By: Erin Kirkland
Hannah Boron, 10, knows her birds of prey. A graduate of the American Bald Eagle Foundation’s Junior Raptor Handler program, Hannah and her twin sister, Haley, are part of an elite group of kids who participate in public presentations and stewardship activities at the foundation’s nature center in Haines, Alaska.
Brainchild of founder Dave Olerud and managed by Dr. Dan Hart, the foundation’s raptor curator, the handler program has blossomed since its inception in 2011, with a cadre of young people interested in science, nature, and the center’s feathered residents. To date, 23 kids have gone through the difficult course of study and hands-on training, with many more anxiously waiting their turn.
It’s no simple thing. Students are put through a rigorous application process that includes interviews with parents to ensure a good fit for the enormous amount of time required. Participants dedicate three months of Saturdays to learning everything about raptors, including anatomy, feeding, and the basics of handling a bird. Two tests are required: a mid-term, where those who cannot demonstrate ability are asked to reapply next year, and a final. Potential handlers then move on to what Hart calls the “five-pound test,” holding a weight on one arm for 15 minutes to prove physical fortitude necessary to safely manage a strong, yet fragile creature.
“Youngsters don’t even touch a live bird until after they pass the mid-term,” says Hart. “But once they do, the results are amazing.”
Junior handlers have ranged in age from nine to 18; most are from the greater Haines area, but three graduates hail from Canada, and the incoming 2014 class includes two from San Francisco, Calif.
“The first time I held a bird, I was pretty nervous,” said Hannah, looking at Dylan, a tiny Eastern Screech owl quietly perched on her thick, leather glove. “I used to be pretty shy, but I don’t worry about that anymore. I just help the birds, and my community, and I like that.”
The Junior Raptor Handler program is the only one in the United States where kids under the age of 18 are permitted to interact with birds of this nature, and, says Hart, it’s under some intense scrutiny. Safety is of paramount importance (to date, there have been no injuries to either kids or birds), and participants’ parents are required to sign a detailed waiver and listen to a presentation about the realities of handling birds with sharp beaks and vice-like talons.
“We have planned and implemented a comprehensive, safe, and incredibly successful program,” said Hart. “And we set the bar extremely high for the kids who participate.”
It’s not always easy, though. Lessons include struggles within the circle of survival. Raptors eat meat, lots of it, and young handlers take part in the entire process, which means witnessing difficult moments of life, and death. But Hart feels that’s a critical element to the students’ maturation.
“We would be doing them a disservice if we didn’t involve our kids in every aspect of the birds’ care,” Hart says. “These birds depend upon humans, because they cannot fly or care for themselves anymore. They need the kids, and the kids, it turns out, need these experiences, too.”
Visit the Junior Raptor Handlers at the American Bald Eagle Foundation throughout the summer months. Kids work two-hour shifts inside the center, answering questions, giving presentations, and caring for their feathered partners. www.baldeagles.org, 907-766-3094. Open Monday-Saturday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m.; admission is $10/adults, $8/seniors, $5/ages 8-17. Children under eight are free. Admission includes a visit with the birds and the on-site natural history museum.