To understand the mission of the Carolina Raptor Center, you’ve got to meet Ya-Ya.
“This is our red legged seireima and his name is Ya-Ya and he’s very curious about everything,” says Colleen Roddick, training coordinator at the Carolina Raptor Center. “He’s a gentle giant who is just very curious.”
You find yourself listening to the explanation while a three-foot-tall bird with long legs, wide eyes, and an ornate bunch of feathers poking out of the top of its beak, is pecking around your legs. The bird normally lives in grasslands in Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina but Ya-Ya is a captive born bird that was given to the Carolina Raptor Center. Staff members are training the bird to be an ambassador.
“We’re training him to follow along with us and we use these sticks with a tennis ball attached as his target stick,” explains Roddick. “When we present them down to the ground he’s knows to run up to the target stick, and when he does that we bridge him and say good job, and that reinforces the behavior, and after that we give him a food reinforcement, which could be a berry or a worm or something else he would naturally eat in the wild.”
Actually, the staff hopes you not only meet Ya-ya, but have what is called a nose to beak encounter with him. It was easy to see the power of that encounter when Ya-Ya started poking around a group of visitors.
“Oh, it’s so cute!” exclaimed one woman. “Look at how colorful it is, and that’s my shoelace!” said a man. “He’s funny!” said two children at the same time.
“This is why what Ya-Ya does is so important,” said Kristin Dean, animal husbandry manager with the Carolina Raptor Center. “We want to get the birds in front of people, which is why we do so much training, to make sure they aren’t nervous, but we also want to show visitors something the bird would do in the wild,” added Dean.
The Center counts environmental education and environmental stewardship as part of its mission. Staffers believe that is best accomplished by getting people as close to birds as possible, whether the birds are on display or trained. The Center has 85 birds as permanent residents. Some are used in a daily flight show for visitors, some walk around as ambassadors or are taken to schools, and some are on display but are close to visitors. Education through a variety of close encounters with birds is key.
“We train our birds to show off their natural behavior,” adds Dean. “We want visitors to get up close and have a nose to beak experience with our birds so they can learn about their environment and empower people to do something for the natural world.”
Perhaps not as well know is that the training also helps staff with animal husbandry work, which helps with the Center’s other mission, the rehabilitation of injured and orphaned raptors.
The medical centers treats almost 1,000 birds every year. Roughly 70 percent of those are released back into the wild.
Dave Scott, DVM, the Center’s staff veterinarian, shows me the x-rays from his latest patient.
“This is a bard owl, which is a pretty common owl in our area, and you can see this poor guy has two broken shin bones because he probably got clipped by the hood of a car,” said Scott, pointing out the metal rods that are going through the bird’s legs. “The bird has been here for two weeks and you can see the bright white, steel implants in both legs. We repaired both bones on separate days and he’s doing quite well because he’s actually starting to stand on those legs."
Scott explains that if all goes well the implants will be removed in roughly three weeks and then staff will begin the process of getting the bird back into flight shape. He will be released back into the wild in about two months.
And that brings us back to Ya-Ya, who is now walking away from the visitors and heading to a brightly lit clearing now far away. The giant bird reaches the clearing and then quickly rolls onto its back. It’s legs are sticking up in the air. It’s wings are open. At first glance, Ya-Ya appears to be dead. “He’s getting some sun,” Dean tells me, in-between bouts of laughter. Grasslands are it’s natural habitat so this is probably feeling good. It appears life at the Carolina Raptor Center agrees with Ya-Ya. After having a nose-to-beak encounter with visitors, catching a few rays is probably a good reward.