People in Southeast Alaska share a home with abundant wildlife — often glimpsing the animals surrounding us in the Tongass National Forest. Sometimes people and wildlife intersect for better or worse. This week, the Empire is featuring a multi-part series about the work of animal rescue groups that stand by to assist animals that need help.
Southeast Alaska is home to one of the world’s largest concentrations of bald eagles and a sizable population of songbirds and other raptors. When these winged creatures get in trouble, a cadre of local volunteers from the Juneau Raptor Center stand at the ready to assist, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Juneau resident Pat Bock is one of those volunteers. Since she started volunteering with the group in 1997, she estimates she’s rescued at least 200 birds.
She recalled some of her most notable assignments in a phone interview last month. One included grabbing a bald eagle by the ankle and releasing him from under a car parked on Douglas. On another occasion, she went into wetland area to rescue a stranded bird that could only be accessed via a wing. She’s freed an eagle that was flat on his chest with his head trapped on a trail near Lemon Creek.
“Sometimes you can walk aggressively, and the bird flies away,” Bock said.
Bock recalled working with a snowy owl about 25 years ago. She said the owl had a tear where the wing met the body.
“We treated him daily and weekly and you could see how it was healing,” she said, noting that ultimately the owl went to Anchorage for treatment.
“They can do a really quick turnaround,” she said. “What makes it most memorable is when they can be released back into the wild. That’s an extra plus.”
According to Kathy Benner, manager of the raptor center, a trained volunteer always has a pager, and someone is available to respond to calls at all hours of the day and night.
She said that songbirds are most often injured in window strikes or by cats. Raptor injuries vary but often involve car strikes, fishing lines or the ingestion of a toxin.
“Failure to thrive when they fledge is common,” Benner said, explaining that the nature of the problem prompting rescue tends to be seasonal.
Although final numbers for 2021 are not yet available, as of early November, volunteers with the group had already rescued 60 bald eagles, which is more than they do over the span of a more typical year, Benner said. Volunteers also rescued about an equal number of crows and ravens, she said.
According to the group’s website, volunteers cared for a total of 187 birds, including 51 raptors and 126 non-raptors in 2020. Rescued non-raptors included 30 common ravens, 14 varied thrush, 15 pine siskin birds and 13 American crows.
Benner attributed the rising number of rescues to more people being outside and hiking as COVID-19-related closures and lockdowns sent people searching for ways to pass the time.
“We love to be called vs. leaving something there to suffer, freeze to death, or get attacked by an animal,” Bock said.
Benner said that eagle populations are generally stable in the area and the group is dedicated to serving each individual bird that needs help.
“These animals are magnificent,” she said, recalling the first time an eagle flew over her car in 1999 during her first days in Alaska. “It’s like the starfish story. This is about each individual animal.”
Benner said that some birds and raptors are treated locally at a clinic in the Mendenhall Valley or volunteers’ homes. Often treatment includes rehydrating the animal subcutaneously, providing a safe place to recuperate and a few good meals. Those needing more extensive veterinary care travel by plane to the Alaska Raptor Center in Sitka.
Sadly, Benner said, some of the animals are dead when volunteers arrive.
Staying a flight
According to the group’s website, “the Juneau Raptor Center is a non-profit, volunteer organization that was founded in 1987.” The site says the group has “a dual mission: to provide treatment and rehabilitation for injured wild birds of Southeast Alaska and to provide education about wildlife to the public.”
Benner said the pandemic has taken a toll on the center’s finances and volunteer core.
“We are run by volunteers, but we stopped training them due to COVID,” Benner said, adding that the group hopes to resume training and other outreach like classroom visits soon.
She said the group typically receives donations and sells merchandise to cruise ship passengers who encounter Lady Baltimore, the eagle kept at the tram station atop Mount Roberts.
However, the construction of a wildlife structure for Lady Baltimore and the COVID-19-induced pause on cruising has restricted that source of income.
“In 2020 we had just purchased our merchandise,” she said, adding that the group was able to sell some of their items during this summer’s abbreviated cruise season and to sell some online. However, this year, Lady Baltimore didn’t return due to a limited cruise season and the cost and complexity of hiring a naturalist for a shorter-than-typical season.
Benner said donations of money, food and medical supplies have helped. She said a mail-based fundraiser, membership fees and grant funding are also helping.
“We are hoping next year will be different,” she said.
The Juneau Raptor Center accepts donations through the group’s website at juneauraptorcenter.org and an online gift shop is available, Benner said.
Found a bird in distress?
If you find a bird in distress, contact the Juneau Raptor Center emergency hotline at (907) 790-5424. Volunteers monitor the line 24 hours a day.
• Contact reporter Dana Zigmund at email@example.com or 907-308-4891.