Photo by Matthew Jenkins. He is an aspiring photographer, attending Lake Hazel Middle School. He took this photo of a juvenile Long-eared Owl in Hull's Gulch in Boise, Idaho.

photo by Matthew Jenkins

Embracing Cultural Identity Is the Secret to Saving Birds

Abigail Jenkins

Have you heard of Raptor High?” Six words changed my life forever. 

I looked at the computer whiz in my web design class and shrugged. That isn’t for me, I thought. Not my thing

“Come on back,” the Raptor Care Specialist waved me after her. “Meet Tulio!” Wrapped up in a towel was the cutest bundle of feathers I had ever seen. A juvenile male Ornate Hawk-Eagle, only fifty-eight days old, stared at me with unblinking eyes. Like Baby Yoda, but in bird form. I stood in the doorway, nervous. My heart began to race and my palms to sweat, curling into fists by my side. Being in a room with a bird of prey simultaneously made my heart soar and my blood run cold. I stood frozen at the doorway.

The Raptor Care Specialist gave me the go-ahead to come closer. “We’re socializing him,” she told me, “so that he can become an avian ambassador.” The World Center for Birds of Prey in Boise, Idaho, considers their raptors to be colleagues who represent our co-species on this planet. These birds are not for show. My heart warmed as I watched Tulio, who would soon educate guests about Ornate Hawk-Eagles.

In my second year as a Raptor High student I couldn’t go back to see the birds because of the avian influenza, but I met a visitor who also happened to be a biologist! We giggled about our fascination with Cowbirds—a species she had done research with!—and their strange ability to make water droplet noises. I also passingly met Munir Virani, former Executive Vice President of The Peregrine Fund, who presented a TED Talk titled “Why I Love Vultures.”

I went from not my thing to completing two years of Raptor High. So, what happened?

A lot. Indeed, birds of prey shirts have become the staple of my wardrobe. And I didn’t even think I was a “bird person.”

The summer before I met the computer whiz, a previous Raptor High student and amateur falconer, I had finally visited the World Center for Birds of Prey—and fell in love. As soon as I entered the courtyard, I was captivated by the first raptors I met: a majestic pair of Bateleur Eagles.

By the time I sat down for a “Raptor Encounter”, I was piqued. Full of adrenaline and excitement from learning about the various raptors at the center, I could barely sit still in the makeshift indoor amphitheater and chattered with my dad. My excitement only continued to grow; after watching an introduction video to The Peregrine Fund and their conservation efforts, featuring Harpy Eagles in Panama and a Madagascar Fish Eagle in Madagascar, the real-life encounter began. A volunteer brought out an American Kestrel on the glove. Seeing the small falcon, animatedly bobbing his head, was downright magical. I had never seen a raptor that close before and was immediately smitten.

But until the computer whiz introduced me to Raptor High, I never thought of myself as someone who could belong there.

That was resolved at the Welcome Program. The volunteer coordinator and curator of education immediately made our cohort feel cherished. I was handed a shirt (that I still have, by the way), nametag, and binder full of information. We toured the facility, played telephone, and practiced using walkie talkies. 

Soon I was welcoming international guests. By recognizing the importance of creating a space of belonging for people of all backgrounds, I was able to connect with more visitors and listen to their stories. One young Latinx college student smiled from beneath his COVID-19 mask and showed me the photos he had taken of Grayson, the Harpy Eagle at the Center. As an aspiring ecologist, he enjoyed wildlife photography. His accidental shot of Grayson blinking was my favorite, since it revealed his third eyelid.

An LGBTQ+ couple told me about their travels to Costa Rica. 

A biologist shared about her work in Ethiopia.

A woman with special needs and her caretaker oohed and awed over California Condor chicks over the Chick Cam. 

A woman and her husband excitedly shared about the Snowy Owls and Barred Owls they had seen in Vermont. 

A tour group speaking Swahili cheered as they learned about raptors from another volunteer. 

I also began to realize the extent that The Peregrine Fund goes to to welcome all races, ethnicities, genders, and sexual orientations. Raptors are a diverse group, consisting of eagles, falcons, vultures, owls, hawks, and secretary birds. Likewise, The Peregrine Fund is an international organization, working with diverse teams across many countries. By funding and working directly with local communities in research and conservation, the nonprofit is able to change attitudes, promote the economy, and make long-term positive changes to the environment. Welcoming diverse identities and cultures makes it possible to restore raptors with the public’s best interests at heart. For example, farmers in Kenya used poison to keep lions and other predators from eating their livestock—but the poison harmed vultures who feed on their carcasses. To reduce this issue, The Peregrine Fund in Kenya built bomas, which are corrals that keep livestock safe from lions and other predators. In Panama, locals working with The Peregrine Fund were able to change attitudes about the Harpy Eagle and declare April 10th National Harpy Eagle Day.

I also recognized and reconsidered my own biases. Before Raptor High, I considered vultures to be “ugly.” Soon into the program, however, I was beckoning guests toward the bald-headed California Condors, a species of vulture, and regaling them with the true stories of how vultures keep us alive by recycling animal carcasses and returning the nutrients to the soil, which helps to stop the spread of many harmful diseases to humans. 

“Did you know: vultures’ bald heads aren’t the only adaptation that keeps them clean! Vultures also have acidic feces, which acts like hand sanitizer! It keeps them safe from harmful diseases and stops the spread, too.”

Vultures save our lives daily. They also save us millions of dollars and reduce greenhouse gases. Vultures are real-life superheroes! Unfortunately, seventeen of the twenty-three species of vultures are endangered and populations are declining.

My favorite moments during Raptor High were seeing guests’ faces light up as they too recognized the importance of vultures. They wanted to know all they could about The World Center for Birds of Prey’s efforts to propagate and raise California Condor chicks to be released into the Grand Canyon.

“How precious!” One visitor said as she looked at the fluffy bundles of Condor chicks on screen. A little boy held the California Condor dummy egg in the palm of his hands, awed.

Indigenous tribes like the Yurok tribe in California have long recognized the power of the California Condor. Condors are finally being released back onto tribal lands after nearly going extinct due to colonization. 

So, how does recognizing diversity stop the loss of species? By working with locals and local organizations, The Peregrine Fund is able to educate and empower change at the local level. For example, hunters in the US who use copper ammunition protect California Condors from lead poisoning, which is the leading cause of death in Condors and protect their own families as well, since lead often disperses into invisible particles throughout a carcass. 

By providing formal education to and employing local indigenous Emberá and Wounaan in Panama, The Peregrine Fund is able to more effectively protect Harpy Eagles. Because of the internationality of The Peregrine Fund and its headquarters, the World Center for Birds of Prey, I’ve had the opportunity to meet so many incredible people with a passion for raptors who want to make a difference. 

You, too, can stop the loss of bird species. Tell your friends about this article. Visit the World Center for Birds of Prey to learn more about raptors. Participate in citizen science projects like the American Kestrel Partnership. We all benefit from protecting the beautiful birds that provide us joy, inspiration, and life. 

We cannot protect birds of prey from extinction without appreciating the many varied identities of our neighbors, who offer unique insights and creative solutions to maintaining a bird-filled sky. Birds are a symbol of hope, peace, and love. Who doesn’t want to be reminded of that every time they search the sky?

As a fresher at Boise State University, I am proud to say that raptor biology is shaping my perspective as a student in Humanities & Cultural Studies, the department that houses the Writing for Change Journal! Thanks to a chance conversation with a computer whiz, I learned of Raptor High at the World Center for Birds of Prey, the program that provided me—not a science person!—a place of belonging and a lifetime love for raptors and diverse cultures. I hope that you, too, consider yourself a Raptor High student—no matter your age or background. Look to the skies!

Abigail Jenkins is a fresher at Boise State University, studying Humanities & Cultural Studies and Nonprofit Management. Matthew Jenkins is an aspiring photographer, attending an Idaho middle school. He took this photo of a juvenile Long-eared Owl in Hull's Gulch in Boise, Idaho.

Social Share Buttons and Icons powered by Ultimatelysocial
Skip to content