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Nugget News

Sisters man follows passion
for helping wildlife
By Jim Cornelius

Gary Landers
Photo by Jim Anderson

The wildlife of the Sisters Country is one of the region's many attractions. On any given day, you can see deer grazing out your back door, watch a hawk soaring high over the hayfields searching for prey and look on as osprey dive headlong into Suttle Lake.

But there's a dark side to this wonderful world of animals. Deer are hit by the dozens on the highways – and the birds that feed upon them can also fall victim to passing cars. Fences, utility lines and – worst of all – malicious shooters can injure birds so badly that their very life is threatened.

That's where Wild Wings Raptor Rehabilitation steps in. Gary Landers specializes in the rehabilitation of injured or orphaned raptors. Raptor is a general term that includes all the various species of eagles, hawks, owls, falcons, vultures and osprey.

"When speaking of raptors, a lot of people think only of the largest birds such as eagles," Landers says. "But Oregon has significant populations of small and medium- sized raptors. The smallest being the northern pygmy owl. Pygmy owl adults can be less than six inches tall, but they are formidable hunters, able to take dove or quail. Oregon's biggest raptor is the golden eagle."

Landers believes in service and that people should find a cause that ignites their passion.

"My passion happens to be nature conservation," he says. "My initial interest and studies were in the rehabilitation of large mammal predators, such as bear and cougar. But when we moved to Oregon I found that the state does not allow for the release of cougar or bear.

"During my contact with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, one of their biologists asked me to consider rehabilitating raptors. He told me that raptors were reported injured more frequently than
any other wildlife in Central Oregon."

Landers passed the required exam and got state and federal permits and began constructing cages. Before they were finished he started receiving calls about injured raptors. The first was a bald eagle. The second was a golden eagle.

"It was trial by fire," he recalls.

Landers has become a go-to resource for injured birds from across the state.

One case is an example of the challenges and ultimate rewards of the work.

"I picked up an adult golden eagle with electrocution burns on the back side of the right wing," he says. "Open wounds extended for eight inches and feathers vital for flight were burned. As the wounds healed, scar tissue formed. Scar tissue causes contraction and prevents full extension of the wing for flight. The healing process took four months. During this time I had to stretch the wing daily to prevent the scar tissue from contracting the wing.

"Over time, the eagle allowed me to approach, pick up its wing, extend and stretch the wing, then return the wing to its folded position. The eagle would remain perched without physical restraint for this daily therapy. I released this golden eagle near Hart Mountain Refuge."

He also recalls a case that threatened to put him in the poor house.

"It's hard to imagine how much a barn owl can eat," he says. "One time I received a clutch of nine barn owl chicks from a farmer in Madras. The barn owls had nested in a hay stack. When the farmer moved the stack, the parents flew away and did not return to the nest. We raised the owls feeding then with a puppet that looks like an adult barn owl. Each of those nestlings ate 10 mice a day. I'll save you doing the math. Those nine
owls ate over 600 mice each week. I thought I was going to go broke buying mice."

The goal of rehabilitation is simple: Release back into their natural environment. Getting there is complicated.

"Raptors don't have a social support system like humans," Landers notes. "To be released each bird must be fully capable of feeding and caring for itself. Flying 'pretty good' isn't good enough to survive. Having one good leg isn't enough. Having one good eye may be enough, but the bird must prove to me that it has depth perception and can hit moving live prey."

Unreleasable eagles, falcons, hawks and owls have been placed at a number of zoos and nature centers across the country.

Release day creates a storm of mixed emotions.

"Most people I talk to think the release of the bird that has recovered from injures will be a happy time for me. And it is, but it's also extremely stressful," Landers says. "My mind races with all sorts of questions. Am I sure the bird is ready to go? Have I done enough conditioning? Is their weight adequate to keep them healthy until they find a meal? Have I picked a good release area? Does this area have enough prey? What other hazards are in the area? Are there any other birds in the area that could be territorial or predate on the released bird? Will there be mild weather for a few days while they acclimate?

"I can drive myself crazy second guessing my decisions. But I have to admit, when they're healthy and fly away with renewed strength and confidence, it can be a thrill to the soul."

To report an injured raptor call 541-408-0863.

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