By Estella R. Fullmer
For Hometown News
EDGEWATER -- Some students in Volusia County schools will be able to see live hawks, owls and falcons this school year as part of Gina Holt's Wings & Things program from Wild About Birds.
Mrs. Holt and her husband, Tom, provide an educational program to schools, libraries, scout groups, civic organizations and festivals focusing on wild life and environmental conservation. They educate people on how the changes and damage humans are doing to the environment affects wild birds of prey and other species native to Florida.
"We let the children see the birds up close under specific conditions so it is safe for both the children and the birds," Mrs. Holt said. "We also teach them to resist their first instinct to touch and learn to appreciate them from a distance. We hope our program leaves the children with a better understanding and respect for nature."
Based in Edgewater, Wild About Birds assists in the rescue of injured birds throughout Volusia County.
"We receive calls from law enforcement agencies and from individuals when they find an injured bird, particularly if it is a bird of prey," Mrs. Holt said. "We rescue them and perform some basic first aid if needed and then transport them to the Marine Science Center in Ponce Inlet as quickly as we can. They are the only ones nearby equipped to handle injured birds of prey."
Some of the birds also may end up in Maitland at the Audubon Center for Birds of Prey where they can be rehabilitated and then released back into the wild if their injuries are not too severe.
Mrs. Holt got her training from the Audubon Center more than 10 years ago where she worked in the clinic and aviaries with many species of birds of prey. She not only learned how to handle the birds safely, but also got training on educating the public about the birds and administering immediate care to injured birds.
"I am not a rehabilitator," she explained, "but we are part of the rehabilitation process. We don't have the facilities or the extensive training for long-term rehabilitation."
She does have the training to perform "first aid" on birds.
"Our dream, though, is to build a 40- to 50-foot long flight barn here in Edgewater so local rehabilitators would have a place to safely fly the birds to build up their strength prior to releasing them back into the wild," Mrs. Holt said. "The Marine Science Center doesn't have anything that size. They have maybe a 20-foot area where they can start the birds off, but that's it."
The Holts explained that the birds often need to fly farther distances for conditioning to increase their strength before release. A large flight barn in the area would solve that problem for the Marine Science Center and other organizations in the county.
Mr. and Mrs. Holt have the land all picked out for the Rehab Flight Barn, but they don't have the funds for the materials to build it.
"It has to be built using wood slats or you can't fly hawks or raptors in there," she said. "The birds will latch onto wire mesh and break their tail feathers on the wire if it is made out of anything but wood. It's very expensive for all that wood, though."
The barn would need to be at least 40 feet long, but 50 feet would be better. It needs to be about 20-25 feet wide and at least that tall. The slats with space between them look more like a natural forest to the birds, so they can see through to the outside and allow airflow to keep the barn cooler. The mews she keeps her four birds in are built the same way but are only 10 by 12 feet each.
"Maybe one day we will be able to build it, but right now it is just a dream," she said wistfully.
For now, they are happy to be able to tour various schools and libraries with the birds letting the children see the birds up close.
"I have the 'props' if they want to know how the birds feel," Mrs. Holt said.
Her props are the wings and feet and feathered legs of an osprey, a hawk and an owl. She uses them to show the different shapes of the talons and differences in the feathers.
"I like to ask the kids what makes them a predator," Mrs. Holt smiles. "Most of the time their answers are pretty predictable, but the correct answer is that predators have special tools to catch and kill their prey."
She pointed out the osprey's talons are like fish hooks and its outside toe pivots from front to back so the bird can change the direction of the fish it has caught to face in the direction they are flying, thereby increasing the aerodynamics and making it easier to carry while in flight. Owls have the same ability whereas the hawk's talons are made to contract and crush their prey when they bring their legs back into flying position.
In her Wings & Things program, she brings a Barred Owl named Miko, a Red Shouldered Hawk named Tomahawk, a small American Kestrel named Katie and a Screech Owl named Frodo.
"Miko is fine with people and doesn't mind me touching her occasionally, but the public is not allowed to touch the birds," Mrs. Holt said.
She likes to keep a safe distance between the birds and the public. Tomahawk, in particular, is much happier watching people from a nice safe perch.
"Falcons and hawks really don't like to be touched. I don't even touch them myself so we certainly don't let the children touch them," she said looking at Tomahawk, who was eyeing her young chickens running around the yard.
Mrs. Holt said she also does not fly the birds in public for safety reasons, not only for the children's safety but also for the bird's safety.
Wild About Birds is also a program where people can learn about the environment and how many birds of prey are being harmed by human activities, such as toxins being released into the eco-system, clear cutting of land to build homes and building roads, all of which are obstacles for wildlife.
"It is amazing how some of these birds have adapted to living right here in urban and suburban environments," Mrs. Holt said, "but others are more fragile and as their environment deteriorates their numbers decrease. Most of the time it is because their food sources are dying off."
Mrs. Holt believes all the chemicals people put on their lawns or down their drains enter the food chain and contributes to the problem.
"We hope that by educating the younger generation that their choices can affect the wild life around them we will be doing our small part to conserve the environment for future generations," she said.
For more information on Wild About Birds or to schedule a Wings & Things program for your school, scout group or organization, visit wildaboutbirds.org or email email@example.com.
Wild About Birds also is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization dedicated to the environmental education and raptor conservation effort. If you would like to help or make a donation, contact Mrs. Holt.