After visiting the Old Idaho Penitentiary with me the day before, it was Jon’s turn to choose a touristy activity. Of course, he hadn’t really done any research ahead of time, so he is lucky that we drove past an informational road sign on our way into Boise, stating that the World Center for Birds of Prey was nearby. That got him curious enough to look it up online and declare that that’s what he was interested in seeing.
The center is a couple miles outside of town, a pleasant drive through strip malls, urban sprawl, and then agricultural land. It is located at the top of a hill, and it overlooks the valley below, which is designated as a wildlife preserve. The World Center for Birds of Prey was founded by the Peregrine Fund, as a conservation and education center for… well, duh… birds of prey. I had heard of the Peregrine Fund before, but had never really thought about what their mission is – I learned that they are actually a group dedicated to the ancient sport of falconry. That’s right – the Peregrine Fund is a sportsman association for hunters who use falcons to kill other birds – including other birds of prey.
At the center, they are pretty candid about this sordid connection and explain that conservation is part of their mission, because they need the prey birds to remain at healthy numbers in order to be able to continue their sport. That got me thinking – I really don’t agree with the concept of sport hunting (using birds or otherwise) but I suppose they do have a point.
Their first conservation mission began in 1970, to save the Peregrine Falcon from extinction – the Peregrines and other birds of prey had become threatened due to the agricultural pesticide DDT, which causes birds to lay eggs with thin shells. The breeding program and legislation to ban DDT were so successful that the Peregrine Falcon was removed from the Endangered Species list in 1999.
We bought tickets (AAA got us a discount) and listened to a kind, older gentleman give the intro before heading through the double doors back outside into a fenced area. The man explained that the birds are not able to be released into the wild for various reasons; either they have been injured or because they are too imprinted on humans. The center doesn’t take in wild birds though; because they are a breeding center for critically endangered birds, they cannot afford to risk diseases getting into the center.
Once we stepped outside, we were in a sunny courtyard with several benches and natural landscaping. Around the edges of the courtyard, there were several gorgeous birds on perches in enclosures. The center has two Bateleur Eagles, native to Africa, who were raised from birth by humans and are imprinted. They were hatched in 1966 and 1968 – making them 45 and 47 years old!
I had never seen a Bateleur Eagle before (nor had I even heard of them), and I was struck by how beautiful they are. They are considered medium sized eagles, but they seemed large to me – and they are all black with red orange feet and faces. Also on display were a Bald Eagle, an Ornate Hawk Eagle (native to South America), and a Peregrine Falcon.
In another enclosure, the center has three California Condors, two adults and a juvenile. The story of the California Condor is an interesting one. Over the last hundred years, the condor population declined significantly due to habitat loss, hunting and lead poisoning because Condors eat the carcasses of animals discarded by hunters. The shot used to kill other animals often contains lead, and the pellets were ingested by the Condors as they were feeding on the carcass. Add to that the fact that Condors only raise one chick every other year – although they will hatch a second egg in a year if something happens to the first egg.
As a result, the wild population plummeted to 22 – that’s right – there were only 22 California Condors remaining in the world in 1982. The drastic decision was made to capture all of the remaining Condors and begin breeding them in captivity – the capture was completed in 1987. The World Center for Birds of Prey has 20 breeding pairs of Condors – and they have released several Condors near the Grand Canyon in Arizona. To date this year (as of June when we were there) the center had hatched 14 eggs!
The program is not without some controversy, but there is no way to deny that it has had success. Currently, there are 226 Condors in the wild and another 179 in captivity. And they are beautiful to see – these birds have the largest wingspan of any North American bird, about 9.5 feet! They eat carrion and have the characteristic bald head of a vulture, and always worth mentioning, they poop on their feet to keep cool in the hot desert sun. How’s that for making good use of your resources?! In their enclosure, they have enough room to do a bit of flying, although in the wild they will soar at altitudes of up to 15,000 feet, looking for their next meal. Amazing!
After seeing the birds outside, we went inside, where there is a small museum and some other birds. The museum contains exhibits on falconry, the captive breeding program and specimens of many bird of prey, ranging from the very small to the very large. It is disconcerting to see dead animals preserved, but it does allow you to compare the different birds to each other to see differences in size and appearance.
Inside, we saw:
- Gyrfalcons – native to the Arctic and threatened by global warming
- Eurasian Eagle Owl – the largest of the tufted owls – native to Northern and Southern Europe
- Turkey Vulture – native to the Americas and the Caribbean
- Orange Breasted Falcon – native from Southern Mexico to Northern Argentina
- Aplomado Falcons – Endangered – native from the Southern United States to Southern Mexico
The Center also breeds Aplomado Falcons – in 2012 their 24 breeding pairs hatched 74 chicks! These falcons are released in Texas and New Mexico to repopulate areas where the birds had not been seen since the 1950s. During our visit, they had demonstrations of various birds they care for – we watched one with a Western Screech Owl. That little guy was super cute! It was an opportunity to see the bird up close and to hear a bit about what they eat and how they live. I did kind of want to take him home though!
I really enjoyed our visit and learned a lot – if you are in the area, you should definitely go. It is well worth the time.