KOKOMO, Ind. — The honking noise from Tabitha Pelgen’s tiny car was loud and commanding as the crated crane voiced its dismay at being transported to Salamonie Lake State Forest.
“I was trying to drive somewhere I’d never been, navigating all kinds of road closures because of flooding, with this bird making a trumpeting noise at me the whole way,” she said. “I can’t describe how loud it was. I had no idea a crane could fill a vehicle with its call.”
It ended happily, however, when she opened the crate and released the crane back into his natural habitat, all part of the day’s work as an intern in bird rescue.
Tabitha, a junior biology major at Indiana University Kokomo, dedicated her summer to hands-on learning with hawks, kestrels, owls, and other birds of prey, at the Soarin’ Hawk Raptor Rehabilitation Center, near Fort Wayne.
“People don’t think of Indiana as a great haven of biodiversity, but we have amazing animals here, and we need to take care of them,” the Kokomo resident said. “I’ve loved birds my whole life. I wanted to get experience handling raptors, so I could possibly work with an organization like the Falcon Fund, which is reintroducing the peregrine falcon to Indiana.”
She’s also interested in studying ornithology in graduate school, with her research focused on how diseases spread among bird species, and how they could mutate and spread to people.
“We don’t realize how close we are to it,” Tabitha said. “We’ve had avian flu outbreaks in Indiana, and while it can’t be transmitted to people, but farmers can lose their entire flocks. It usually starts with water fowl, then spreads to chicken and turkeys, and then the farmers can’t do anything with them. It affects their livelihood.”
As an intern, she assisted with rescuing injured birds, transporting them to the center, caring for them while in the center, releasing those who could be return to the wild, and training those that cannot to serve as educational birds.
She also took the organization’s message of conservation through education and rehabilitation to the public, speaking and showing birds at Boy Scout programs, county fairs, and the Fort Wayne Zoo.
Lina Rifai, associate professor of vertebrate biology and anatomy, said internships like Tabitha’s show students what it’s really like to work in conservation.
“They learn it’s not just about taking care of cute little animals,” she said. “They learn how much public speaking and education is involved, how much time people dedicate to this work, and how to interact with people when you go out to rescue an animal. There is a lot of data keeping, making sure you know what is coming in and out, what medications are needed for which birds, and how to feed them the right food at the right time.
“It’s practical experience, applying what they’ve learned in class to real life situations,” she said.
An avid bird watcher, Tabitha had seen raptors from a distance, but never held one. She’ll never forget her first experience, putting on a glove and allowing an Eastern screech owl named Houdini to land on her arm. She was surprised by the strength of his grip, especially since he’s the size of a Beanie baby.
“It’s surprising when one locks onto you for the first time, and you realize how powerful they are,” she said. “I knew they were strong, I know they could pick up large prey with their talons, but when you feel it on your arm, their power becomes real to you.”
Handling the birds, she could talk about them to people, educating them on where raptors are found, how they are injured, and what can be done to protect them. She had to be careful with Houdini, known to bite, but enjoyed handling Peanut, another Eastern screech owl so tame he would fall asleep on her arm.
Even with the trained birds, though, she learned it’s always good to be cautious.
“They’re still wild animals,” she said. “They can still react unexpectedly.”
With the birds scheduled to return to the wild, care is different.
“Those don’t have any interaction with the public, and minimal interaction with us, so they don’t become dependent on people,” Tabitha said. “We just went in to feed them quickly, clean when necessary, and provide care to prepare them to go back.”
She was surprised by the large number of birds the non-profit cares for — in 2016, it provided veterinary care for more than 226 raptors. Many of the injuries are caused by humans, including birds hit by cars or injured by flying into windows. While mostly the center cares for raptors, it also takes in others, such as the crane she released.
Tabitha assisted a veterinarian in removing a fish hook caught in a Cooper’s hawk’s wing, she said, noting that the bird was found wrapped in fishing line, hanging in a tree.
“When you see how often that happens, it affects you,” she said. “It makes you think about conservation and what you’re doing, and what you’re putting out in the environment. Am I throwing an apple core out my car window, which will attract mice, which brings raptors to where they can get hit by cars? Am I doing everything I can?”
Indiana University Kokomo serves north central Indiana.