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The ‘Bird Lady’

Santiago cares for, teaches about fowl

September 23, 2013
By Beth Christian Broschart Staff Writer , The Inter-Mountain

Seniors from across the United States attending the Blackwater Falls State Park Septemberfest Senior Fling Thursday met and learned about birds of prey from Jo Santiago, affectionally referred to as the bird lady.

Santiago, who has worked as a researcher, wildlife biologist, naturalist and nature center director, established Flying Higher in 2007, and has since dedicated her life to the rescue and rehabilitation of injured or ill birds of prey.

She travels throughout the East coast teaching about these wonderful raptors, including the eagles, kites, condors, harriers, osprey, accipiters, falcons, buteos, falconettes and owls.

Article Photos

The Inter-Mountain photo by Beth Christian Broschart
 The ‘bird lady’ Jo Santiago, from Elkins, talks with seniors from across the United States Thursday during an event at Blackwater Falls State Park. Santiago brought along her birds Blondie, a Northern goshaw; Stewie, an Eastern screech owl; and pictured, Ty, a red-tailed hawk.

Santiago brought three of her birds to the presentation - Ty, a red-tailed hawk; Blondie, a Northern gosawk; and Stewie, an Eastern screech owl.

"I am just the interpreter here," Santiago said. "The birds are my passion, and it is what I was born to do this," Santiago said.

"When the Division of Natural Resources, Forest Service or private individuals find an ill or injured bird, I get the bird, stabilize them, examine them, feed them if need be and then call up the most wonderful raptor veterinarian," Santiago said. "Jesse Fallon from Morgantown then takes care of the bird. If we are able to release the bird, we all get together and release the bird back into their natural habitat."

Santiago said there is something amazing and special when you release a rehabilitated bird back into its natural habitat.

"When you release a bird, it flies off your hand and it spreads it wings, and it goes back to the wild. It takes a part of you with it," Santiago said.

Santiago explained what made birds of prey 'raptors.'

"Raptors have claws called talons," Santiago said. "This is the tools of their trades. Birds of prey are warriors - they are the masters of the sky, hunters and the most elite flyers of all. Their talons are used to capture and kill their prey. They are also used in self-defense."

Santiago introduced her red-tailed hawk, Ty, to audience members.

"All of my birds have some kind of injury or condition that prevents them from being successfully sent back out into the wild," Santiago said. "Ty has large talons, and that is why I have a glove on. He is so strong, he could send his talons clear through my hand and then lock in his muscles. Their muscles are ratcheted, so they can lock them in. At home, I can work with him without gloves, but not around anyone else."

Santiago said Ty has another talon as well.

"His beak is another talon that he uses to rip and tear his prey apart," Santiago said. "He also uses it for preening."

Ty began swaying from side to side, and Santiago asked attendees to watch him communicating with her.

"Verbal communication only represents 7 percent of communication," Santiago said. "Body language is 93 percent of how we communicate with one another. I always keep Ty in my peripheral vision because he is communicating with me. He glances my way to see what I am thinking - he is mostly looking for smooth movements, which mean everything is okay."

Incredible eyesight is another trait of birds of prey.

"To give you an idea of the scope of their eyesight, imagine if I took a penny and put the penny in the end zone - if Ty were on the 50 yard line - if he could read and speak, he could read the date on the penny," Santiago said. "They see things we don't see, and they see colors we do not see. He can follow the trail of some rodents by following the ultraviolent color of the rodent's urine. Our vision only gives us a slice of what's out there."

Santiago said when she really wants to watch and see what's out there in the world, she takes Ty out and watches him and his body language.

"When he starts getting animated, I start watching him, because he can see what I cannot see and he can hear what I cannot hear," Santiago said. "If we are driving somewhere and I have his cage in the back, I will see him getting agitated. When I pull off the road and look where Ty is looking, I see nothing, but I remember to be humble, because my eyes are so inferior to his. Then I wait. Then I will see a speck coming into my vision and it will be an eagle or a hawk that he saw long before I could. He shows me all kinds of things."

Santiago said Ty knows when he is hunting, there is someone hunting for him.

"The road is a buffet to them," Santiago said. "They enjoy eating rodents and occasionally enjoy a snake or a smaller bird. He dove down to get his supper and a car hit him, bending his wing way back. The accident did not break his wing, but did severe nerve damage and paralyzed the wing. The person who hit him, took him to the vet. The vet said he is paralyzed for life and will never fly again. That is how I got him."

Hawks in captivity can live to 30 years old, but in the wild, they live for less than a year

"With most raptors, females are larger and more powerful than the males," Santiago said. "You can't tell the males from the females by coloration for the most part."

Santiago said she has a freezer full of mice and rats because it's what the birds prefer to eat.

"I don't catch wild mice and rats because people put out poison for them," Santiago said. "People don't understand that when you put out poison, you are going to kill way more animals than your target animal.

"Poison does not kill right out, so the animals run around for days before they die," Santiago said. "So they are still running around for these guys to eat. A lot of hawks, eagles and owls get poisoned from the poison that was put out for rodents."

Santiago also shared her Northern goshawk, Blondie and her Eastern screech owl Stewie.

More information about Jo Santiago and Flying Higher is available by calling 304-636-6769 or 304-516-1908.



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