by Talbot Eckweiler
Part three in a five-part series.
Ava, Moonwink, Bella, Starlight: they are but a few of characters cast in Eagle Dream. Ava is a hunter; Starlight is a dancer. Moonwink has trouble keeping his eyes open, and Bella hails from across the Mississippi river.
Each has a distinct personality, a personal history. Each is a raptor, a bird of prey.
Some are rescue cases; others were bred in captivity for falconry or educational purposes. Their keeper, Mark Baker, started his chapter of raptor rehab just last year, and already he’s rescued an estimated forty birds.
When Baker rescues a bird, he does his best to release back to nature as soon as possible. “Because I have so many birds, when I release them, I like to split them up so they’re not all released in one area. Sometimes, I go to the state park area,” Baker says.
Mia, a female northern Goshawk. Goshawks are the largest
bird of prey in North America, and the females can be up
to 30% bigger than the males
For wild birds, he limits his contact with them, so they don’t get used to humans. However, when a wild bird suffers too much trauma for re-release, Baker is faced with a tough decision. Either he has to euthanize the bird, or he has to find an educational purpose for it.
He tells the story of such a case. One day he answered a call about a hawk with an injured wing. “When we got the call, it was cold that day, and we walked up the hill to find a bird in the snow,” he said.
“If it wasn’t for the snow, that bird would have died. This shot hit the bird in just a way that it shattered the whole bone,” Baker said. “The only thing holding the wing on was a piece of skin. I told my wife, I said, ‘I give it 48 hours.’ Forty-eight hours passed, and he was eating out of my hand. I said to myself, ‘This is a bird that wants to live.’ And I worked hard to find a home. I found a guy who had all the paperwork and helped him out so he could use the bird for education–to show people what we do to these guys is worse than what they do to us.”
Baker takes his birds to festivals, rallies, and schools so that people can see the birds up close and learn what they’re really like. Baker said it’s especially important to show the birds to young children, to help them appreciate nature from an early age.
“With the raptors I take in (to a school), it’s ones that are gentle, that I can handle,” Baker said. “I bring them in so kids can ask questions. I explain what each of them are, what they’re for, what the differences is between each one, so when they’re out looking, they can tell.”
Baker said he’s had kids come back to him ten years later who still remember his talks and are still grateful for the opportunity to see the birds up close.
Petey, a male peregrine falcon. Petey is a rescue case who can’t
be returned to the wild because of the permanent damage done
to his wing
In February of 2010, then-Governor Paterson proposed the closure of 41 parks and 14 historic sites in New York State. On March 13, Baker attended a rally at Allegany State Park to protest the proposed closure of the Quaker Lake swim area and cabins, the elimination of winter trail maintenance, and the reduction of recreation programs. The office of state senator Catherine Young reached out to Baker, asking if he could bring some birds to the rally.
“If they close the parks, there goes all that space, all that money, all those jobs,” Baker said. “Plus people coming down to the area to visit won’t have a chance to see stuff like this. I’ve talked to a lot of people about this from the bigger cities who tell me they’ve never seen anything like this. If you close the parks, they’d never get a chance.”
Baker brought several of his birds to the rally. He stood at the edge of the crowd, with a raptor perched on his leather-gloved hand. When curious onlookers approached, he told them about his organization and the bird he was holding. “At the rally it was for people to realize that if they close the park, no one will be able to see these guys,” Baker said. “Stuff will be overgrown (…) Now, with the trails, people are out there watching and observing what’s out there.”
Baker himself likes to go up to the park. There, he can see eagles soar over the water. It’s his dream to someday rescue a distressed bald eagle, and he named in organization in honor of that dream.
He runs Eagle Dream out of his backyard. A large trailer, painted sky-blue and spotted with large photos of raptors, sits in his driveway. The raptors live in special wooden enclosures Baker built. Just outside the enclosures, a flock of pigeons come and go as they please, attracted by the two birdfeeders posted on the lawn. Baker gets lots of squirrels coming to the birdfeeder too, but he doesn’t mind. His wife, Joy, recently cared for a baby squirrel someone rescued and brought to them. They’ve also cared for fauns, and in one case, a baby skunk.
To become an animal rescuer, Baker said he had to take a test for New York state, and then he had to work under another rehabber for at least two years. “It’s not hard,” Baker said. “It’s just the funding—paying for the facilities and to take care of the animals.” He adds that the number of rehabbers is dwindling due to expenses. Often, he pays vet bills for the birds out of his own pocket, though he’s applying for grant money this year.
Although he has yet to rescue an eagle personally, while working with another animal rescue group, Baker helped raise three bald eagles back to health. “To see a bald eagle go back into the wild was fabulous,” he said. “In fact, any of birds we release have been a thrill (to watch). You get a sense that you’re doing good, justice, for nature.”