NASHVILLE, Ind. — Laura Edmund’s “gateway drug” isn’t what you’d expect. For her, it was a yellow cockatiel she received for her 30th birthday.
In her humorous way, Edmunds explains that gift led to a lifetime with birds, stating, “Eventually, there’s an eagle in the bedroom.”
That’s not far from the truth at the Nashville house owned by Edmunds and her partner Patti Reynolds. Behind their home the yard is full of structures, all housing various types of raptors — owls, hawks, eagles, falcons.
On her front porch, wind chimes softly peal in the slight breeze while eagles call and owls hoot from behind the house. Sitting in a rocking chair on a fall afternoon, Edmunds talks about her first time helping with peregrine falcons. An eye-to-eye look with one chick changed her life forever. Staring into the eye of a raptor while breathing in the smell — “It never occurred to me that wild birds had a wild smell” — led Edmunds to pursue training and volunteering with birds, leaving behind her career as a emergency room and surgical nurse for years of training and being mentored by bird rehabbers.
“I knew life would be dedicated to them,” Edmunds said.
That dedication began in 1987 and has never wavered, even when she faced an aggressive form of cancer that was found in 2003. Given a 5% chance of survival, Edmunds spent the next 2 1/2 years battling the cancer with help of Indiana University doctors. Throughout the ordeal, Edmunds never stopped caring for her birds, even when she was sick from chemotherapy and radiation -treatments. Throughout that time, Reynolds was her companion, retiring early from Eli Lilly in Indianapolis to help at the Indiana Raptor Center, the home-based center they founded together in 2002.
Edmunds still has some bad side effects from her cancer treatments, most recently losing most of her teeth. But none of that seems to bother her when she’s caring for an injured bird. One of the raptors currently needing skilled care from Edmunds is a red-tailed hawk, after two of the hawks suddenly attacked each other while at the raptor center. Edmunds, with help from Reynolds, administers medication and uses special syringes to feed the bird, which calmly settles into Reynold’s arms under her firm but gentle grip.
“Red-tails are like pickup trucks,” Edmunds explained. “They’re rough and tumble.”
Indiana Raptor Center cares for hawks, owls, eagles, falcons, woodpeckers and vultures. Even with the often live-saving care, only 50% to 65% of the birds survive. While that may seem like a low survival rate, Reynolds explains that for most raptors, 70% to 90% can die within their first year of life.
While Reynolds and Edmunds are president and vice president, respectively, of the Indiana Raptor Center, they have 52 volunteers — from veterinarians to graphic artists to people who transport injured birds to the center — who make it possible for the center to provide care for more than 100 birds each year. Indiana Raptor Center takes birds — from Greenwood down to almost Scottsburg and from Terre Haute east to Greensburg — that have been hit by cars, are suffering from lead poisoning or fell out of nests before they fledged.
Rex Watters, wildlife specialist with the Indiana Department of Natural Resources at Lake Monroe, has called the center many times when there’s an injured raptor.
“They do all that they can to make the birds releasable,” Watters said, adding that all the released birds have done well. “The chances are most likely that those birds, with their care, have been given an extended life and have been able to get back into the wild.”
One of the bald eagles Watters brought to the center was suffering from West Nile virus. It recovered, has been released back into the wild and is part of a mated pair that’s still nesting in the Lake Monroe area.
Sometimes the birds deposit themselves on the couple’s front porch. They’ve discovered injured vultures there, waiting for help. It doesn’t surprise Edmunds and Reynolds, who know there are crows, vultures and various species of owls that watch the care they give to other raptors. When one crow that had appeared on their doorstep died, they placed the body out where the other crows could find it. That was necessary, because crows are a species that mourn their dead, they explained.
The women also found some of their captive birds helping other birds of their species. They noticed owl pellets in their front yard and couldn’t figure out how they rolled uphill, far from the cages where the owls were. They solved that mystery when they noticed wild owls were flying to the top of the cages to accept food given to them by the captive birds.
With plastic bags filled with dead mice and pheasant chicks, Edmunds begins the feeding rounds. A short walk down the hill behind the house leads to a shed with three rooms, each containing raptors eager for their meals.
Three young barn owl chicks line up on a perch awaiting the mice Edmunds throws onto the floor below. Rustling from the other cages picks up as she calls out to the birds, encouraging them to fly down to pick up a mouse. While she’s feeding the raptors in the shed, loud hoots, screeches and calls of other raptors in other structures fill the air.
“I’m coming,” Edmunds almost coos to the birds as she heads out of the first shed and selects a mouse for another raptor, this time one of the four bald eagles at the center. This bald eagle has a neurological problem and at one point couldn’t stand. Now, the eagle can walk, although not always in a straight line.
The next bald eagle is one of Indiana’s special birds: C-14. That’s the number on the band she received when she was a fledgling eagle taken from her nest in Minnesota and transported to the special towers at Lake Monroe, where state biologists cared for young bald eagles as part of the state’s bald eagle reintroduction program.
As an adult, C-14 spent time in northern Indiana and then New York before returning to Indiana. When she was 25 years old, she was hit by a vehicle. Her shoulder was dislocated — an injury that will keep her from ever flying again. So, she’s found a home at the raptor center, where she eagerly awaits a mouse tossed to her from a short distance.
“She had several triples,” Edmunds proudly states, explaining the female eagle had three healthy eaglets several years in a row. “She’s not in any pain,” Edmunds continued. “Even though she’s 32 years old, she doesn’t show any arthritis at all.”
In the next pen is an even larger bird of prey: a golden eagle. The bird was hit by a vehicle in Utah, suffering a concussion, and now has only 30% normal vision. The bird, now 33, is settled, regally, on a wooden perch, almost ignoring the visitors in her cage.
Edmunds talks about the only time the golden eagle, named Mariah, approached people. There were visitors, members of a choir, who sang “Mariah” to the bird from the edge of her cage. While they sang, the golden eagle walked toward them, seeming to enjoy the music. The memory brings a smile to Edmund’s face.
The feeding continues with several red-tailed hawks, almost ready to release into the wild, taking turns flying down to grab a pheasant chick laid just outside their caged window. Soon they’ll be placed in the long, narrow structure known as the flight cage, where they will have to fly uphill, strengthening their wings before they are released to fend for themselves.
Other birds, including a Eurasian eagle owl with penetrating orange eyes and a deep “hoot,” and a nearby great-horned owl that replies with its even deeper hoo-hoo-hoots, are permanent residents of the center.
One hawk that’s developed a special relationship with Edmunds is the African augur buzzard named Zulu. The mountain bird from eastern Africa was confiscated as part of a drug raid and found its way to Edmunds and Reynolds. Zulu was one of the first of her species ever hatched in North America. Her brother is the mascot that flies during the Seattle Seahawks games, Edmunds said.
One bird that is safely kept inside the raptor center’s clinic is a peregrine falcon that’s having trouble flying. Tests are being conducted to determine what’s causing its problems. This time it doesn’t seem to be lead poisoning, which along with poisoning from pesticides and insecticides, contribute to health problems for many raptors. The clinic is part of the basement of the women’s house.
Plans are under way to open up an area for an office and an area for workshops and clinics for volunteers and visitors.
“Wildlife rehabilitation is not financially supported in Indiana by the government,” Reynolds noted.
The necessity of fundraising reduces the time she and Edmunds have to care for the raptors and train volunteers. Reynolds has applied for and received several grants this year and in the past from the Community Foundation of Brown County and the Amos Butler Audubon Society in Indianapolis.
This year’s money paid for a new software system that will allow the center to better track its patients, their care and give detailed information about the injuries, treatments and outcomes of each bird. It’s possible a public interface will be added in the future to allow people to follow the progress of individual birds. The hope is that will help people understand the huge costs associated with caring for the raptors and result in donations.
Those donations help the birds get back into the wild more quickly, Edmunds said.
Besides the work in Brown County, Edmunds and Reynolds are the rehabbers helping a Lawrence County couple, Rick and Lola Nicholson, with the eagle “hacking” tower operation on their property. The tower was constructed in May 2018 with three cages that can house injured bald eagles while they recover and successfully return to the wild. A nearby pond allows the eagles to catch fish while they recover.
Eventually, the Nicholsons will become registered rehabbers and will take on the responsibilities of caring for patients on their own, establishing their own set of volunteers and funding sources.
A smile crosses Edmund’s lips as she tells about Lola’s experience one morning when she was going out to feed the eagles. As she drove to the tower, she looked up into the trees nearby and spotted 19 bald eagles watching the caged juvenile bald eagles. Unlike some species, adult bald eagles will often help care for younger birds that need their help. Seeing those birds was a sign to the Nicholsons that their soon-to-be-released birds would be well taken care of by the “residents.”
Besides being a rehabilitation specialist, Edmunds is also a falconer, able to train and fly falcons. Because of that she has done what many other rehabilitation specialists have not been able to do: Get falconers to help “educate” recovering birds by teaching them how to hunt.
Area falconers can take on one of the recovering birds, keeping them without having to register them as one of their birds. The falconers work with the raptors to teach them how to hunt and catch rabbits. When the raptors are consistently catching rabbits and other prey, then they can be released into the wild. Or the falconer can add the bird to their registry and keep the bird, Edmunds said.
Both Edmunds and Reynolds are proud that a team from Purdue University is applying lessons learned while at their raptor center to help save birds from the huge windmills that can be found in northern Indiana and elsewhere around the world. The team spent the summer setting up speakers and receivers and cameras to watch the bald eagles and golden eagle as different colors and sounds were emitted. The goal is to find the most annoying color and sound to keep birds safely away from the fast-moving blades that are killing birds.
It’s just another way Edmunds and Reynolds are trying to protect and save wild birds.