BRADFORD — A tiny Eastern screech owl with enormous yellow eyes perches on Vivian Maxson’s arm. The owl, named Rusty, may look like a cuddly stuffed toy, but Maxson knows better. Her arm is clad in a thick leather gauntlet, necessary protection from her lethal talons. Both Vivian, and her husband, John, have permanent scars from unprotected encounters with owls, hawks and falcons.
“These guys are fierce little predators,” she says, holding Rusty a comfortable distance from her face.
The Maxsons operate Rhode Island’s only rehabilitation facility for birds of prey. When they began in 1999, they took in any bird or mammal that was brought to their door, but, as John says, “We had to narrow our scope. We both have a natural love of raptors.”
The Born to be Wild Nature Center sits on 4 shaded acres at the Maxsons’ home, which borders the Grills Preserve. A flock of chickens and two guinea fowl meander through the grass, ignoring the family’s three exuberant dogs and the raptors, who watch hungrily from cages nearby.
When an injured raptor arrives at the center, it faces three possible fates: euthanasia if it is too severely injured to recover; rehabilitation and release; or, for otherwise healthy birds that cannot survive in the wild, remaining at the center as one of the “education birds.”
In addition to Rusty the screech owl, there are four education birds: a red-tailed hawk, a great horned owl, an American kestrel, and a barred owl. The Maxsons bring these birds with them when they present talks on raptors.
Rusty came to the center with a broken collarbone. She can fly, but only 4 feet off the ground, not high enough to survive in the wild.
Wink the barred owl was hit by a car in Little Compton and lost his left eye. Matrix, a red-tailed hawk, suffered permanent brain damage when she was hit by a ball while hunting on a golf course in Framingham, Mass. She is unable to feed herself.
“She has no recognition of prey,” Vivian explains.
The Maxsons both have full-time jobs outside the center. Vivian works as a medical assistant in Westerly and John is a special education teacher at Westerly High School. They hold the six federal and state permits required to keep raptors, permits that must be renewed every year at cost of $250. There are many other costs such as special food for the birds, which eat dead whole mice or quail.
“You can’t feed these guys anything but a whole animal diet,” Vivian says.
The birds receive medical care from veterinarians at Wildlife Rehabilitators of Rhode Island in North Kingstown, the state’s primary nonprofit facility for injured and orphaned wildlife, and from veterinary ophthalmologists Ken Abrams and Melanie Church in Warwick. The Maxsons receive no government funding.
John has built most of the flight cages, known as mews, himself.
“The first cage was $1,500 out of my own pocket,” he says.
One of the cages houses a red-tailed hawk named Phoenix, whose injury at the Central Landfill in Johnston resulted in the introduction of new safety measures. Phoenix has been at the center since last November. He was severely burned by either perching on or flying over a methane burner. Workers found him on the ground, unable to fly.
Attracted by the numerous rodents at the landfill, birds go there to hunt and can be scorched when the burners ignite without warning. After Phoenix’s accident and similar incidents involving other birds, officials at the Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation consulted with an expert on raptor behavior and have since taken measures to ensure that birds cannot get too close to the burners.
“Because there has been so much attention on this bird, there’s been a lot of changes at the landfill,” Vivian says. “They’ve installed steel caps to keep them from perching, and removed perches near the flames.”
Phoenix is growing new feathers to replace his burned plumage.
When he is eventually released he will be taken back to the landfill for a very important reason: His mate will be waiting for him there.
“He has dark eyes, which means he’s old,” Vivian says. “That means his mate is still there. When the pair bond is this old, she will wait forever for him.”
Another, much larger flight cage houses two young peregrine falcons.
“They are the fastest animals in the world,” Vivian says as she watches the birds in the 40-foot-long enclosure.
The falcons came to the center in early June from a brood of four at Pawtucket City Hall. They needed a little more time to hone their flight skills.
As Vivian is telling their story, one of the peregrines suddenly launches itself into the air and flies the length of the cage.
“Now that’s a good flight,” she says, watching it flap back and forth. “That’s what I want to see.”
Both falcons were taken back to Pawtucket on June 20 and successfully released, in keeping with the Maxsons’ primary objective of releasing birds back into the wild whenever possible. It’s also the reason why, with the exception of the education birds and Phoenix, the landfill hawk, they don’t name the birds in their care.
“We don’t want people ever to have the impression that these birds are pets,” Vivian says.
The Born to be Wild Nature Center is open to the public by appointment. The center can also be found on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Born-To-Be-Wild-Nature-Center/144344332289424
Anyone who finds an injured or orphaned raptor should contact the Maxsons at 401-377-8489 or Wildlife Rehabilitators of Rhode Island at 401-294–6363. They also welcome donations.