February 14, 2011

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On a knife-edged cold afternoon at the top of a Letcher County mountain, a young bald eagle found its wings and soared to freedom. A chorus of oohs and ahs from the approximately 200 people who had gathered to watch his release followed him as he rose in lazy circles until he was only a speck in the sky.

The eagle, which a week earlier had been found with a talon caught in a coyote trap, was rehabilitated and released under a new Letcher County 4H Youth Development raptor rehabilitation program. The program is the pet project of the extension office's maintenance supervisor, Mitch Whitaker, a licensed falconer for the past 10 years.

"Mitch mentioned that it was being done at Southwest High School in Pulaski County, and he thought we could replicate it here with our teenagers in Letcher County," said Jason Brashear, the county's 4H Youth development agent.

"We just thought it was a good fit as part of the services that the extension office offers here, something that would be unique to this area," Whitaker said.

Only a few months old, the program has stirred up a lot of interest in the area, if the number of people who showed up for the eagle's release is any indication. Though the eagle was the first bird to be released from the center, two injured birds -or as Brashear calls them, "forever friends"-would not be able to survive in the wild and have become permanent residents who accompany handlers to schools in the district. Endora, a barred owl, and Journey, a red-tailed hawk that had to have part of one wing amputated, are finding new purpose in helping to educate children about the importance of birds of prey and people's responsibility toward them.

"It is our responsibility as humans to take care of these injured animals," Whitaker said. "They get injured due to humans' cars. They get hurt due to humans' windows. They get electrocuted due to humans' electric lines. It's our responsibility, when we see these animals who are injured, to get them back in life."

Whitaker pointed out that in nature only one in five raptors makes it through the first year.

"So they're already fighting a losing battle. Oftentimes, these birds are shot by poachers just to get a quick look at them. Maybe through our program here, where people can come and actually look at them up close, it might deter some of that," he said.

Brashear said the program is open to 4-H'ers who are 14 and older. Participants help clean the pens, feed the animals and learn to handle them safely. So far 14 4-H'ers are involved in the program in varying degrees.

"It's something you're going to have to show quite a bit of maturity to get involved," he said. "You've got to be laid back and relaxed to work around the birds. We don't need somebody who's going to be hooting and hollering, because that can definitely disturb them, and the bird can get hurt. And somebody else can get hurt, as well."

It takes more than simple desire to set up a licensed raptor rehabilitation facility. Rehabilitation programs are federally controlled. Whitaker said it is difficult to get the required permit. He and Brashear visited several wildlife rehabilitation programs around the state, including one at Murray State University and one in Pulaski County run by Frances Carter. They also had to bring a veterinarian on board-in this case, Gene Smith of the Appalachian Animal Clinic in Hazard, who has more than 25 years of raptor experience-and work with both Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Carter, who had an abundance of owls, provided Endora the barred owl to Letcher County 4-H's new program.

"It's been determined that these birds (like Endora) cannot be released and sustain on their own," Whitaker said. "At that point, they have to be put into a program, which is decided by Frankfort (Kentucky Fish and Wildlife)."

Whitaker and his son Addison, a 4-H'er and senior at Letcher County Senior High School, got the call close to midnight on a Thursday night; an eagle had been caught in a coyote trap. They settled it into the rehabilitation center at the extension office and then took it to Smith the next morning. Fortunately, the wound wasn't life threatening, and after recovering for almost a week at Smith's office, the juvenile bird was ready to resume its life in the wild-it's hoped with a healthy fear of coyote traps.

Whitaker has great plans for the new rehabilitation center, including a 100-foot pen that would be suitable for an eagle's rehabilitation, but could also be reconfigured to 70-feet for smaller birds of prey, like Journey or Endora.

"Once you get eagles, it's a whole other ballgame," Whitaker said. "But it's rare that you would have an eagle stay longer than the rehabilitation period. Mostly we would get hawks and owls through here."

Currently the center is funded through the county's Cooperative Extension budget and some private donations. Brashear said they're trying to find a grant to help build the center. It's not an inexpensive operation, but one both men feel is worthwhile, particularly since they are the only raptor rehabilitation center east of Pulaski County.

Addison agrees.

"It's just cool," he said. "It's hawks, and we're getting to take care of them and release them. It's just something that you can't get at other 4-H programs. It's something special."

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