"I get so much more back than I will ever be able to give," says Debbie Pappas, a licensed wildlife rehabilitator from Price. This is a story of love, a story of a woman who has worked with animals for over 18 years and is now helping raptors get back on their feet (or back in the air) after an injury or an illness.
"I am helping birds, like eagles, owls and hawks, one bird at a time," says Pappas, who became licensed six years ago and as a volunteer spends her days as the bird "Florence Nightingale" of Eastern Utah.
In June, when Utah Power and Light disturbed a nest at the McFadden substation at Huntington, and the parents of five baby falcons, only three weeks old, abandoned the nest, it was Pappas they called to nurse the little balls of down back to health and teach them to eat and fend for themselves.
Then a few weeks later she was called twice in two days with reports of injured eagles. One was injured during a 'kill' and it's wing was so serverly damaged it had to be removed. Pappas nursed it back to health and assisted to find an educational unit to send the bird off for its next step.
And then, the great horned owl story, when the Department of Wildlife Resources and forest department picked up a weak bird, struggling from malnutrition and she nursed it back to life.
"I love doing this," says the former EMT and laboratory technician. "I get as much a rush from doing this as I did driving an ambulance," says Pappas, who moved to Carbon County from Salt Lake City. She first began working with the animals by joining Eddie Horvath back in the mid-1990's but when he discontinued providing the services to injured birds, Pappas applied for and was awarded a license through the State of Utah and the federal government.
|Debbie Pappas is pictured releasing a falcon.|
She doesn't receive any payment for her services but in the case of Utah Power, under the direction of Harold Cunningham, Carbon plant manager, they took responsibility for the displacement and pay for the rehabilitation by providing her with money for food and special building needs.
The falcons were still babies and Debbie took them in June 19 of this past year even before they had feathers. Two months later, all grown up and healthy they were released at Gordon Creek. "Rarely do we see a "clutch" of falcons all make it like this," says Pappas, but in this case the protected raptors were nursed until they were able to survive on their own.
Orphaned babies like the falcons are not hard to nurse back to health but they are hard to teach to get food. Pappas explained the frustration of teaching the little birds to kill mice and crickets, knowing that they will need these skills before they are released. Although the birds instinctively used their feet to capture the crickets and mice they didn't know what to do once they stepped on their potential dinner. "But the advantage was that they learned from each other and by watching each other, eventually they figured out what do to capture their food," she said.
We are seeing a decline in raptor population and the numbers drop when there is drought and lack of food. "The population of these birds definitely depends on food," she says, explaining that they are at the top of the food chain."
Although her license covers all wildlife she specializes in birds, and mostly raptors, but she has also assisted with upland game birds and waterfowl.
The eagles she was given to nurse back to health in September were in very bad shape and the one with its wing injured was very weak. "We think he got injured in an attempt to get food, but it is an unusual story," explained Debbie, relating that this was a yearling eagle and its parents were still feeding it and protecting it, long after the injury. "I've seen the bird since," said Pappas, "and it's doing very well."
|Pictured above in their pens are the falcons that Pappas raised from three weeks old to a point which they could survive out in the wilderness on their own.|
The other eagle was dehydrated and brought in during the extremely hot period last summer, but recovered quickly and was released near Wellington.
"This is unheard of," said Debbie explaining that adult eagles usually do not continue to care for their yearling babies and yet it was obvious that the eagle had been helped and protected for a long time, even though it was injured and grounded.
Dr. Boyd Thayn, local veterinarian, helps Pappas with x-rays and surgery of birds that need special help. This is very much appreciated as his work is also all donated.
Not every story turns out with a happy ending as was the case last week when Pappas drove to Moab to retrieve an very sick red-tailed hawk that was found dehydrated and near death near the Four-Corners area of Bluff. Although there were no apparent injuries, the hawk didn't make it through the night.
The owl with the right wing injury was found near the Colton Bridge in a scrub brush area close to the desert high above Price Canyon. But since owls need trees Debbie assisted in rehabilitating the bird and in less than a month it recovered and gained enough strength to be released at the top of Price Canyon near the recreation area, where there are plenty of trees for protection and food.
Pappas has been working with birds on and off for 18 years, even owning her own bird store. As birds are not new to her, the raptors or wild birds are her most recent interest. "To be able to hold a golden eagle in your hands and know that it was your help that allowed it to live is a great pay off," she says, having trouble to describe the incredible feeling of watching an owl or an eagle fly off into the canyon skies.