Since 2010, the American Bald Eagle Foundation in Haines has offered an unusual raptor trainee program. What makes it unique is the age of the participants: kids as young as 9 years old learn how to feed and hold raptors.
“So for holding a bird, you always want to keep your hand very still, just pretend you’re like a branch,” Raptor Curator Chloe Goodson said to three 9 and 10 year old girls wearing leather falconry gloves. “Just be as still as possible, as balanced as possible.”
For the past several weeks, the kids have been learning everything there is to know about raptors. Now they’re about to hold one of the birds they’ve been learning about.
“[I feel] a little nervous,” Sofia Sosa, 10, said. “I’m really worried I’m gonna drop Dylan.”
Dylan is a tiny Eastern Screech Owl, about four or five inches tall. Goodson transfers Dylan from her gloved hand to Sofia’s by putting their hands next to each other and saying “step up!”
“He’s super light,” Sofia said, as Dylan swiveled his neck around, taking in the room.
“His ear tufts are up,” Goodson said. “They’re sort of in a position where he shows interest in his surroundings but not fear or alarm. He’s just standing still, looking around, keeping an eye on everything. He’s very calm right now.”
Goodson says the kids have been waiting for this.
“The first week of February we had kids that said ‘I can’t wait to hold Dylan our screech owl or Hunter our barrd owl!’ They’ve just been waiting patiently.”
“When I first came here, I thought it would be really cool to handle owls and when I heard about the junior raptor program, it got my hopes up really high,” said 10-year-old Emily Groves.
Since the three students who were present today are all pretty young, they didn’t get to hold the larger owl – Hunter. He’s reserved for kids with more arm strength.
The owls live at the Bald Eagle Foundation because they’re not fit to survive in the wild.
“They each sustained an injury that makes it so that they’re unable to be released,” Goodson said. “Dylan is blind in one eye and Hunter actually had a wing injury.”
The foundation houses 12 raptors right now, including three eagles that have sustained injuries. They are not part of the youth raptor handlers’ training. The kids can help feed the eagles, but federal law requires eagle caretakers to be at least 18 years old.
“It’s just better to play it safe, since eagles can take down deer and other large animals in the wild.” Goodson said.
If the students do want to come back when they’re older and train with eagles, they could. Goodson says one of the goals of the program is to recruit the students as volunteers.
“In a small town like Haines we need all the help we can get,” she said.
Sofia, who was nervous earlier, warms up to holding Dylan on her second turn. She says he’s probably the cutest animal she’s ever held.
“I’ve really never held a bird before, I’ve seen birds but I’ve never held a bird. So this is really neat for me.”
Goodson hopes that handling raptors up-close instills a sense of respect and care towards birds that the kids might not have had before.