“Archie thinks he’s a human. Don’t tell him he’s a bird, it will upset him.” The early morning volunteer at the Cape Fear Raptor Center was talking about the great horned owl sitting on a perch in the middle of the hospital area. Apparently, Archie had been rescued as a very young owlet, and instead of imprinting with an adult owl, he imprinted with Dr. Joni Gnyp, the veterinarian whose practice houses the raptor center currently. Archie really does think he’s a human, and Dr. Joni is his mama.


Gwenyfar allows Archie to perch on her arm at Rocky Point Animal Hospital’s Raptor Center. Photo by Jock Brandis

It’s early morning and Jock and I are touring the facility. Three of the early-morning volunteers are cleaning up after the birds and taking vital stats like weight. Then, Archie starts to dance side to side on his perch.

“Oh, is that mama? Do you see mama?” Someone asks Archie just as Dr. Joni comes in the door, and Archie begins the most lovely, soft-singing chatter I think I’ve ever heard.

“Hey, you crazy bird,” Dr. Joni greets Archie, puts down her bags and cradles his head. He responds by “preening” her fingers and face.

Last week we ran a column about 50 things I want to try in the area for 2015 (10 of which will be decided by you, encore readers, so email me suggestions). One was falcon hunting, which is now available in our area through the Cape Fear Raptor Center. Jock and I joined a group of four other people for the experience, which included an hour of raptor education before Archie took turns landing on each of our arms. We met a barred owl who is blind from a car accident. He has regained vision in one eye, and Dr. Joni hopes to re-introduce him into the wild. Two screech owls (Pip and Squeak) have cataracts and can’t be released into the wild. In addition, we met two hawks who were both recovering from surgery, and two ospreys, along with a very sweet turkey vulture named Zack, who has brain damage and thinks he’s a dog.

But the big news for Dr. Joni and her crew was the release of Yangchen—the bald eagle that they had rehabilitated and re-introduced into the wild a week earlier. She was wearing a solar-powered GPS device so they could track her progress. Dr. Joni brought up the map of her movements on a projection screen and commented that pretty quickly Yangchen headed for freshwater, which indicated she would probably thrive. A previously released eagle went to the Pamlico Sound area and dehydrated due to a lack of drinking water.

The Raptor Center is the natural outgrowth of Dr. Joni’s work as a vet and her falconry hobby, which both she and her husband pursue. As licensed falconers they are active hunters during the falconry season (November through February), and continue to exercise and train their birds the rest of the year. It would seem natural that, when confronted with an injured hawk, the vet would be in a position to do the most she could for its care. Looking at the red-shouldered hawk, with pins sticking out of its shoulder, and watching her give it anti-inflammatories and pain meds, I have to admit: It is pretty impressive. “She will hunt again,” Dr. Joni comments about the bird cradled in her arms. “She is tough as nails.”

There really is nothing anyone can say that will prepare them for the experience of a predator flying toward them at full force and landing on their hands. Archie’s perch on my arm was a pretty impressive experience. When we went outside to work with the hawk, we were warned the hawk would land with much more force—an understatement of the year. “What do you think, sweetheart?” I asked Jock after his turn. “It’s… great… it’s indescribable.”   

All this is preparatory to going hunting in the afternoon. It’s partly to get people used to being with the birds and the bloody bits of mouse that are an essential training tool. Primarily, these exercises are to try to make the reality these different species inhabit comprehensible to humans.    

That morning, when we drove to Rocky Point Animal Hospital, it had been raining buckets, and we speculated on the possibility of rescheduling the event. By the early afternoon the sky had opened up into one of those absolutely perfect Southern spring days (in the middle of January): sunny, breezy and comfortably warm. As we headed into the woods, following Lila, a young hawk who belonged to Woody, Dr. Joni’s falconry companions and a volunteer at the center, Jock commented how it seemed to have a misnomer. “It’s not so much ‘falcon hunting’ as it is ‘falcon watching,’” he says.

I’m not really sure what I was expecting, but this was completely different than anything I could have anticipated. During the tour, a bird is released near a field or a wooded area, and a group of people follow it while it searches for prey. In this case, Woody banged with a long stick on trees with squirrels’ nests to try to get the prey moving. The bird would move from tree to tree scoping out the area, deciding how it felt about possible prey. We walked for a little over half an hour with Lila before Dr. Joni instructed all of us to vacate the area because she was going to throw out a live quail for Lila to catch. “She’s a young bird, and it is important for her to catch something every time she goes out,” Dr. Joni says.

Though the hunting experience was really fascinating, and it felt like being let in to a private world with the birds, it was definitely not the most impressive part of the day. Beyond a doubt, being in the hospital area with Dr. Joni and watching her work with the birds truly stuck. The Carolina Raptor Center, just north of Charlotte, is probably the biggest facility in our region, but they can’t handle all the birds that need help—plus, they are four hours away. The education component about how raptors fit into our ecosystem is pretty surprising. For example, vultures can eat meat contaminated with bacteria that is deadly to other species and thereby help mitigate the spread of disease. Information that humans do more damage to raptor than any other factor surprised me. Primarily, it’s car-related injuries. Besides the barred owl that was blinded in a collision, there was also a red-tailed hawk who hit a car just after a meal of squirrel and ruptured his craw (the pouch where they store food). Dr. Joni v had operated on him three times in an effort to get him ready to return to the wild. He came in at a pretty strong weight, which indicated he was a good hunter and able to fend for himself, so she anticipated he would have a successful re-entry to the wild. Apparently, they have had to teach their patients how to hunt before they could be returned to the wild to save starvation. “Education goes both ways,” Jock comments. “I always get more out of it than my students do.”

Though the center currently is operating out of the Rocky Point Animal Hospital, Dr. Joni is fundraising for a separate education center where they can grow the rehabilitation program. The potential is certainly there. One gentleman in our group travelled from Morganton to participate in the hunt. It’s a pretty special opportunity that can bring not just tourists to our area, but hopefully grow a deeper appreciation for the connections that we have with our ecosystem.

“I couldn’t pull a trigger,” Dr. Joni comments when we were out hunting. “For me, this is about the bird doing what they would naturally do.”

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