A Passion for Saving Birds of Prey

I’m from Beloit. Even though I grew up in the city, I still grew up with a really strong influence from my mother to love and appreciate nature. We didn't have a lot growing up; we were on the poor side. But my mother made the best of any situation for us.

Photos by Kathy Deinlein

“On Sundays, she would take us to Carver’s Rock or Big Hill Park and make a little fire and cook breakfast and we’d go pick up hickory nuts and toads and crayfish and things like that.

My mom had a real interest in birds of prey. We’d go bird watching.

That was during the time when they were still using DDT, before it was banned. It was a rarity to see a bald eagle or a red-tailed hawk or other raptors, but it was a really big deal when we did.

When I was young, I wanted to be a veterinarian. That’s all I wanted to do. I did very well in school. But when it came time to go to college, my father was very old-school and felt that that was just a waste of money, especially for a girl.

My first job was working at a bank. Then after I got married and when my children were young, I worked for the Edgerton Vet Clinic. I was a receptionist, and worked there for about ten years.

At the clinic, I met a gentleman named Tom who had a raptor rehabilitation center. I went to his center and volunteered for him a couple of times. He said, ‘You are just so good with raptors, you’re a natural. It’s like you’ve been doing this forever.’ So I got trained and licensed, and I started out as a rehabilitator.

The five main groups of raptors are hawks, owls, eagles, falcons, and vultures. There’s more, but those are the five main groups. Raptors, of course, are birds of prey. A raptor has a large hooked beak and talons for grabbing and tearing, and they’re meat eating birds.

The first two birds I rehabbed were little great horned owls that were in a fire. They were probably four weeks old. Tom brought them over to me. There had been a burn going on somewhere, and obviously they didn’t realize that these owls were nesting in the area. Their nests are so high and secretive.

Tom came over, and he had this bag of thawed-out mice. He handed me scissors and said, ‘You have to feed the birds.’ I said, ‘Okay.’ ‘But you have to cut the mice.’ I said, ‘With the scissors?’ He firmly answered, ‘I’m not doing it for you. You’ve got to do it.’

That was challenging, but I did it.

Once I fed the owls, and could see that they were hungry, and every day they were doing better, that outweighed everything. In the end they recovered, and we released them.

At first, learning to handle the birds and read their behavior is difficult. They can be very quick with their feet. A big part of it is learning how to handle them safely—keeping you safe and keeping them safe. When they come in for rehab, they’re sick, injured, or orphaned. You have to be able to tell when they’re getting stressed.

I don’t remember being afraid, but I always remember being respectful and putting the bird first and being very careful—not becoming complacent and thinking, ‘This bird has been in my clinic for a week and now it knows me.’ That’s when you can get hurt or something can happen. It’s just not being complacent and always being responsible.

We all have our niche. There are people who are really good with horses or really good at training dogs. I think, honestly, working with raptors is something that is just built inside me. I feel very passionate about it.”

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Photo courtesy of Dianne Moller

“We established Hoo’s Woods Raptor Center in 1998. One night, my husband at the time and my children and I were sitting around this little campfire in the backyard. One of my kids said, ‘Whose woods is it, Mommy?’ Meaning: does it belong to the birds or to us? I said, ‘We all have to share it.’ It was just so fitting. That’s how we came up with the name Hoo’s Woods.

It started with a little red shed in my backyard, which we quickly outgrew. Today we have a large building with a clinic, numerous enclosures, outbuildings, aviaries, and a large flight area for eagles.

My kids grew up with it. When they had special projects at school they would ask, ‘Mom, can you bring an owl to class?’ At first it was pretty cool, but it’s like having a dog. The first dog, it’s exciting and fun, and then it just becomes part of everyday life. But I think my children really see value in what we do.

I started out as a rehabilitator, and then I took on three education birds. The birds we use for public education are non-releasable because of a physical or psychological impairment. They can’t survive in the wild. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Wisconsin DNR allow them to be used for public education programs and exhibits to teach about their natural history, biology, and conservation.

I really wanted to get into educating people because I felt so passionate about the birds. I’ve been doing educational programs for 20 years now. Today, I have 12 trained education birds for our programs. We’re considered to have one of the top collections in the state. We speak to a lot of children, we visit a lot of schools, libraries, conservation clubs, senior citizen groups, and more.

In our presentations, we talk about where raptors and wildlife fall into the ecosystem and how they benefit the world. We talk about the birds individually so that people learn about their biology, and the historical side of them, the hazards like DDT and lead poisoning. We talk about how to encourage habitat preservation, and what happens when we don’t, like the example of the barn owl. We haven’t had a nesting pair of barn owls in 40 years in Wisconsin due to loss of grassland habitat.

In 2015, the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation called me and said, ‘Congratulations, you are Wildlife Conservationist of the Year.’ Literally, you could have knocked me over with a feather. I thought, ‘Me, really, seriously?’ They invited me up to this award ceremony. It was very humbling, and I was very honored to be there.

The award says, ‘In recognition for your outstanding accomplishments in making a significant contribution to wildlife resources in Wisconsin during the past years.’

As a result of our programs over the years, we’ve had groups that have made kestrel nesting boxes, or screech owl boxes, or just wanted to restore habitat or do something to help the environment, even if it’s going out and picking up trash on the roadsides.

It’s so amazing when a kid comes up to you after a presentation and says, ‘I want to be a biologist. I want to work with birds. I want to make a difference. I want to help.’”

“A program I did that I’ll never forget was for a group of children at Hospice who were either sick or had recently lost a parent. It was very humbling to see the impact the birds had on them. At least for a moment, those kids were focused on something else. My mother was in Hospice and died recently, so I’ve thought about that a lot. I think about how hard it was, at my age, to watch my mother…but to be so young and to have had that experience? That was pretty profound.

My mother had Alzheimer’s for 16 years, and she lived at Azura Memory Care for ten. She had been declining for quite some time, and she hadn’t known me for four years. With Alzheimer’s, you lose them twice. You lose them when they forget you and then you lose them again.

My mom was such a great, tough lady. When I started the raptor center she was thrilled, because she just loved them.

She’d come over and help me clean, help me with the birds. She particularly liked the little birds, like the kestrels and screech owls. If we needed to go away as a family, she would come over and help out. It was great.

Even after my mom went into the home, I continued to go see her for ten years, and I took birds with me. The neat thing about taking the birds to the home was how responsive the residents were to animals. It would trigger memories that they would talk about. They just loved it.

I had a wood carving of a kestrel that I put in my mom’s room. As her disease progressed, her world of reality became different. She thought the kestrel was real for a period of time. She’d carry him around the home, and she’d put him in the window sill to give him sun, and all of that.

Her caregivers think it was a stroke that took her down. They said she wouldn’t last for a day or two, but she hung on for 14 days. I spent a lot of time with her during those weeks, and had volunteers, friends, and family to help keep things going at the raptor center. But I also took breaks. I fed the birds, took care of what I needed to do. It was somewhat of a distraction, and it was comforting, too.

My hopes for the future are to continue with education and rehab. We’ve really expanded our facility this year. We have a couple of buildings we’ve renovated, but now we need to finish the interiors. We want to open a small education center. We were presenting raptor camps for kids that were really popular, but it became too congested in the bird building, and too warm. We want to have a place where we can be out of the weather, in more of a classroom setting. Our goal is to expand our programs and just keep doing what we’re doing and reaching as many people as we can.”

“Some years ago, I had a Harris’s hawk that another raptor educator transferred to me. I wanted to learn more about handling birds, and an official from U.S. Fish and Wildlife recommended, ‘Go to a falconry meet. Falconers know about equipment, conditioning, handling, and training.’

Falconry is a method of hunting that was common before gunpowder was invented. It involves the hunting of wild quarry by a trained raptor. Falconry allows people to identify with a raptor as a hunter, and it creates a special bond that connects us to nature. It benefits the birds, too—70 percent of all wild raptors die in the first year, so by keeping a falconry bird the first year, it allows them to become expert hunters and increases their chances of survival when they’re released back into the wild.

I went to a Wisconsin Falconers meet and I found them to be very welcoming. They helped me with the right type of equipment and some training for the Harris’s hawk. Then I went to another meet the following year. There is no competition, they just get together with their birds and go hunting. I remember watching a long-time falconer with his bird.

Seeing his peregrine falcon fly high and then return to him was just one of the most beautiful moments. It made me want to become a falconer, myself.

To become a falconer, you have to take a written exam with the DNR. It’s a difficult test. They want to make sure you know how to take care of your bird. Then the DNR inspects your mews, which is where you keep your bird.  You’re required to have a sponsor. You have to apply for a license and a permit. Then you have to trap a bird with your sponsor in a certain timeframe during fall migration.

I started out with a young red-tailed hawk, trained it, and let it go in the spring so it could become part of the breeding population. Letting a bird go is bittersweet. It’s like, ‘Okay, now you can go. Find a mate. Do your thing.’ But you know that that bird has been hunting successfully with you for that season, so it has a really good chance at survival.

The merlin that I have now, a small falcon, was trapped along the Mississippi River during migration. She was thin and had a fungus that birds can get from another infected bird they’ve eaten. I treated her, but I also decided to fly her through the season. We hunt starlings, usually starting around November 1st and going as long as we can into the winter. I was considering releasing her last year, and then she contracted West Nile Virus. She was pretty sick for about a month, so I decided to keep her another season. She’s made a complete recovery.

About ten years ago, I decided to get involved in NAFA, the North American Falconers Association, on the board. I ran for Great Lakes director, and I was elected. I was just the third woman director in 50 years. When I got into falconry, I think only about nine or ten percent of falconers in the country were women. Now, it’s almost 30 percent. Young women are getting into it. Currently, I have two apprentices, and both are women.

In 2011 there was an international falconry festival in Abu Dhabi, in the Middle East, and I was asked to go to represent the U.S. It was a wonderful experience; a life-changing experience. I met a number of other women falconers from different countries, and we formed the Women’s Working Group for the International Association of Falconry.

For me, the best thing about falconry is the bond you form with the bird—that partnership with something wild.

They’re allowing you into their world. They choose to come back to you. They don’t have to. You really learn a lot, too, being out there with them, about what a tough world they live in. There are some hard lessons out there.”

-Dianne Moller | Milton, WI

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