Magnificent birds of prey flew over the heads of hundreds of awestruck local schoolchildren Wednesday at Danville Area Community College’s Mary Miller Gymnasium.
The Office of Wildlife Learning World Bird Sanctuary of St. Louis displayed several birds during two presentations, including a Harris hawk, a hooded vulture from Africa, a peregrine falcon, 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 and caused her two siblings to drown.
“Birds of prey have claws or talons, a hooked beak and good eyesight like binoculars,” bird handler Mike Zeloski told the children.
The free event, which is in its 13th year, was co-sponsored by the Middlefork Audubon Society.
The educational and informative program was open to the public and more than 900 fourth-graders from all over Vermilion County were invited to attend the event.
Zeloski interacted with the children and educated them about each bird he brought out.
“We’re one of the coolest bird places in the country,” he said of the sanctuary, which rehabilitates and retrains injured birds and has a captive breeding program.
“Birds get hit by cars, or sometimes they’re natural injuries, or they get attacked by a cat or a dog,” Zeloski told the children.
“Owls will get stuck in a chimney because they’ll go down it, thinking it’s a tree cavity,” he said. “Owls also don’t see barbed wire.”
The sanctuary also monitors the bald eagle and peregrine falcon population.
The first bird Zeloski brought out was a Harris hawk, which is found in Texas, Arizona, New Mexico and is an endangered species in California.
The Harris hawk and other birds flew between Zeloski and sanctuary intern, Jen Rothe, who fed the birds rat meat as a treat.
“The girl hawks are two-thirds bigger and stronger than the boy hawks,” he said, which was met by cheers from the girls in the audience.
Zeloski also displayed a hooded vulture from Africa with a 6-foot wing span.
“Vultures don’t eat every day. Sometimes they can’t find anything dead to eat so they might go three days before eating,” he told the children.
“They are nature’s recycler. They clean up the dead animal,” he added.
Zeloski quizzed the children about what they thought was the fastest animal before bringing out a peregrine falcon, who he said can fly more than 200 miles per hour.
Next up was a white-neck raven that flew to three different teachers in the audience and plucked an aluminum can out of each of their hands before depositing the cans in a recycling bin.
“It was a little scary, but I knew the kids would love it,” said fourth-grade Oakwood teacher Jennifer Leach who interacted with the raven.
“They’ve been coming here for many years,” she said of the Oakwood students attending eagle day. “It’s always a good experience for the kids.”
A great horned owl, an Eastern screech owl and a barn owl each took turns fascinating the children.
“The saying ‘the wise old owl’ isn’t true,” Zeloski said, stating that an owl’s head consists of “mostly eyes and ears and a very little brain.”
He also told the children that barn owls can eat up to five mice a night, which adds up to 1,825 mice a year.
Oakwood fourth-grader Makayla Sherman said her favorite bird was the screech owl.
“I like that it’s small and its color,” she said.
Her classmate Rheanna Ollis couldn’t pick a favorite bird of the day.
“I think they’re all cool,” she said.
An extensive website featuring the World Bird Sanctuary may be found at http://www.worldbirdsanctuary.org.