BY CAROL ROEHM
Birds of prey flew over the heads of several dozen awestruck local schoolchildren Wednesday afternoon at Danville Area Community College’s Mary Miller Gymnasium.
However, one bird, a small falcon known as an American kestrel, decided to roost in the rafters of the gymnasium after getting away from its handlers during an earlier show.
The Office of Wildlife Learning World Bird Sanctuary of St. Louis displayed several birds during two presentations, including a peregrine falcon, a hooded vulture from Africa, a great horned owl, an Eastern screech owl, a barn owl and for the grand finale, a bald eagle that had been rescued from a nest that fell in the water, causing her to almost drown.
The educational and informative program was open to the public, and nearly 1,000 fourth-graders from all over Vermilion County were invited to attend the event.
The free event, which is in its 14th year, was co-sponsored by the Middlefork Chapter of the Illinois Audubon Society.
Bob Schifo, a member of the Middlefork Chapter, provided the introduction and told the children that he knows of four bald eagle nests in Vermilion County.
Bird handler Mike Zeloski, who interacted with the children and educated them about each bird he brought out, explained that the World Bird Sanctuary was a breeding center, a research center and a bird hospital that rehabilitates about 300 injured birds a year.
“The main thing we do is educate and teach people about birds of prey,” he said.
Zeloski quizzed the children about what they thought was the fastest animal before bringing out a peregrine falcon, who he said can nosedive at speeds of more than 200 miles per hour.
Zeloski also displayed an African hooded vulture with a 6-foot wing span. “We have turkey vultures around here,” he said.
The vulture flew several times from one corner of the gymnasium to another, each time receiving a treat of rat meat. Zeloski said vultures are “nature’s recyclers,” cleaning up road kill and other dead animals.
A great horned owl, an Eastern screech owl and a barn owl also each took turns fascinating the children.
“It’s the only bird we know that will eat skunk,” he said of the great horned owl, prompting the children to reply with a collective, “Eww.”
Zeloski compared the rusty red color of the diminutive Eastern screech owl to that of a Trinity Lutheran School student’s hair.
“They come in gray and red. She almost has the same color feathers as his hair,” he said, referring to fourth-grader Gabe Huddleston. “They eat a lot of insects, mice and even other birds,” he added. “They come out right at dusk.”
The highlight of the program was when Zeloski brought out Patriot, a 17-year-old bald eagle, the nation’s symbol. With a 7-foot wingspan but tipping the scales at only 12 pounds, the bird looked hefty and impressive. Zeloski said Patriot, who was raised in captivity, has no fear of people but yet wasn’t a trained flyer.
“She can stuff a softball-size piece of food down her throat,” he added.
Schlarman Academy fourth-grader Grace Vogt said her favorite bird was the Eastern screech owl. “The little, tiny owl looked so cute,” she said.
Fellow classmate Andy Craig said his favorite bird was the peregrine falcon.
“I liked how fast it can move,” the fourth-grader said. “I didn’t know how fast it could move until today. I thought the cheetah was always the fastest.”
At the end of the show, a second bird handler John Castelli said, “We’re going to try our hardest to get (the kestrel) down. We’ve been told there’s a basketball game tonight.”
Between the two presentations, Castelli and Zeloski tried to reach the kestrel with a scissor lift and coax it down with a “mouse on a string.”
“Occasionally this happens,” he said, “so we use food as a motivation.”