitation and education center located in Millington, New Jersey, bordering the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge. Home to approximately 50 resident birds, the true goal of the nonprofit organization is to help heal injured birds and release them back into the wild where they can prosper and lead long, safe lives.

Executive Director Christopher D. Soucy, Ed.M., has been working at The Raptor Trust his whole life thanks to his parents, Len and Diane Soucy, who founded the center in their family’s own backyard. Soucy is quick to point out that he has participated in some form of wildlife conservation since he was 4 years old. While he spent time away in Colorado, the Garden State, and the dream of his parents rescue organization, called him back home.

The Raptor Trust receives daily calls from residents all over the state regarding the status and findings of injured wild birds. “All wild birds are treated and cared for at The Raptor Trust,” says Soucy. “This excludes any exotics, meaning birds that you can buy at a pet store.”

It’s hard to imagine why anyone would want to injure these majestic creatures. Maybe you saw an owl roosting in a barn in Bucks County or caught sight of a hawk circling Lake Carnegie. These birds naturally inspire awe in most who encounter them. So, how are these birds usually injured?

Soucy says that rodent killers left around homes are a common problem, as are fast moving cars and general garbage. Since the arrival of the invasive spotted lantern fly, glue traps have become a terrible issue, killing many wild birds across the state. Specifically, a bird will land on one of these glue traps in someone’s backyard and become instantly stuck. If you find a bird trapped on a glue trap, bring it to a licensed wildlife rehabilitator as soon as possible.

Owls have also been known to get stuck inside the soccer netting of a sports playing field or swoop into the windshield of a car. These are obstacles that birds can’t account for, so they can become severely injured. Owls may also ingest mice that have eaten poison and become terribly ill, so avoid using any rodent control poison around the house or yard.

Soucy recounts a very famous Raptor Trust medical case involving an American bald eagle that was found in Bergen County. The bird had been shot with a lead bullet. By the time that the veterinarians at The Raptor Trust got involved, lead was already leaching heavily into the bird’s system and the bird appeared to be near death. Not only could the bird not fly, it didn’t have the strength to roost on a tree branch and was found sitting in a field.

The only viable medical option was to remove one of the eagle’s eyes where the bullet was initially shot. After two months of rehabilitation and monitoring, the one-eyed bald eagle was ready to return to its natural habitat.

“At first glance, this case was particularly disheartening because not only is shooting a protected animal a federal crime, but the eagle is also the ultimate symbol of liberty and democracy,” says Soucy. “Thankfully, we have a highly equipped medical team that works around the clock to service incoming injured birds. They are truly a great group of veterinarians, and they all care about the health of these animals.”

So, what should you do if you happen to find an injured bird? First, call a wildlife rehabilitation service with a valid New Jersey wildlife rehabilitation permit. New Jersey Fish and Wildlife (dep.nj.gov/njfw) is a reliable resource for anyone anywhere across the state. After an initial phone call, someone will be sent out to determine what the issue is. If a baby bird has fallen out of its nest, they may search the surrounding area for its mother. If the bird is suffering from an impact injury (like in the case of being struck by a car), they can take it to a veterinary center for medical treatment. This is how the majority of birds find their way to The Raptor Trust. According to its website, theraptortrust.org, “The Raptor Trust provides care for approximately 50 percent of all birds and 25 percent of all wildlife admitted to rehabilitation centers in New Jersey.”

If you find an injured bird in your own backyard or neighborhood and want to make an appointment at The Raptor Trust, first call the infirmary between the hours of 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. at 908.647.2353. Once you have made the appointment, fill out the online admittance form on the organization’s website. Visitors must wear a mask when they arrive at The Raptor Trust and follow the instructions posted in the parking lot. There is no overnight or after-hours drop off at this time. The medical staff encourages all visitors delivering injured birds to be respectful of the rules and regulations for the safety of everyone involved. For further questions, email info@theraptortrust.org.

While the goal of The Raptor Trust is to release all birds back into the wild, some remain permanent residents, and these are the birds that visitors will be able to see at the facility. The birds live outdoors in high, spacious, and airy cages — giving them plenty of room to fly, feed, and observe from a distance the march of passersby. The permanent residents, Soucy says, “are birds that have sustained injuries to the point that they would not be able to survive in the wild. For example, a bird with only one wing. These types of birds would quickly become prey animals. Another problematic situation is when people hand-raise birds. The result is that these birds don’t even know that they are birds, and they don’t know how to feed themselves.”

Speaking of diet, visitors may be surprised to learn that most of the larger birds are carnivorous. “The freezer is always full of mice and rats,” says Soucy. They will also prey on smaller birds, if given the chance, in the wild. People have also seen images of bald eagles catching a fish out of a river or lakebed. In this sense, they are a predatory variety of birds. Another fun fact that Soucy points out is that certain species of hawks migrate during the winter, while owls largely live and operate within a defined parameter. In fact, it is not unknown to spot Canadian species of hawks residing in New Jersey during the coldest winter months. When asked if he has a favorite bird, Soucy pauses before chuckling and saying that it changes by the week and the circumstance.

With education and advocacy being two of the leading tenants of The Raptor Trust’s ethos, Soucy elaborates on why it’s so important to protect wild birds in a high-density state like New Jersey: “I would say that wildlife, in general, is a good indicator of a healthy ecosystem and bird wildlife is a significant part of that. That being said, whether it’s the bobcats in northern New Jersey or the sandpipers in Cape May, it’s imperative that we protect these species as closely as possible now because things can change in an instant. At the end of the day, it’s all about protecting the health of our ecosystem and our state.”

Preventing New Jersey’s wild animals from suffering or disappearing completely is an important message for residents of plant Earth —  including young children. Centering family activities around outdoor excursions with a walking stick and a wildlife guidebook will not only create lasting memories, it will also leave an impression on young children that nature is valuable.

The Raptor Trust itself is a great jumping off point for visits to environmental organizations and hiking trails in Somerset and Morris counties. After a free, self-guided tour at The Raptor Trust, take family and friends to the New Jersey Audubon’s Scherman Hoffman Wildlife Sanctuary, SCPC Environmental Education Center, MCPC Great Swamp Outdoor Education Center, or GSNWR Wildlife Observation Center, to name a few. New Jersey Audubon maintains an excellent website with to up-to-date details of the latest events. Visit njaudubon.org to learn about birding activities, eco travel, and school events.

Another winter weather outdoor excursion is the Jockey Hollow Visitor Center at Tempe Wick Road in Morristown. The park grounds are open year-round, excluding Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day. There are no admission fees. This park is a great place to spot hawks and owls during the winter months. In terms of history, the park brochure provides a great deal of information on George Washington and the men of the American Revolution who spent two winters in this Morristown location. Site bulletins include a “Bird Checklist” where visitors can check off birds that they spot on each visit. Another way to conveniently log bird encounters is through ebird.org. Morristown National Historic Park is designated as a “hot spot” for local bird activity in eBird. By entering your checklist on their website, you’ll give the park a more complete picture of bird activity within its borders. In that sense, visitors contribute directly to New Jersey’s bird research, conservation, and understanding.

In fact, the New Jersey Conservation Foundation notes that owls are more visible in winter in the state than many other times of year. Some species of owls breed in the winter, and you can hear their “hoo-hoo-hoo” at night. Snowy owls are rare in New Jersey, but they have been sighted at Liberty State Park, Island Beach State Park, and Merrill Creek Reservoir in recent years (njconservation.org/owl-spotting-in-winter). Screech owls are also referred to as suburban owls and may nest in neighborhood areas during the winter months. Great horned owls feed on mice, moles, rats, rabbits, and squirrels, so look for their large feather tufts resembling ears on the sides of their head.

Another fun project is to create a bird habitat in your own backyard. Learn how to build barn owl nest boxes, barred owl nest boxes, and American kestrel and screech owl boxes at theraptortrust.org/bird-resources/bird-facts/nest-boxes. The instructions include a list of materials and tips on where to mount the boxes depending on the species of bird. Just imagine the entertainment that a roosting owl will provide in your own backyard!

The Raptor Trust is open seven days a week from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. for self-guided tours along the aviary trail. A private staff-led tour is limited to eight people and includes an avian demonstration showcasing a raptor feeding, training session, and toy/game enrichment. This tour takes 40 minutes, and an advance reservation is required by emailing education@theraptortrust.org or by visiting theraptortrust.org/visit/tours. Classroom tours can also be booked online using the same links. Prices for various guided group tours can be viewed on the website.

Follow The Raptor Trust on Instagram with the handle @theraptortrust. You will soon get to know the resident birds by name, watch videos at feeding time, and even see the medical staff aiding new, arriving birds.

As The Raptor Trust is a nonprofit, donations are always welcome and needed to provide the best medical and rehabilitative opportunities for the birds. A gift of $22 buys one bag of bird seed; $50 pays for five days mixed birdseed, fruit, and mealworms; while $75 covers antibiotics, fluids, and other medicines. It just goes to show that any amount counts! Visit theraptortrust.org to donate.

For more information, call 908.647.1091 or email Christopher Soucy at csoucy@theraptortrust.org.

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