POTOMAC — Jesse Varnado cradled his patient with both hands as he carried it into the Wild Skies Raptor Center’s “ICU.”
“This guy’s been pretty quiet,” he said. The great horned owl, about the size of a large loaf of bread, barely blinked as Varnado’s partner, Brooke Tanner, unwrapped bandages around the bird’s left foot. The bird was recently found on the side of Highway 12 with an infected injury in his left foot and a “lumpy” ankle injury in his right ankle — probably inflicted by another raptor.
“Doesn’t look bad,” Tanner said, pulling a long, bloodstained thread out of the puncture wound. She put a fresh dressing in, pressed a gauze pad into the bird’s palm, and taped it firmly into place. As the owl heals, she said, “we’re just doing bandage changes every two or three days.”
One adjoining room held several more injured raptors that Tanner and Varnado were nursing back to health; another held long-term residents unable to survive in the wild. Other barns and sheds on the 12.5-acre farm held more birds in varying stages of recuperation. They had seen a wide range of tribulations, from being hit by vehicles to tangling with other raptors. But they’d also had the good luck to receive Tanner’s and Varnado’s care at Wild Skies.
Tanner’s road here started in the early 2000s, after she graduated from veterinary technical school in Colorado and found work caring for horses at Greenough’s Paws Up ranch. One day in 2003, “I came across some young kestrels, and we were concerned because they were on a busy road on the ranch.”
A game warden told her that “if you don’t see the (kestrels’) parents for a couple days you can take them to this guy, Ken Wolff, up in Condon.” At the time, Wolff operated the Grounded Eagle Foundation for bird rehabilitation. Tanner kept in touch with him after bringing him those kestrels, and in 2006, he hired her as an assistant.
Up until then, mammals had been Tanner’s favorite. “But then, as soon as I got to see raptors up close the first time, (and) I had an eagle fly by me on the flight cage up there, it was like I was hooked. That was it for me.”
Failing health forced Wolff to close Grounded Eagle in 2009, “and that’s when I decided to start Wild Skies,” Tanner said.
She spent the next few years getting the nonprofit off the ground. Varnado, meanwhile, was also discovering the joys of raptor care. He started volunteering at a Helena animal rehab center in 2009 and, “I really got into the raptors and just stuck with it.”
Their shared interests soon brought them together, and in 2014, they purchased the Potomac farm as Wild Skies’ home base. Aided by volunteers throughout the region and a partnership with the Missoula Veterinary Clinic, where Tanner works part-time, they care for about 160 to 170 birds each year.
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When the call comes in, Varnado says, “you select which gloves you need, what crate size you need, which net you need, then throw 'em all in the car and rush to hopefully good directions to where the bird’s at.”
Birds of prey seldom make cooperative patients. Some strike with their talons when threatened; others use their beaks. And they usually try to flee. Varnado avoids making eye contact as he approaches. “If they start running, you basically chase them down and try not to hurt them with the net … and scoop them up gently and watch out for their feet, which can be really dangerous.”
Great horned owls’ talons deliver 300 to 500 pounds of pressure per square inch, Tanner said. “You definitely want to be wearing thick leather gloves.” She generally tries to grab the feet with one hand while controlling the wings with the other. Once they’re placed in a crate or pet carrier and covered with something dark, they “usually come down pretty quick.”
The birds’ first stop is the Missoula Vet Clinic, where they receive X-rays, an exam and any surgeries they might need. Then, it’s off to Wild Skies for rehabilitation. The birds’ wounds are bandaged and re-bandaged; some get put on fluids or medications. But this is no avian spa.
“It’s really important that you properly exercise them before release, because they lose muscle really quick in rehab and it’s a big disadvantage if you let 'em go and they’re not exercised,” Varnado said. The birds train on indoor courses called "flights," then through outdoor tethered kite-like flights called “creancing.”
Tanner said they’re able to release about 60 percent of the raptors brought in, and 40 percent of the songbirds. Some of the rest are too far gone and have to be euthanized. Others can’t survive on their own in the wild, but can still entertain and educate Wild Skies’ human visitors. The center has 14 educational birds, including Nandu, a great grey owl who survived a car accident; Roland, a Swainson’s hawk who took some electricity and has a taste for grasshoppers; and Jimmy, a kestrel who suffered severe eye damage in a car accident. Nonetheless, Tanner said “he’s been a great addition to our team, education-wise.”
They’re applying for permits to exhibit a golden eagle and bald eagle on-site as well, and hope to expand Wild Skies’ infrastructure in the future. The ICU, bird food prep area, one of the bird residents’ rooms and one patient room are all in the same farmhouse where Tanner and Varnado live. “We need a lot more facilities,” Varnado said. Some — like an amphitheater — would improve their educational offerings. But others, like more indoor “flights” and a new eagle enclosure, would ease the birds’ recovery.
Even predators atop the avian food chain face plenty of hazards, and Wild Skies' leaders want to prepare them as best they can.
“We want them to survive when they go back out, you know?” Tanner said, “so getting them in as good shape as we can is pretty essential to us.”
For more information about the Wild Skies Raptor Center, visit www.wildskies.org.