It’s easy to imagine Hitch soaring through the skies, his majestic wings spread, and imbued with a sense of freedom that made his kind America’s national bird. Hitch is a bald eagle from Kentucky that has been grounded since sustaining neurological damage after being hit by a car. Unable to fend for himself, Hitch lives in an aviary at the Ojai Raptor Center (ORC), which is dedicated to rehabilitating and releasing birds of prey. Founded in 2000 by Kim Stroud, the nonprofit currently has close to 20 birds being cared for at the center; many will be re-released into the wild, but some, like Hitch, will live the remainder of their lives at ORC. “In a year, we may see 800 to 1,500 birds pass through here,” said Jaclyn DeSantis, a volunteer at the center. However, the raptors — like Hitch — that are too physically damaged to return to the skies become “education” birds, ambassadors of their species that make public appearances to help inform the folks about raptors’ plight.
Last month, I was invited to visit the sanctuary and was entranced by the spectacular birds residing there (and their stories). Among ORC’s ambassador birds is a Merlin falcon (also known as a pigeon hawk) named Cassie. She came to the center with her primary flying feathers pulled and a gimpy wing. A wide-eyed western screech owl recently arrived after suffering permanent head trauma from an avian “misadventure,” the term DeSantis uses when there is no information about how the bird incurred its injury. (Brain damage from flying into an immovable structure seems to be a major cause of raptor disability.) Newton, a striking-looking great horned owl, who will hoot for you when hooted at, calls ORC home, as does Spooky, the barred owl, and Flame, a short-eared owl.
Other residents — some passing through, some permanent — include an albino vulture; several barn owls; falcons (the fastest raptor around, which can fly up to 270 miles per hour in a dive); an adolescent bald eagle called Avalon that has yet to get her telltale white head and tail feathers; and several hawks.
It’s rare to get so close to these magnificent birds, but twice a year the center opens to the public, as it will do this Saturday, November 10. The chance to stand nose to beak with birds of prey is an exceptional experience and one not to miss.
The Ojai Raptor Center (370 Baldwin Rd., Ojai) hosts its Fall Open House on Saturday, November 10, noon-4 p.m. For more information, call (805) 649-6884 or visit ojairaptorcenter.org.