By Aimee Nielson
Mitch Whitaker has been a falconer for more than a decade. It’s his hobby to work with and to rehabilitate birds of prey. He was thrilled when he got a chance to combine his hobby with his “day” job as the maintenance supervisor at the Letcher County office of the University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service.
“I’m actually getting to live the dream of getting to do my hobby while I’m working,” he said. “The public needs to know about these animals; they share our environment with us. There is a delicate balance in nature, and we need to understand these animals.”
Injured birds of prey, raptors like hawks, owls and eagles, need a place of refuge and specialized care where they can heal and hopefully return to their wild environment. Whitaker had taken in several injured birds in the southeast Kentucky area and followed all the regulations to rehabilitate them, but he knew they would need some type of official facility to continue.
“These birds are unique in the way they have to be handled,” Whitaker said. “They take special care, and we have to remember they are wild animals. It doesn’t matter if we keep the animal here for 20 years, it will never become a pet.”
Without a permanent facility to house and rehabilitate the birds, the extension office could only house the birds 180 days, and if they could not be released, they either had to be moved to a permanent facility or worst-case—euthanized.
Letcher County extension agents approached their district board about the need for a facility as an opportunity to boost education and awareness in the region and to help the birds. The board funded an expansion of the extension office’s facilities. The Outdoor Education Center was built earlier this year, complete with a raptor barn with enough space to house several birds, and a separate, large educational room.
“This is the only facility like this (in Kentucky) east of 1-75,” said Jason Brashear, Letcher County Cooperative Extension agent for 4-H youth development. “It is a great place for injured birds of prey who will eventually be released and also ones that cannot be in the wild anymore.”
Current residents at the raptor barn include barred owls, a screech owl, a red-tailed hawk, a Cooper’s hawk and a great horned owl. Each species has a separate room in the barn. The walls are on rollers so the room sizes are adjustable. Fresh air enters through wooden slats, so it feels more like the birds’ natural environment.
Brashear and Whitaker take the birds all over the region for educational programs and sometimes even across state lines. Many Letcher County 4-Hers have participated in the care and management of the birds and have learned many valuable life skills as a result.
“Very few 4-H programs like this exist in the country,” Brashear said. “The youths that participate are able to gain leadership experience and build self-esteem. They learn how to handle birds, and as a result, some of them are even conquering their fear of the animals.”
Brashear estimates that the raptor residents saw more than 5,000 students at various educational programs through the past year.
In 2011, before the facility was built, the extension agents had an opportunity to rehabilitate what they thought was a juvenile bald eagle. When they were ready to release the eagle back into the wild, a large crowd gathered and videos of the event went viral on YouTube.
“After that video got out, we found out that the bird wasn’t a bald eagle,” Brashear said. “In fact, it was a golden eagle, which is even rarer in this area.”
Future plans for the facility include another expansion that will allow the staff to house and care for a bald eagle. Whitaker said it will be an outdoor enclosure that will meet federal requirements. They will look to obtain an eagle that is not able to be released back into the wild and include the bird in future educational programing.
For more information on the Raptor Rehabilitation Facility, or to schedule a visit, call Brashear or Whitaker at the Letcher County Cooperative Extension office, 606-633-2362.