Saving South Dakota’s Birds of Prey: The Black Hills Raptor Center

Elise’s destiny was to hunt the prairie grasslands. Instead she helps Maggie Engler of the Black Hills Raptor Center teach people how important the lives of raptors — red-tailed hawks and other birds of prey — are to us.

Raptors prey on birds, voles, rabbits, amphibians, fish, carrion and even grasshoppers. For humans, though, the best news is a raptor’s appetite for mice.

Mice eat wheat, corn, oats, rye and other grains used in cereals, bread, pasta and beer. In one year, a pair of mice and their offspring can produce thousands of babies. Each pair of mice that lives a year eats 8 pounds of grain between them, and spreads their filth in another 22 pounds.

 Because they don’t see well, mice mark every step of a journey with urine and excrement so they can sniff their way home. If you’ve eaten grain in any form, you’ve eaten mouse waste.

 “So,” Engler says, “we should love anything that eats mice.”

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As “perch and pounce” hunters, red-tailed hawks don’t waste much energy chasing things. They soar to settle on trees, telephone poles, fence posts or rocks to watch for prey.

Elise was 10 days old when she was taken from her nest, caged and fed hot dogs and hamburger. Once she learned to accept food from humans, she became dangerous. Believing humans are the source of food and mates, she became aggressive with handlers and could never resume her normal life.

Elise is a visible symbol of how little we know about the prairie that surrounds our highways and cities in the Great Plains.

Engler and her co-founder John Halverson started the Black Hills Raptor Center in Rapid City to help birds of prey recover from human-caused damage. By federal law, the center may educate only with birds that can never be released into the wild. Unfortunately, Elise is one of them.

 The center is also home to Phoenix the ferruginous hawk, Freya the red-tailed hawk, Aldo, the great-horned owl, Hendrix and Joplin, the American kestrels, and two Eastern screech owls, Little Red Riding Hoot and the Big Bad Wolf, all species native to South Dakota. Recently, Izaak Walton the peregrine falcon joined the flock of ambassadors. In hundreds of miles of prairie grassland, Maggie is one of the few people offering hope of survival for injured raptors. 

“The birds don’t belong to us,” Halverson says. “They belong to the people of the United States. They are not pets. They are only caged because they are too seriously injured to be released. Their lives were damaged, usually by humans, so they are being recycled in educational programs, to help people understand the importance of these birds to the world.”

 Even on the prairies, many raptor species have sharply declined in locations where their habitats have been altered by subdivisions, plowing, highway construction, mining and other human activities. Raptor species are also damaged by rodenticides and other pesticides, organic chemicals such as PCBs and metals such as mercury and lead. Many die from secondary poisoning after eating contaminated prey, perhaps poisoned prairie dogs, rats or mice. Some die from eating lead if they feed on animals shot by hunters. Engler, an ardent big game hunter, has switched to non-toxic shot. 

 The picture isn’t completely bleak; species like the bald eagle and peregrine falcon have rebounded since use of the pesticide DDT was restricted in the 1970s.  

 As part of teaching the public to appreciate the birds, Engler and volunteers introduce the BHRC raptors to the public in 160-170 programs a year for preschool through college classes, community groups, visitors to national and state parks, conservation camps, outdoor expos and sports shows around western South Dakota. Engler estimates Elise has visited 2,500 classrooms.

 “I can teach any topic through birds,” Engler says, because “raptors capture the human heart like no other birds.”

 Trained as a naturalist, interpreter and environmental educator, Engler has done this work for 30 years in various capacities. She also teaches preschool and tutors people with dyslexia. In her “spare” time she cares for the birds, handles BHRC correspondence, communicates with volunteers and writes grants.

The mission of the nonprofit BHRC includes scientific research, education and rehabilitation and release, but achieving those goals is difficult without a building. Engler and volunteers haul the birds in their cars all over the state to present programs, then bring them home to the newly built facility east of Rapid City.   

 A building to temporarily house the BHRC ambassador birds has moved the group closer to being licensed to rehabilitate the injured. Eventually the ambassadors will be moved into their own permanent aviaries or mews. Then the building now in use will be dedicated to rehabilitating the injured. Providing a place for volunteer veterinarians to work on the birds would allow more of them to be returned to the wild to live out their lives in their necessary place in the food chain.

Science has not proven that rehabilitating common species like great horned owls or red-tailed hawks helps the local population. “But,” Engler says, “returning an injured bird to the wild enables us to bring people a step closer to nature and a world from which they are too far removed. I want people to be able to visit on special open house days, to see the raptors they might see in the skies over their own homes, take part in a program, to watch a release of a rehabilitated bird.”

The property will also enable the Black Hills Raptor Center to conduct and participate in understanding the role of raptors in the environment. Having the raptors available for public visits will draw more community support, volunteers and donations. South Dakota has an abundance of raptors that are rare in other areas. Daytime (diurnal) raptors include bald and golden eagles, turkey vultures, osprey and five kinds of hawks — red-tailed, ferruginous, Swainson’s, broad-winged and rough-legged. Five North American falcons live here — the American kestrel, merlin, prairie falcon, peregrine falcon and, in winter months, the gyrfalcon.

 Only three accipiters — hawks with short, broad wings and long tails particularly suited to fast flight in wooded areas — live in North America. South Dakota has all three: the northern goshawk, Cooper’s hawk and sharp-shinned hawk. In addition, nine species of nighttime (nocturnal) raptors float through our night skies: great horned, eastern screech, burrowing, long-eared, short-eared, northern saw-whet, flammulated, barn and snowy owls. This rich legacy of predatory birds offers an extraordinary opportunity to encourage strong breeding populations of wild raptors here.

After eleven years of gutting rats and mice for raptor food on her kitchen counter, Engler is overjoyed to have a food preparation space separate from her own kitchen. 

 The site will also allow volunteers to begin rehabilitating raptors locally. At least 100 people a year ask Engler for help with injured birds, but all she can do is assess each bird’s condition before taking it to a facility with the necessary permits to provide medical care. The nearest permitted facilities are several hundred miles away, in Wyoming and eastern South Dakota. Many injured birds don’t live long enough to reach help.

Engler now lives on site, in a residence mostly built by volunteers. The next buildings on the property will be the Rehabilitation and Research Hub.  The largest of the 6 planned buildings in the complex, it will include exam rooms, labs, radiology, an ICU and surgical suites will allow BHRC to treat injured birds. A separate isolation and quarantine area will allow treatment of cases of avian pox and other highly contagious illnesses, without endangering other raptors in for treatment. 

“Mouse school” will enable the birds to learn to hunt so they can survive in the wild. In these mews — individual apartments for each bird — lower walls will be encased in sheet metal so that live mice released into the rooms cannot escape. Birds will learn to kill their own food, never seeing the humans who deliver it. Thus they will not associate food with people and won’t suffer the imprinting that ruined Elise for life in the wild.

Little Red Riding Hoot and Big Bad Wolf represent the Eastern Screech owl in Engler’s programs, tiny raptors that nest wherever trees are available. They hide in dark nooks during the day, hunting primarily at night, so your best chance of knowing they are around may come from hearing them at night. Despite their name, they do not screech; their eerie call is more like a horse whinnying.

 As the smallest of Engler’s educational raptors, the screech owls have the smallest appetites. Little Red Riding Hoot, who weighs about 5 ounces, can eat up to three mice a day, at one ounce each, or 60 percent of her body weight. Unfortunately, wild mice are not an option since they might carry disease that would sicken a volunteer, or poison that would kill the educational birds. One domestic mouse costs 95 cents, making Hoot’s per diem $3.00 during cold weather, or $190 for the coldest 60 days. If she eats two mice a day for the rest of the year (305 days) her total year’s food bill is $750.50 for 790 mice. Feeding all six of the raptors the Center now cares for costs almost $6,000 per year.   

Sponsors have included interested local citizens as well as Rapid City’s Reptile Gardens, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the local chapter of the Izaak Walton League. Federal officers have helped BHRC receive contributions from cash fines levied on people who are caught poaching raptors.

In the wild, Elise’s life span would have been 10 or 12 years. She’s 34 years old, and she and Engler have been together since 2008. “She was the first red-tailed hawk I ever had on a glove,” Engler says. “There are very few red-tailed hawks in captivity that have her years on them. We retired Elise a few years ago and now the younger red-tailed Freya takes on the program duties. Elise is living a luxurious life in a new mews with a great view and all the care she needs.”

 Her eyes are shadowed with understanding of the inevitable, but she can smile, knowing that the Black Hills Raptor Center will not die.

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2022, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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Want to Help?

The Black Hills Raptor Center welcomes contributions. Send to BHRC, PO Box 48, Caputa, SD 57725; phone 605-391-2511; info@BlackHillsRaptorCenter.org

 Money isn’t the only way to help. The website (www.blackhillsraptorcenter.org) provides a wish list of items needed, including hand tools, garden hose, postage stamps, bleach, detergent, and boxes of sandwich baggies used when processing meat for bird food.

Maggie Engler with Elise in 2014

Photo credits:

From the internet: mouse in the grain.

From the Black Hills Raptor Center website: photos of the building and mews under construction and the photo of the two screech owls Little Red Riding Hoot and the Big Bad Wolf.

Photos by my assistant, Tam Rogers: Elise the red-tailed hawk with blue sky behind her taken in 2014; Hendrix the kestrel showing his under-wings at an educational talk to a Road Scholar class in 2016; the hawk on the bird feeding platform, the barn owl standing on one leg, and the great-horned owl in the barn window taken at Tam’s place about 7 miles from Windbreak House; the photo of Maggie Engler with Elise taken at an educational program in 2014.

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