By Lynda Demsher
A bird’s ability to fly is linked to its will to live, say wildlife rescuers Tina and Bill Hodge of eastern Modoc County, Calif.
That’s why they are trying to create the kind of specialized aviary necessary for the flight conditioning of recovering eagles and other birds of prey.
The couple is devoted to rehabilitating and releasing animals. They say large soaring birds have a hard time when an injury brings them down to earth.
They’ve saved hundreds of orphaned or injured wild animals, including some 30 golden and bald eagles, many hawks, owls and the occasional vulture, as well as mammals.
The raptors come to them from federal and state agencies, and individuals, after they’ve been shot, mangled by vehicles, fallen ill or weak from poisoning.
The couple is permitted to work with injured wildlife through the Shasta Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Center in Anderson. Tina Hodge is the only certified rehabber in the northeastern part of the state.
Sometimes their work can be heartbreaking, such as when a distraught bald eagle “dad” followed their car for miles while they were taking an injured yearling in for veterinary care. The eaglet was diagnosed with lead poisoning, dying after five months of care, Tina Hodge said.
Lead poisoning has been a puzzling and increasing problem in the area for a couple of years, she said.
Chelation medicine, the same drug used in humans, costs more than $600 a bottle and is very tough on the bird’s kidneys. Many birds do not make it. A bird with lead poisoning weakens and becomes emaciated, unable to hunt. The nervous system is also affected, causing listlessness, and the legs and brain stop functioning. Recently, the Hodges tried to save a lead-poisoned golden eagle they called Isabella. They followed carefully researched procedures, and things looked hopeful. She died the third day of drug treatment. The lead is often stored in the bones and when the drug releases the toxic metal into the bloodstream, it can overwhelm the body, the Hodges say.
But they have enough success stories to fill a book.
Rehabilitated birds that survive end up in one of two categories – those with illness or injuries that eventually heal, and those with permanent disabilities.
Birds in the first category can go home to the wild, while those that are non-releasable must live out their lives in a sanctuary, often with wing, eye, or leg injuries that would mean certain death if they were released. They are trained to be wildlife education birds, or emissaries, and they can be taken to schools and events for informational programs. A bird may be also be placed in a captive breeding situation if the species is rare. Birds in both categories, however, must have specialized care in the hands of knowledgeable and licensed handlers that take into consideration the nature of an animal born to view earth from above. Each species needs specific training, food, perches and housing.
Birds, especially eagles, can suffer depression over months of rehabilitation. The Hodges say a long-distance view and lots of sky to watch helps a bird’s mental state while convalescing.
“They also need a peaceful quiet place with the sound and feel of the wind,” Tina Hodge said. “You can’t imagine what the wind ruffling through their feathers must mean to them.”
If that’s the case, rescued raptors taken to the Hodges’ place have the next best thing to home. They live at 6,100 feet elevation in the Warner Mountains above the aptly named community of Eagleville in Surprise Valley. Their 160 acres, where wildlife abounds, overlooks a pond and the seasonal lake bed in the valley below.
The land has a mix of sagebrush, grass and evergreen trees as well as aspens and willows along the creeks and riparian areas. It borders 80,000 acres of the South Warner Wilderness Area. In winter, the two often commute to their Eadleville office by snowmobiling down the long, winding, unpaved road carved into the rugged east side of the mountains.
Besides a rescued patient or two they may be caring for, they also have a dog, cats and a herd of woolly llamas. The llamas graze on the sod-roof of their home built into the mountainside. The Hodges’ place is remote. No power lines block the view and there is no cell phone service. They cook and heat water with wood and use solar energy for lights.
“We did finally get a satellite phone at our daughter’s insistence, but it is very temperamental,” Tina Hodge said.
Even though they have been handling some of the most dangerous birds around, the Hodges haven’t had any wildlife vs. human emergencies they couldn’t handle since they moved to their place in 1982. They have been rehabilitating animals since the late ’70s, when they lived on the California coast. When that area started to crowd in on them, they headed for the mountains, on a mission to find a place they could raise a family and continue their rescue efforts in peace. Both used their educations, knowledge of plants and love of animals to come up with a line of herbal supplements and treatments for both humans and animals.
Their business, Eagle Peak Herbals, gives them the flexible time to be rescuers.
Because it takes so much space to rehabilitate large birds that live to fly, the Hodges have started building their own giant eagle conditioning aviary, 20 feet wide, 20 feet tall, and 120 feet long. They believe it will reduce the stress and time of transporting large birds of prey out of the area to other facilities.
“Injured birds in rehab need to work their wings, or they seize up, and muscles shorten, making it impossible for them to fly. Physical therapy is very important at a certain stage,” Bill Hodge said.
They use falconry equipment and a technique called “creancing” to exercise the larger birds. This requires capture and transport to a huge open area without trees or fences on a day when the wind is merely a light breeze. The birds have taught them about wind. Tina and Bill have learned over the years to utilize all the safety equipment they can find, and to respect large raptors as potentially very dangerous birds. So, it isn’t easy to do flight rehab as often as some of these birds need to, and there is always the chance that the injured bird could become tangled in the line or attacked by other birds. “Eagles are not popular with most other birds and territory can also be an issue during nesting season,” Bill said.
“It will be wonderful to have a protected place where the recovering birds can get all the exercise they need rebuild their muscles and strength,” he said. “It would be good for their spirits as well.”
The Hodges started with a dream several years ago, and went to work researching possibilities. They drew up plans based on US Fish and Wildlife Service and California Department of Fish and Game requirements. About half the length of the aviary was planned to be covered, the other half to be open mesh to give the bird a sense of freedom. The view is east over Surprise valley and the Nevada mountain ranges. No lights are visible at night or other intrusions for their keen eyes. The couple has put in some of their own funds but mostly depend on donations and a pay-as-you-go construction schedule. They are now within $6,000 of the completion of their goal and have arranged to have their project sponsored by The River Center in Alturas, a non-profit nature education center, so donations can be tax-deductible.
The aviary will be the largest one in an entire region of northern California. They think it is possible that birds from other surrounding areas that are ready for this phase of conditioning, will also be able to build up their muscles here, then go on to be released where they were originally found. Currently they take birds needing flight exercise to an aviary at the Shasta Wildlife Rescue Center in the Anderson Park near Redding. Tina and Bill are grateful for the supportive network of rehabilitators and wildlife agencies that are willing to help each other do what is best for the animals. They are also backed up by relatives, friends, and local volunteers. For a complete exam on an Eagle, it can take 3 or more people, and there are volunteers on call.
“Right now we’re looking for volunteer caregivers for baby songbirds, and it is always nice to have help building cages and transporting animals to the vet.” Tina said.
They would also like to guide people who may be interested in training to become wildlife rehabbers. It can be a lot of work and focus, they say, but very rewarding and always interesting.
“One to three times a week, a golden eagle we had for 10 months before she was released, comes and circles us, calling, diving, or showing off her latest fledglings. The male eagle who lives above us took her as a mate.” Tina said. “There’s almost no way to describe how good that makes us feel.”
This spring, the Hodges had a 2-3 week old orphaned bobcat brought to them. They cared for the kitten 10 days before moving it on to a rehabilitation center that specializes in raising bobcat kittens without allowing them to lose their fear of humans. She will be returning to Modoc County for release when her hunting skills are honed. Although some people think young bobcats could become big pets, it is illegal and very unwise to tame them, Tina said, because they cannot be released back into the wild. Tamed wild animals have a lot of potential to get into mischief or possibly hurt someone, she added.
So far, Bill and local volunteers have done most of the work on the aviary, but more hands are welcome to assist with the progress. In addition, they are trying to raise money for a solar-powered freezer, since raptors in rehab require meat – at least two rabbits a week, or equivalent, for an eagle, and lots of small rodents or birds for smaller raptors. “Meat is always needed and the local community pitches in when necessary,” Tina says, “and there are sources to buy frozen food for birds when we are low.” While living in a remote area off the grid is great for the birds, it isn’t always easy to store their provisions.
Anyone interested in donating can call the Hodges at 530-279-2184. Donations to the aviary project can be made through the River Center in Alturas, 530-233-5085, for a tax deduction or directly to the Hodges. Towels, blankets, bandaging, cages or building materials are most welcome.