FORT PIERRE – With a great horned owl perched on her wrist, Laura Freeman gazed into the crowd of students and talked about the owl’s eyes. She told them how big their own eyes would be if, as adults, they retained their human size but suddenly became owls.
“Your eyes, if you were an owl, would be somewhere between the size of oranges and grapefruits,” she said.
Freeman is an interpretive naturalist with The Raptor Center in St. Paul, Minn., and she delivered a presentation to students from the Stanley County School District Friday morning in the Parkview Auditorium. She and Katie Burns, another interpretive naturalist from the center, headed to Jefferson Elementary School, in Pierre, right afterward to do another presentation.
The school events were features of the state’s annual Bald Eagle Awareness Days, coordinated by the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks. Eileen Dowd Stukel, the department’s wildlife diversity coordinator, said the awareness activities began about 20 years ago – partly because eagles populate the center of the state, especially during the winter.
“Not everybody knew about it – or how special it was,” she said.
Conveying the uniqueness of eagles and other types of raptors was a big part of the task for Freeman and Burns on Friday.
They brought along a bald eagle, a Krider’s red-tailed hawk, an American kestrel and a great horned owl.
“Some of the most important work that we do is with students,” Burns said. “The only way people will protect something is if they care about it – and the only way they will care about it is if they understand it.”
She called raptors a “sentinel species,” filled with creatures that – since they occupy the top of the food chain – can tell us much about the conditions for other species, as well.
Raptors, said Burns, harbor three salient features: incredible eyesight, a sharp beak and effective talons.
What they don’t have, Freeman said during the presentation, are great social skills. They also don’t need them.
“They don’t live in large communities,” Freeman said, speaking especially about owls. “They need to be able to identify with one mate, and basically tolerate that mate to raise young … They’re very solitary animals.”
Freeman also said owls like to eat their prey quickly and while it’s still whole, so it’s not stolen or dropped. She demonstrated the process by feeding the owl a mouse that had been frozen and thawed.
“It’s not a requirement that you have to watch, but it is pretty cool,” she told the group.
The last and largest raptor Freeman displayed was a bald eagle with a wing-span of about five feet. The eagle flapped her wings vigorously, eliciting gasps from the crowd, but Freeman pointed out that the bird could no longer fly, possibly because of a collision.
Freeman told the students that the only time raptors stay at The Raptor Center is when they have some kind of injury, physical or otherwise.
She cautioned, too, that interaction between humans and wild birds is not the same as it is between humans and domesticated animals.
The goal, she said, is for the birds simply to feel at ease around her and Burns – just as they might feel comfortable around other elements of nature.
“We get really happy, really proud,” she said, “when they treat us like a tree.”