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  • Writer's pictureEmily McLaughlin

The Birds of Blue Mountain Wildlife

What you are about to read are excerpts from my senior project for Huxley College of the Environment at Western Washington University. The purpose of the project was to bring awareness to the importance of bird rehabilitation centers in the Pacific Northwest.

As I was considering what I wanted to do for my senior project, I was a bit perplexed. I’m an environmental policy major, but I’ve never identified with writing environmental impact statements or analyzing the policies regarding nuclear waste. I was scared that I would be spending the last quarter of my college career working on a project I wasn’t passionate about, just to simply meet a requirement. Lucky for me, that was not the case.

I discovered the Blue Mountain Wildlife Research and Rehabilitation Center in Pendleton, Oregon as I was scouring the internet one night. They had a mission: to preserve local native wildlife through rehabilitation, research, and education. I felt this in my core. Animals have always been important to me, and as I learned more about their roles in the environment, it became clear that we could not exist without them.

This photo book houses portraits of raptors being rehabilitated at Blue Mountain Wildlife, along with their stories and roles in the ecosystem. Raptors, or birds of prey, are extremely important in the ecological balance of environments. They are the top of many food chains, so they help balance rodent, small mammal, fish, and even snake populations. They control pests and disease, so they are very beneficial to farmers and humans in general.

These birds are indicator species, so they help gauge the health of habitats. Raptors are extremely sensitive to changes in their environment, so higher chemical and pollutant levels can cause their numbers to decrease. In contrast, an increase of raptors in an ecosystem may signal that another population of species is too high. Their numbers can alert scientists to impending environmental issues that they otherwise would have no way of knowing.

Unfortunately, birds of prey are currently at risk. Climate change, habitat degradation, and other human actions like poisoning and vehicle collisions are harming populations. This is why rescue and rehabilitation centers like Blue Mountain Wildlife are more important than ever. We need to conserve the environment we have now to ensure a green tomorrow for future populations, and Blue Mountain Wildlife is on the front lines.

It is my hope that these photos will inspire you to look at birds and the environment differently. I’m so happy that I was able to combine my passion for photography with my love for the environment and its inhabitants, and I hope you enjoy this small look at rehabilitated birds in the Pacific Northwest.

This project would not have been possible without Lyn Thompkins from Blue Mountain Wildlife in Pendleton, Oregon. Blue Mountain Wildlife (BMW) is the premier wildlife rehabilitation facility in eastern Oregon, serving an area the size of New York state. Since 1990, BMW has cared for over 10,000 animals; primarily raptors. Blue Mountain Wildlife also educates over 10,000 local students and community members each year. To donate to Blue Mountain Wildlife, go here.

Helen the Barn Owl

Why Unreleasable: Mostly blind, fell out of her nest

Helen is popular with students because of her unique “dancing.” All Barn Owls “dance,” or bob their heads weaving in a back and forth motion, to assess what is around them. They have extremely keen hearing and eyesight which makes them skilled hunters. In fact, a Barn Owl can actually hear a mouse’s heartbeat in a 30 foot-square room. Additionally, they can catch mice underneath a full foot of snow in total darkness.

Barn owls can be found everywhere in the world. In Washington State, they are closely associated with agricultural areas and basalt cliffs. You can also find them in forests, wetlands, and other large, open spaces. During the winter, they roost in dense conifers or barns.

They have a unique ecological role with a diet consisting primarily of small mammals; mostly voles. Because of this, they have little direct competition and are stable population-wise. Just like other owls, though, they are susceptible to human interference such as habitat loss and pollution.

Nikki the Barbary Falcon

Why unreleasable: Unable to fly due to injury

Nikki is a barbary falcon, and she is not native to the Pacific Northwest. However, she is close cousins to the Peregrine Falcon who calls the PNW home. Nikki cannot fly due to injury, but her species can dive at speeds over 240 mph.

Falcon populations were in steep decline during the mid-20th century, and they became listed as endangered in the United States. They have rebounded strongly since the use of DDT and other chemical pesticides was stopped, though. Captive breeding programs have also helped to boost the birds’ numbers in the U.S. and Canada. Today, populations are strong. In some parts of the globe, there actually may be more falcons than what existed before the 20th-century decline.

Now that the peregrine falcon is no longer on the Endangered Species list, we must ensure it is adequately protected against reckless development and other threats that can disturb falcons and affect their survival.

Sage the Great Horned Owl

Why unreleasable: Puncture wound, blind in one eye

Sage is a great horned owl who was brought to Blue Mountain Wildlife due to injury. He can’t be released because he is blind in one eye, so Blue Mountain is his home. He is currently 26 years old, but because he is in captivity, he is expected to live until his early 30’s. The oldest great horned owl in captivity turned 50 years old in 2012, so Sage could be around for much longer than anticipated.

Great horned owls are found all over America because they will, quite literally, eat anything from racoons to eels. They are found in cities and rural areas, so you most likely have heard its stereotypical owl ­­hoo-hoo-hooo call at some point. Their ear tufts make them look unique and serve a variety of functions, like environmental camouflage and predatory warnings.

Because these owls will eat just about anything, they play an important role in controlling small mammal populations. In addition, they are some of the only animals with an appetite for skunk. These owls are vulnerable to power lines, pesticides, and human interference. It is a federal offense to harm a great horned owl, but they regularly end up in rehabilitation centers due to human actions.

Bald Eagles

Blue Mountain Wildlife is home to multiple bald eagles who are either permanent residents or in rehabilitation. Being America’s national bird, the bald eagle is a classic icon of the United States symbolizing strength, courage, and freedom. However, one of our founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin, wished the eagle had not been chosen as the representative of this country because, according to him, it was a bird of bad moral character who does not get its living honestly. Obviously, Benjamin Franklin was not aware of the biological importance of eagles. He was also mad his pick for national bird, the turkey, did not get chosen.

Benjamin Franklin aside, the bald eagle is beautiful and strong. They can be found all along North America, from Alaska to Mexico. Eagles are extremely important to the environment because they are top predators. They love fish, but they are opportunistic, so they will eat whatever they can find. Bald eagles were previously listed under the Endangered Species Act, but were removed in 2007 due to recovery efforts. Unfortunately, populations are beginning to suffer once again due to a new threat.

Hunters use lead bullets to kill deer and other animals. Hunters aren’t targeting eagles directly, but the birds are indirectly affected when they scavenge animals shot with those lead bullets (Elassar, 2020). Lead poisoning has detrimental effects on the nervous and reproductive systems of eagles. It can cause the birds to exhibit loss of balance, gasping, tremors, imparied ability to fly, and eventually, emaciation. Millions of birds, including bald eagles, are poisoned by lead every year.

The simplest way to combat this problem is by banning lead-based ammunition and fishing tackle. California was the first state to take this step in 2019, so hopefully other states follow suit. If you are a hunter, make the conscious decision to use alternatives to lead ammunition to prevent the unintentional lead poisoning of eagles and other birds of prey.


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