June 29, 2022

Skegemog Raptor Center Takes Flight

By Emily Burke | May 21, 2022

Back in January of 2021, James Manley, a 15-year veteran volunteer for Wings of Wonder (WoW)—the Empire-based raptor rehabilitation organization headed by Rebecca Lessard—was being interviewed by a journalist covering Lessard’s retirement. (See below for more on that.) When the journalist asked Manley what would happen to all the birds who would need help in the future, he recalls, “I realized that it was going to take more than me just [rehabilitating] a handful of birds on my own.”

Manley incorporated Skegemog Raptor Center (SRC) a month later and then went public and gained nonprofit status in August of 2021. In that first year, SRC admitted 74 raptors—a group of birds comprising eagles, hawks, owls, vultures, falcons, harriers, and osprey—from 20 different counties across northern Michigan, everything from four-ounce kestrels to bald eagles. This year, they are on track for admitting more than 100 birds.

“There’s definitely a huge need,” says Manley. “As the human population grows in northern Michigan and as some of the raptor populations bounce back … there’s just a whole new slew of dangers.”

The Problems
Though about 80 percent of their patients are hit by cars, SRC has also treated birds that have flown into windows, have become ensnared in fishing lines, have been shot, or are suffering from lead poisoning. Because car accidents are such an issue, Manley encourages people to slow down while driving to avoid vehicle collisions with wildlife, take a break from their screens, and “do something little [for the environment], because if we all work together on this, then that’s how we’re going to make a difference.”

On top of all these existing threats, SRC has recently been dealing with avian influenza, which adds complications like having to swab and quarantine newly-admitted birds, traveling long distances to remote quarantine sites, and donning a Tyvek suit during interactions with quarantined birds. “It’s been a tough spring so far,” says Manley. “Some other centers are not admitting birds because of the flu, so I’ve been inundated with patients just in the past four weeks. That’s part of rehab though,” he adds. “We just have to roll with the punches.”

The Solutions
Though it may have been a difficult few months for SRC, Manley has plenty of successful rehabilitations to celebrate. One notable success story involves the first eagle ever admitted to SRC’s care.

When found, the bird couldn’t fly but could still swim, so when it jumped in the lake and swam out to an island, Manley and his team followed. Upon examination, Manley discovered that the bird had been shot and had a fractured wing. He found bits of metal and glass in its pellets, which it likely consumed while surviving on rodents from the nearby dump. It took about 12 weeks of patient feeding, medical care, and conditioning, but SRC was ultimately able to release the eagle last June.

Indeed, releasing birds they’ve rehabilitated is Manley’s favorite part of the job. “People ask me if I get attached,” he says. “I don’t. I mean, they’re wild birds. I don’t miss them. I’m so happy they’re out the door.” To illustrate his point, he tells the story of an eagle he released that had been in captivity for six months, saying that after he let her go, “She just opened her wings and circled around for like 10 minutes, just happy to have some air under her wings again.”

The Future
This summer, SRC will be building the educational programming side of the organization. They will be at Samel’s Farm in Williamsburg on June 5 for a program with Pearl (a red-tailed hawk) and Esther (a broad-winged hawk), and you can also catch them at Elk Rapids’ Nature Fest on June 11. Releases of rehabilitated birds are usually public, but the timing is difficult to predict far in advance—“The birds tell us when they’re ready,” says Manley. Those interested can watch the SRC website and Facebook page for updates.

SRC also has plans to expand its research projects—including using nest box cameras to determine the cause of the local kestrel population decline—as well as to add more enclosure space for all their patients, as they’ve been very near full-capacity since August.

Ultimately, though, Manley wants to spread the word of the importance of these birds and engage northern Michiganders in their journey. He explains, “What I’m hoping to do is just bring the community together.”

Learn more at skegemograptorcenter.org.

The East’s First Tribal Aviary
Upon closing the doors to Wings of Wonder in 2021, Rebecca Lessard launched a new project: a partnership with the Little Traverse Bay Band of Odawa Indians (LTBB) to create a tribal aviary. Named the Migizi Aviary after the word for “eagle” in the Odawa language, the site will be located on LTBB land north of Harbor Springs. It will include a rehabilitation center called the Wings of Wonder Rehabilitation Center; an office, lab, and clinic building; and a display aviary for non-releasable eagles that will serve as an educational opportunity for all ages.

Because Migizi will be the first tribal aviary east of the Mississippi River, Lessard hopes that it will serve as a role model for other tribes throughout the Midwest and northeast.

Eagles have a strong cultural significance for the LTBB, often being thought of as the messengers of the gods because of their ability to fly to great heights. “That story needs to be told. And it has to come from the tribe,” says Lessard, who describes the project as “a beautiful opportunity to bridge natives and non-natives through educational programming.”

In considering both the Migizi Aviary and Skegemog Raptor Center—where Lessard now serves on the board of directors—Lessard says her overarching emotion is gratitude to Manley and the LTBB. She’s also “just giddy with excitement that we have these places that will take care of our raptors.”

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