Under the leadership of Beth Watne, a local nonprofit organization takes injured birds under its wing

Story by Clare Menzel | Photography by Greg Lindstrom
Byron Crow tucked the bald eagle into the crook of his elbow for her morning feeding of protien-rich liver and heart chunks soaked in Vitahawk, which is basically Pedialyte for raptors. He arranged her tail and legs so she sat up straight on his knee like a young child on Grandpa’s lap.

She bobbed her head, twisted her neck, and strained her powerful wings against the blue wrap swaddling her chest, but her legs and feet dangled limply from Crow’s thigh.

Ten days previous, Crow, a raptor biologist, and Beth Watne, founder and executive director of Montana Wild Wings Recovery Center in Kalispell, got a call from the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal warden. A rancher had found a grounded bald eagle just outside Pablo. Though she was snapping her beak and slapping her wings on the dirt, she seemed frozen below the waist.

Crow and Watne took her in. Under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, Watne, who has a handful of permits issued by both the state of Montana and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that authorize her as a raptor rehabilitator and educator, has nine months to heal the bird. If the eagle isn’t ready to be released by then and if she doesn’t have the placid temperament to work as an educational bird, federal laws mandate that she must be euthanized.

Louie the long eared owl

Louie the long eared owl

But the Montana Wild Wings Recovery Center, a 501 (c)(3) wildlife rehabilitation organization that admits some 100 injured animals annually, has a strong track record. Between January and November 2015, the center healed and released six other bald eagles. Watne had to put one down because its wing was so badly broken and its leg too completely shattered. Another succumbed to its injuries. But six were returned to the skies.

Watne and Crow don’t know yet how exactly to fix this bald eagle because they don’t know what’s broken. None of the four veterinarians who donate their time to Wild Wings have found the source of the symptom. No indication of a spinal cord injury turned up on the X-Ray, her blood is circulating fine, and she has a full range of motion in her tail, which seems to eliminate local paralysis. Watne and Crow have asked other raptor experts at the University of Minnesota Raptor Center and the Cornell Raptor Program, but nobody else has answers, either.

For now, Watne and Crow are just caring for the eagle. Stabilizing her. Downed eagles lose weight and become prone to infection and dehydration. So they’re bathing her and drying her every day. Keeping her warm as the temperature drops. Feeding her power foods, easily digestible and nutritious meat without hair and bones.

And it’s working; they’re hopeful. In a week and a half’s time, some movement has returned. When Watne washes the eagle in her kitchen sink, the raptor opens and closes her mighty talons, which grip 10 times harder than the average adult human, in response to the gentle warm water.

At first, the bald eagle lay motionless in her chamber with her slack wings outstretched as if crucified. Recently, she’s been struggling so hard to push herself from her belly up to her perch that the skin on her knees is rubbing raw. She’s a fighter.

“Ronda Rousey comes to mind,” Crow said as he wedged a heavily gloved hand into the eagle’s beak to scoop her breakfast in.

“She’s given us a run for our money,” Watne agreed. “It’s like when you lose a sense – she lost her legs and now it’s like her beak is stronger.”

Crow yelped and withdrew his hand. Without pause, he tried again.

“It’s not if you’re going to get hurt, it’s [when],” Watne shrugged. “You can only watch one weapon at a time.”

Crow nodded. All 11 volunteers at Montana Wild Wings Recovery Center have been on the receiving end of a talon or beak.

Gingerly, Crow placed the eagle on the ground in her chamber and loosened the hood that covered her eyes to reduce visual stimulation during the morning bath and feeding – raptors’ eyes, their strongest sense, are nine times more powerful than the human eye. Both volunteers crouched, ready to spring away. With Watne’s help, Crow slowly loosened the wrap around her chest. The eagle’s wings, with an 8-foot-long wingspan, shot out to either side. Crow and Watne jumped out into the hallway and locked the door behind them.

“That is not a sick bird,” Crow said with a chuckle. It’s a strong bird.

“She’s beautiful,” Watne said.

They waited a beat for the eagle to settle, then moved on to the next task. Like always, they had a long to-do list.

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Beth Watne handles Katniss, a Harris’s hawk

The Montana Wild Wings Recovery Center currently houses 19 educational raptors of 17 difference species, in addition to any wounded animals in rehab. All the birds landed in Watne’s care after suffering some sort of injury from run-ins with cars, high voltage towers, and fences, among other things. Most of them have sustained some injury to the eyes, head, or wings so severe that it prevents full function back in the wild; many have amputated wings. Watne estimates that 90 percent of injured birds are found roadside.

Watne has an osprey, the only Montanan osprey trained to rest on a handler’s glove. The bird, named Lacey, was found in a Columbia Heights driveway with a broken and infected wing that was later amputated. Watne says she was able to teach the bird to sit on her arm because she had had so much human contact and attention during her medical care.

Watne also has Duke, a peregrine falcon, the fastest raptor; and she has Frank, a pygmy, the smallest.

“Now I have Igor, the loudest,” she said of one of her newest certified educational raptors, a barn owl.

Technically, to “have” these birds means to have them on loan from the United States federal government. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act establishes the government as the official owner of all living and dead members of the over 800 bird species listed in the law, including barn, pygmy, and snowy owls; and ferruginous, Swainson’s, and Harris’s hawks – all species under Watne’s roof.

Unless someone has the proper permits, it is illegal to take, possess, or transport any of the MBTA birds or their parts, nests, or eggs. There are some exceptions, like the eagle feather law, which permits the use of eagles in certain ceremonies performed by American Indian tribes. Violations of the MBTA can result in fines of up to $200,000.

The MBTA was enacted in response to a growing commercial trade of birds and, in particular, their feathers. Following the 1990 Lacey Act, which first sought to preserve game and wild birds and is now used to prevent the spread of non-native species, the MBTA was one of the first federal environmental laws.

Watne, who worked as a physician’s assistant for 30 years, began caring for raptors in 1983. At the time, she had permits to raise and sell ornamental fowl, pheasants, and game owls. But when a Libby man with a golden eagle and great horned owl suddenly passed away, the USFWS began looking for someone else locally to look after the birds. With few  options, they turned to Watne, who they knew was skilled, passionate, and smart.

“I turned them down because I didn’t know anything about [raptors,]” said Watne. “I never thought I’d be here … but by the third time they were very persuasive. Doctors gave me tips and I bought a lot of books. It was a sharp learning curve.”

Watne quickly took to the new birds.

“I was in awe of the eagle,” she said. “To be that close, it was a thrill. I found I liked doing the educational programs, and I started phasing out the water fowl and pheasants.”

Watne and her husband, Bob, started building the proper facilities on their land, just a few paces from their front door. There are stringent guidelines for those permitted to keep MBTA species, which is partially why there are only a handful of rehab centers in the state.
There are prescribed dimensions for chambers inhabited by each type of bird as well as their water bowls. Every surface must be smooth. The animals need to be fed a diet that mimics what they’d eat in the wild.

Watne has three fridges – one labeled rodents, filled with little baggies of dead mice; one labeled meat, with quail for the falcons; and one labeled fish, with food for the osprey. Ideally, she’d feed them live animals.

“For raptors,” she said, “everything is based on motion. Even if they’re in captivity, they never lose that interest in movement.”

When she has very young raptors that may not have learned how to hunt on their own, she’ll buy live mice, which at $3.50 a piece are much more expensive than the deceased, frozen option. Though the birds are owned by the government, no public funds are available for organizations like Wild Wings, which runs on private donations and grants. But the expense is necessary to care for the young birds. If the raptors don’t learn how to eat like a raptor, they can’t be released into the wild.

“We jump through hoops and bend over backwards to keep them from imprinting,” Watne said. “We don’t want them to imprint, to identify with humans instead of their own species.”

Sweeney, a Swainson's hawk, was hit by a car and suffered a broken elbow

Sweeney, a Swainson’s hawk, was hit by a car and suffered a broken elbow

Because the MBTA stipulates that each bird living permanently with Watne must participate in 12 educational programs a year, education of the public is a major part of Wild Wings operations. Watne and her volunteers educate some 5,000 people during classroom visits, on-site tours, and over 100 other events throughout the year.

“You have to use them for public education,” Watne said. “You can’t just have them as a pet. As if they’d make good pets.”

People frequently inquire about volunteering only to learn, to their disappointment, that you can’t exactly play with a raptor like you would a puppy or stroke it like a kitten.

“Raptor is basically Latin for ripping and tearing,” Crow said. “You know, people think we’re into birds. No, we’re into raptors.”

Still, Crow and Watne talk to the raptors like feathered members of the family: “C’mon, sugar,” Crow will admonish a bird who won’t hop onto his glove before asking how she’s doing today. They give the birds instructions –“No bite! No!” – even though they both acknowledge that the raptors only pick up on feeling and emotion, not verbal commands.

Both Watne and Crow, as well as the other volunteers, are completely devoted to these animals. If an injured animal misses its migration, Watne will drive it south to meet a flock in Arizona. Crow, who lives in Polson, spends days at a time in Kalispell tending to the eagles and falcons and owls.

Watne’s home was built like a bed and breakfast, with multiple bedrooms that have their own bathrooms. She hopes to partner with an institution of higher education to welcome students and other people like Crow to Wild Wings for research and long-term first-hand learning. She wants to build a new clinic building, and after that, a huge empty barn for birds to regain their sense of flight, to remember what it feels like to have wind beneath their wings.

Watne has guided Wild Wings for three decades and she’s not planning on clocking out anytime soon. Her dreams for Wild Wings are realistic but they are not bound down to the earth. Sky’s the limit.

“We want this to go on forever,” she said.