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WXPR's We Live Up Here series is a home for stories that focus on the people, history, and culture that make the Northwoods of Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan such a unique place to live.

We Live Up Here: Raptor Education Group

Image by Jim Skibo

As part of the We Live Up Here series, Jim Skibo visited with Raptor Education Group Director, Marge Gibson. She moved back to Antigo to be closer to family, research and write about birds. She and her late husband, Don, soon discovered, however, that the northwoods lacked a facility for bird rehabilitation. In 1990 they opened a facility that takes in about a 1000 injured birds per year along with providing many educational opportunities.

Today in the clinic, nestled in the hardwoods southwest of Antigo, Marge Gibson, founder and director of the Raptor Education Group, or REGI, is holding an adult bald eagle like someone might cradle a young child. Decades of experience handling raptors keeps the bird calm. Marge and Rehabilitation Director, Audrey Gossett, have just brought in the bird for a checkup.

A week or so ago, the adult male, now looking strong and majestic but still unable to fly, was not doing so well. The bird has lead positioning and a broken leg he suffered when hit by a car.

According to Marge, about a quarter of the eagles that come in have lead poisoning. If untreated, lead poisoning will be fatal for the eagle. When they receive a sick bird in time they can be treated, but it is very expensive. Besides food and months of treatment, the medication alone can cost between $500 to $1000 per bird.

The prognosis for this patient is good, but they would see far fewer sick eagles if hunters would abandon the use of lead bullets and shot. Many people think that a bullet passes through a deer, but that is not true.

In x-rays, according to Marge, the lead looks like a snowstorm inside the animal up to 18 inches from the wound channel.

Credit Image by Jim Skibo
Marge Gibson and Audrey Gossett examine an x-ray of a recent patient

Eagles and other animals get ill from feeding on gut piles or wounded animals who die without recovery by hunters.  Although many hunters now use copper instead of lead bullets, Marge recommends that all hunters do the same. She notes that we can’t do much to keep eagles from getting hit by cars or injuring themselves, but we could cut down by 25% the number of eagles coming to the clinic if lead bullets were not used.

What should a person do if they come across an injured bird? According to Marge, a person should try to contain the injured bird with first a towel and then a cardboard box. A cage should not be used because the bird can hurt themselves trying to escape. Then a wildlife rehabilitation center, like REGI, should be called and they will take it from there. The REGI staff will often try to talk you through the process of transporting the bird, even the raptors.

Marge notes that owls, hawks and eagles are usually quite calm if they are injured. The REGI staff can talk you through how to handle the bird and bring it in or they can send someone to help.

One of the unique features of REGI is their fly barn. The fly barn is an indoor space with perches, large enough to allow raptors to practice flying before release. Once eagles are healthy enough to fly, they must regain their strength before being reintroduced to the wild. The eagles in the fly barn on this afternoon were in various states of rehabilitation. Even to the untrained eye, one can see that some birds seem quite fit while others struggle to maintain a path and land smoothly. Cameras mounted in the fly barn permit the staff to monitor each bird’s progress.

Once they can fly perfectly, they are released to the wild. They always set them free in the winter along open water where eagles congregate. According to Marge, the adults at the winter sites will help out other eagles as they are “good parents and good neighbors.”

The eagle releases are open to the public, and Marge encourages people to attend where they not only get an opportunity to celebrate a successful rehabilitation, but also get a rare chance to get up close to an eagle.

Credit Image by Jim Skibo
Talons of an adult male eagle

Besides bird rehabilitation, a large part of REGIs mission is education. They do about  250 programs a year. They also have an adventure camp for kids during the summer and an active internship program that brings in college students from around the country. In addition, REGI opens their doors to tours May through September.

Because REGI is a nonprofit organization, they also welcome volunteers and any kind of assistance. They receive some grants, but most of their funds comes from donations, big and small.  A popular way to donate is to use their Amazon wish list and donate items, which are used directly by their patients.

If you would like to volunteer, schedule a student event, or witness an eagle release, you can visit their web site http://www.raptoreducationgroup.org/  or get more information at https://www.wxpr.org/topic/we-live-here.

Cover photo: Marge Gibson examining an adult male eagle in the clinic for lead posion and a broken leg.

James M. Skibo is Emeritus Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at Illinois State University. He is the author of five books, including two written for the general audience, Ants for Breakfast, and Bear Cave Hill. In 2021 James moved to the Madison area and is now the State Archeologist.
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