DANVILLE – Hundreds of area schoolchildren had the opportunity to see several birds of prey up close Wednesday morning in Danville Area Community College’s Mary Miller Gymnasium.
Thomas Guillebeau, a rehabilitation naturalist with the Office of Wildlife Learning World Bird Sanctuary of St. Louis, and volunteer Barb Slepecky displayed several birds during two presentations on Wednesday, including an eastern screech owl, peregrine falcon, red-tailed hawk, barn owl and, for the grand finale, a bald eagle.
The educational and informative program was open to the public, and more than 1,100 third- and fourth-graders from all over Vermilion County and west central Indiana were invited to attend the event.
The free event, which is in its 20th year, was co-sponsored by the Middlefork Chapter of the Illinois Audubon Society.
Guillebeau, who interacted with the children and educated them about each bird that was brought out, explained that the World Bird Sanctuary is a breeding center, a research center and a bird hospital that rehabilitates injured birds.
The sanctuary started out as a small bird hospital but now rehabilitates hundreds of birds each year.
Each time Slepecky brought out a different winged creature, Guillebeau had an interesting and educational lesson to share with the children.
Solo the peregrine falcon — who was one of the surviving falcons hatched from three abandoned eggs at the bird sanctuary — has remarkably large bright yellow feet and talons.
“Birds of prey have strong, grasping feet; they kill things with their feet,” he said. “You can tell a lot about what birds of prey eat by looking at their feet.”
Next was Willard, a red-tailed hawk that is one of the most common birds of prey and is found in every state except Hawaii.
“We got him when he was a chick when he was blown out of his nest,” Guillebeau explained to the children.
Guillebeau and Slepecky then demonstrated how barn owls silently glide low to the ground to catch their prey.
“Owls can fly silently because of their feathers,” he said.
A barn owl named Minerva flew from Guillebeau to Slepecky and back again, being rewarded with rat meat treats each time.
Guillebeau, however, told the children that the use of household rodent poison is endangering owls.
“You can lose a whole nest of owls from one poisoned mouse,” he said.
Although owls are thought to be highly intelligent, Guillebeau dispelled that myth.
“Owl eyes take up two-thirds of the space in their head, so there isn’t much space for a brain,” he said.
The highlight of the program was when Slepecky brought out Liberty, a bald eagle and the nation’s symbol. Liberty is 29 years old and has a life expectancy of 50 or more.
“Liberty has gotten hit by a car twice,” Guillebeau said of how the bird sanctuary came to acquire the eagle.
Interestingly, one of the nation’s forefathers didn’t want the eagle to symbolize the United States, according to Guillebeau.
“Benjamin Franklin didn’t like bald eagles. He wanted the wild turkey to be the national symbol,” he said. “He didn’t like eagles because they eat rotting animals, and he thought eagles were bullies.”
Guillebeau said he agreed with the eagles’ reputation as bullies.
“They have the well-deserved nickname of Sky Pirate,” he said. “They steal stuff.”
But on a more serious note, Guillebeau said, “We almost lose these guys to DDT, a pesticide used to get rid of mosquitos. DDT, which was used from the 1940s to the 1970s, prevented eagles from absorbing calcium, so “their eggshells were paper thin.”
By 2007, eagles officially were removed from the endangered species list, he said.
“We want you to do your part to take care of animals,” he told the children.
Liberty definitely made an impression on the schoolchildren.
Covington Elementary School third-graders Zane Whittington and Easton Cadman said their favorite bird that day was the bald eagle.
“I don’t see bald eagles very much,” Zane said. “I used to live in the country but now I live in town.”
Easton added, “I liked how it was quiet.”
Some children said the barn owl was their favorite feathered friend.
Covington third-grader Ezrah Roop said, “I liked how close it could get to the ground and how silent it was.”
Fellow classmate Jaxen Murineanu said, “I liked the barn owl because it is actually very smart.”
The World Bird Sanctuary, located near St. Louis, has a captive breeding program of endangered birds. The sanctuary rehabilitates injured birds, conducts many avian field studies and educates more than 2.5 million people across the country on bird characteristics, behaviors and habitats.