Bill Streeter and his small team are on a mission of passion—to rehabilitate and educate about raptors in the Delaware River Valley region. When asked why he does it, Bill simply says, “Raptors have an energy, a presence, there’s just something about them that taps into my soul.” In other words, “I am just bonkers about raptors.”
Watching Julia, a golden eagle that is blind in one eye, spread her seven-foot wingspan and fly, one can see the cause of Bill’s attraction in all its majesty and ferocity. Similar to the word rapture, and indeed Julia inspires a sense of rapture, the word raptor comes from the Latin word rapere, meaning to seize or take by force. Although most birds eat other animals like mice, raptors, or birds of prey, have three distinctive qualities: the best eyesight in the animal kingdom; long, curved talons that serve as weapons and hold food; and strong hooked beaks for tearing flesh that do the same. Some of the most commonly seen raptors in the Delaware Valley region are hawks, eagles, falcons, owls and vultures.
Julia is what Bill calls a “program bird,” a bird that resides permanently at the Delaware Valley Raptor Center (DVRC) and participates in the 150 to 170 live programs that the center conducts annually to educate the public about these noble birds. Some birds come to be rehabilitated and then returned to the wild; others, like Julia, live at the center permanently. Eyesight problems are a common reason for residency due to head injuries caused by car accidents. Raptors stop for carrion on the road and don’t adequately evade oncoming traffic. Bill advises that it’s important for drivers to know that raptors don’t fear cars and therefore don’t fly off quickly like some other birds. Other risks to raptors include lead poisoning from ingesting gun shot in other animals, pesticides that are often ingested the same way, and flight collision injuries from windows, utility lines, and wind turbines.
The center is unique as a non-profit organization in that it rarely fundraises aggressively or toots its own horn. The bulk of financial support comes from its educational programs and the 450 plus families and individuals who compose the center’s membership, which Bill says is like family. The center itself is a family affair. Bill’s wife Stephanie is one of the center’s other two staff members, and they live together on one of their two sites, currently caring for 18 raptors housed in specially designed buildings and flight enclosures on their spacious property. Their house is split into two levels—the upper serving as their home and the lower serving as the center’s office and a small animal clinic. Staff member Jan Lucciola lives on the grounds of the second site, which is in Pike County Park and holds another 20 or more birds.
Stephanie was the first of the couple to become a master falconer, the second registered female falconer in Massachusetts at the time. This ultimately led to the life she and Bill now lead, including the center’s creation. A falconer is someone who is licensed by the state to train, fly and hunt with birds of prey. “Hunting with birds isn’t like hunting with guns,” says Bill. “You don’t just put your bird down at the end of the season like you do a gun. You are responsible for their well-being, so you must have a knowledge of raptors to care for them throughout the year.” This is critically important not just for the bird, but for the falconer as well, as birds of prey can do substantial damage to humans as well as other animals, if not handled properly. And, even when handled properly, there’s still a risk.
Bill has multiples injuries to prove this point. His scariest moment was with another golden eagle that got spooked and pinned Bill’s tongue to his lower jaw with a front talon through his mouth, while resting her back talon on his chin. With his colleague 200 feet away, and unable to yell, he had to think fast to save his life. He slowly inserted his finger in between the eagle’s back talon and his chin and successfully unhooked it causing her to release the other talon from his mouth. “She seemed just as scared as I was,” he said about the incident. Golden eagles are considered the most powerful bird in the United States and their talons can grow up to three inches.
Bill’s work with raptors is clearly a labor of love. Up until five years ago, he worked full-time elsewhere, while sustaining the center simultaneously. Now, thankfully, “I can do what I want,” he says. “I guess you could call it compassion. When an eight-year-old child sees an injured bird on the side of the road, do you just want to tell them, ‘Sorry, that bird will die?’ Or do you want to do something about it?”
Upcoming programs for the center are listed on the right side of this article. For more information about membership and in-depth articles, go to www.dvrconline.org .