Rehabilitator helps raptors take flight

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Margaret Plevak | August 10, 2016

WHITEWATER — As a child, Dianne Moller constructed Styrofoam airplanes and then set them aloft to watch them soar.

“I love anything that flies — airplanes, gliders,” she says. “It's that sense of freedom we don't have (as humans) to just take off in flight.”

Moller also grew to love nature's most majestic fliers, and she's now in her 20th year of rehabilitating eagles, hawks, owls and other birds of prey. While her five-acre facility, Hoo's Woods Raptor Center near Whitewater, typically isn't open to the public, Moller presents educational programs around Walworth and Rock counties.

She's licensed by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and in 2015, she received an award for her work from the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation.

Take to the wing with this slice of life from Dianne Moller.

Early instincts 

I've loved raptors since I've been a little girl growing up in Beloit. My mom was from North Dakota, and she knew a lot about prairie falcons, kestrels, peregrines. When I was little, she'd take me on Sunday afternoon rides and we'd try to spot hawks. That's kind of how I got interested in it, but I think it was just something that you're born with, like people who are just naturally great with horses or gifted with dogs.

On-the-job training

I worked for a veterinarian in Edgerton for 10 years, and we had a client in Milton who had a rehab center for many years. I volunteered for him. He was getting out of it and he thought I should rehab raptors; he said I had a natural ability. He helped me get a license to rehabilitate — take in injured or orphaned raptors, try to make them better, put them back. He did education programs, too, and he said I'd be really good at that. So I got licensed to do that. You need state and federal licenses to do any of this.

For the birds

I did 85 programs last year, and we educated over 26,000 people. I also went through 5,000 pounds of food for the birds — rats, mice, quail. We have to buy all of that and it's very expensive. That's a big part of the cost. We do not get any state or federal funding. People think I'm a game warden or I work for the DNR, but I don't. I charge a fee for my programs to help offset costs.

Green education

The main focus in the programs is how we work together in the ecosystem to make it work and to make it balanced. Habitat preservation is so important. People ask me why we don't have many barn owls anymore. We have less than 1 percent of our grasslands in Wisconsin, so birds that nest on the ground, like short-eared owls, meadowlarks, their populations are declining.

On programs with kids we talk about what can you do to help, like recycling, planting trees, figuring out what's a weed and what's a native plant and letting them be, not mowing every single thing down.

Society is becoming more removed from the environment. And the first things to get cut are environmental programs. I just got one bird from a center in Oklahoma that was funded for 35 years through the University of Oklahoma. They lost their funding because their state is $107 million in debt. The first thing that went were the wildlife and environmental programs there. So they had to place their birds (somewhere) and I drove down there and took one of them, a little barn owl.

Lessons in nature

Animals and birds will adapt to urban areas, but there are people who don't want owls in their yards in the city. They feel threatened. They're like, “But I have a cocker spaniel and that barn owl might get it!” No, it won't. Or down in Janesville there are two groups of turkey vultures, and people are afraid these vultures are just going to swarm in and going to get people. Vultures only eat dead things. There's probably something by the landfill with a bad smell that attracts them, because they're the only raptor that can smell. And they're communal. They find a place to roost and then in the morning they disperse. They go off and eat, but they don't kill anything. They just find roadkill. They come back at the end of the day. And by Halloween they're out of here. They go back to South America and then they come back in March.

Starting young

I have two or three one-day raptor camps for kids. It's a day camp for kids 8 to 14. They don't handle birds, but they get a tour. They get a lesson from an artist on how to draw a bird, so they have an actual live bird as a model. We do re-enactments of rescuing birds with stuffed toys out in the yard and kennel cabs and the gloves and everything. I teach them bird anatomy.

Most of the parents that call say, “This is perfect for my child. They love birds,” or “They're into owls.” Some parents say, “I'm pulling them away from the TV set for the day and they're going to come out and learn something.” They have a ball out here. It's very well supervised. We have one adult for every three kids.

Probably about 98 percent of the people I encounter are really good people. Not long ago I had a father up here with his two daughters who found a baby hawk. Those girls were 10 and 12 years old. And they insisted to their father, we need to get this bird help. I just think that's a really good message that they're sending. When you care about animals, you care about people.

Changing climate

I have the first Mississippi kite ever recovered in Wisconsin. There's never been another one reported. Wrong Way came in as a very young bird and he has some permanent vision loss from the West Nile virus, so he's going to stay on as an education bird. Mississippi kites are found down South. They're hawks and they eat mostly dragonflies. They transfer their food from their feet to their beak in flight and then they're usually in colonies. They winter down in South America, and I'm pretty sure they're here because of global warming. There are pairs now in New Hampshire, northern Illinois. They're dispersing their range. 

Tropical owl, golden and bald eagles

I'm one of the only individuals in the U.S. that has a spectacled owl. They're the largest tropical owl found in the rainforest in Central and South America. Oakley was captive bred at the Tulsa zoo and over the last six years — she's 6 years old — she was an education bird at the Sutton Center in Oklahoma that closed, so I had her for a year. In the rainforest these owls eat small mammals, small birds, baby monkeys. Her name comes from the sunglasses company because it looks like she's wearing glasses.

I've had my golden eagle for eight years. He's 17 years old. He was attacked by another eagle out in Wyoming. He goes on almost every program. He's a very well-mannered bird. When we go to the Jefferson County Fair, he'll sit on this perch for three hours and never move. He's got a leash on there, and people will always ask me if he's real because he just sits there and watches people.

Madeline the bald eagle, is six years old, an 11-pound female. When she came here she didn’t have a white head or a white tail. She was hit by a car up in Wautoma. You can see her wing droops a bit. I let a group of kids name her. I said please don’t name her Glory, Freedom or Liberty, anything like that. But I asked them why Madeline? They said she just looks like a Madeline.

Nature versus man

Sometimes I have eight or 10 birds in rehab. Sometimes I have zero, like for two days and then I get more birds in, so it goes in cycles. My education birds are here permanently.

The No. 1 reason for the injuries of birds I see is they're hit by cars. There might also be toxins, like lead poisoning, or the West Nile virus, which is not transmittable to people from birds. Some birds have been illegally shot, or got blown out of a nest or injured in a fall. I've seen birds that went into a manure pit because it forms a crust across the top and they spot mice or little birds, so they swoop down and it sucks them in like quicksand — they're covered and they can't fly. Then it dries and you've got to wash them with Dawn (dishwashing liquid) and it's a nightmare. I get lots of calls about birds that get trapped in buildings. There was a cooper's hawk in the Festival Foods in Janesville, and one in Wal-Mart. They fly through those big doors chasing other birds in, and because the lights are on all the time they can't differentiate between inside and outside so they can't fly back out.

One of the barn owls here was found up in Jefferson County maybe six weeks ago. He was caught in fishing line in a tree. ... A lot of line was out there and he just landed in the wrong place and got tangled up. So they got him out, but all that fishing line — you know what you do to curling ribbon with a scissors? It was like that on his left wing. So he just has to molt. Once he's molted I'll let him go.

Sport of kings

I became a licensed falconer about 15 years ago. I went to a falconry meet and I saw a peregrine falcon fly probably 1,000 feet up in the air, come down and take a pigeon. Falconry is the most regulated sport in the U.S. You have to do a two-year apprenticeship under a licensed falconer. You have to have your facilities inspected for your bird. You have to take a written test — it's like 120 questions — for the DNR. You have to follow the same hunting seasons as the small games hunter, and when you start, you can only have one bird.

Falconry is separate from rehab and it's separate from education. It's really important to keep the three separate because there are people who just rehab, people who just educate and then there are falconers. I sort of crossed over into all three.


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