(WJET/WFXP/YourErie.com) — An October afternoon in Saegertown, on a dirt road with cattle lowered into a field on the other side, is a small patch of buildings. They look like a house, two outbuildings and a barn. The only indication that important work is happening here is a sign of little importance: the Tamarack Wildlife Center.
The center is not a kept secret that only locals know. The center has public awareness and educational events. They partner with local schools, churches, scouting groups, or anyone interested in learning about infected wildlife. The center has a “dual mission” to rehabilitate injured wildlife so they can return to the wild and educate the public about wildlife.
Ambassadors’ animals help the center educate the public. Peregrine falcon, red-tailed hawk, owls, a box turtle named Myrtle – they all play a role in educating the public. Birds are trained to come to a handler for rewards. Many of these animals take the show on the road, fascinating and educating schoolchildren in the classroom.
However, the center recently held a ribbon-cutting ceremony for new birds. The cage is located outside between the office and the education center. During normal business hours (8 a.m. to 4 p.m.), the general public can view birds without staff. Birds in the cage, in turns, for a month at a time. This month is marked by three owls.
The cage was created with a donation from a local family foundation. The project, which had a final price of about $20,000, was funded last fall, but construction wasn’t completed until last month. Now, the structure is high, and the three owls — a barn owl, an oriental screaming owl, and a great horned owl — are in the cage to greet the audience. The cage is universally beneficial to the center and its mission, said Carol Holmgren, executive director of the Tamarack Wildlife Center.
“I love when it’s like this to win,” Holmgren said. “It’s a win for us as a center, it’s a win for the birds, and it’s a win for people because they learn and have interactive experiences with the birds here in the cage.”
Being in the cage with an occasional person or group looking for it, ambassador birds have a chance to adapt to people. Luna – the barn owl – was a “pandemic baby” who came to the center in 2020. She is not yet completely comfortable with people, but the cage will help her gradually adapt to the presence of an audience. Birds communicate with more than just people through the cage.
The great horned owl is called Romeo. He is fond of female dealers. He also used to call the domestic wild large horned owl. She comes to the area to call him and they call each other. Melissa Goodwill, director of outreach and education at the Tamarack Wildlife Center, said Romeo came to the center after being infected with West Nile virus from a mosquito bite. The virus has caused feather damage that will not be fully healed. So now he’s an ambassador animal, helping educate the public.
While the ambassador’s animals are friendly and well-adapted to people, this is rarely the goal of a wildlife center. Half of their program’s job is to rehabilitate injured animals. Those rehabilitated animals will eventually be released back into the wild, and therefore, they cannot feel comfortable with humans.
In a barn behind the desk, a pair of vultures perched away from the door. Rosie Eagle from Pittsburgh. It was hatched from a nest that had a camera watching it. She had an audience as she grew, then fell and needed rehab. I learned to fly in Tamarack. Nora, the other eagle, was found submerged on the shore of Lake Erie in the northeast. She sustained several injuries.
A pair of dead mice were laid on the floor of the barn, that afternoon, and an eagle took flight. It is a good sign that birds are flying. They will be released into the wild when they are completely ready. For these birds, interaction with the public is restricted, and interaction with humans in general is limited. While ambassador birds come voluntarily to Holmgren’s gauntlet, vultures mostly stay on their huts, wary of humans.
Animals of all kinds are brought to the center. Some are brought in by members of the public. The phone often rings in the center – about 2,000 phone calls are made each year regarding wildlife. About half of these calls are resolved by phone (sometimes it’s as simple as animals exhibiting normal animal behavior and people assume they are in distress, Holmgren said). Staff and volunteers who answer the phones can advise people on how to help wildlife. While there have been plenty of phone calls, it is important that the public contact experts when they encounter wildlife that they believe may be infected.
“If you’re concerned, call the center,” Holmgren said. “They have a better prognosis if the public doesn’t try to treat them alone.”
Answering calls isn’t limited to the center’s core rehabilitation staff—volunteers log between 11,000 and 12,000 hours each year to help make the center work.
“We have a great core team and great volunteers,” Holmgren said.
When animals are accepted as sick, they are first kept in a quiet area to relieve stress, and are isolated from other birds to ensure they do not spread any diseases (avian influenza remains a problem) to the animals’ ambassador and other patients. They are then evaluated and a treatment plan developed. (The center will soon have its own X-ray machine thanks to a grant from the Erie Community Foundation and other funding sources.) With a treatment plan in place, the animals are moved to the appropriate intensive care unit.
The center not only helps birds. The center also helps rabbits, amphibians, and even squirrels. Holmgren said rabbits have their own ICU because they are nervous creatures.
With the constant influx of phone calls, it may seem like it would be easy to get frustrated, but the work of the Tamarack Wildlife Center and other accredited centers around the world is showing results. Eagles, for example – In 1983 there were three nests in Pennsylvania. The birds were threatened with extinction. Now, the population has rebounded and has been written off (although they are still protected animals).
“They came back because people worked together,” Holmgren said. “We see our work reflected in the numbers.”
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