Paying raptors attention

A rescued peregrine falcon at the Raptor Center on the St. Paul campus of the University of Minnesota. (Aaron J. Brown)

A rescued peregrine falcon at the Raptor Center on the St. Paul campus of the University of Minnesota. (Aaron J. Brown)

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

We have a bonafide naturalist in our house in the form of our oldest son Henry. At 10, he knows more about the birds that live in the woods of Northern Minnesota than I ever have. Of course, he’s kind enough to bring the rest of us up to speed.

Part of Henry’s fascination with birds can be traced to his reading of Jean Craighead George’s beloved 1959 book “My Side of the Mountain” earlier this year. In this story, a city kid named Sam runs away to live in deep forests of the Catskills. At one point he steals a peregrine falcon chick from its nest and raises it himself, teaching it how to hunt and gather food for their household in the trunk of a tree.

As a result of this book and its sequels, we now regularly scan the skies above for the silent raptors that are so easy to miss if you’re not looking. Here in rural Itasca County eagles and hawks are plentiful. Owls are often heard, seldom seen. Once in a while a kestrel or falcon may be spotted.

We gave each boy the chance to choose one place to visit when we visited the Twin Cities earlier this month. Henry chose to tour the Raptor Center on the St. Paul campus of the University of Minnesota. In its 41st year, the Raptor Center rehabilitates injured and orphaned birds while educating people about the importance of raptors in our wild world.

A rescued bald eagle at the Raptor Center in St. Paul, Minnesota. (Aaron J. Brown)

A rescued bald eagle at the Raptor Center. (Aaron J. Brown)

When our son Douglas gets mad he sports what we call his “Sam the Eagle” look. If you can imagine, this is the look of the bluish eagle Muppet, the one who sternly disapproves of, well, most things.

So imagine the sight of dozens of such scowls at the Raptor Center on the faces of its resident birds of prey. We would learn that the reason these birds look so grumpy is the shape of their skulls. Their eyeballs are so big in proportion to the rest of their head that the birds cranium evolved to form a massive ridge to protect their big peepers. This makes the birds appear constantly disappointed with whatever they’re looking at, including (and especially) you.

This was true even of the owl who was too accustomed to humans to return to the wild. Even a human-loving owl looks like it would slowly poison you with droplets of cyanide, given the chance. It wouldn’t really, of course. (Or would it?)

Indeed, these birds can’t help their facial expressions. Besides, they’re supposed to see us, not the other way around. It’s only a trick of our modern world, a cruel one perhaps, that these magnificent birds were dragged down from their mystical position in the skies down to our lowly state.

A great horned owl at the Raptor Center in St. Paul, Minnesota. (Aaron J. Brown)

A great horned owl at the Raptor Center. (Aaron J. Brown)

Each year the Raptor Center rehabilitates injured birds and releases them back into the wild. Some birds, like the ones we saw on our tour earlier this month, cannot be released because of permanent disability or over-reliance on humans. So the center also dedicates a significant portion of its resources to education, touring some birds around to schools and programs around the state.

The Raptor Center will hold its annual raptor release program on Saturday, Sept. 26. from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Carpenter St Croix Valley Nature Center, 12805 St. Croix Trail S. in Hastings, Minnesota. There you can see beautiful birds of prey rehabilitated from injury as they are released back in the wild, where they very much belong.

I remember learning from an Ojibwa elder about the significance of raptors flying overhead. They represent a blessing from the Creator, a way for the natural world to smile down upon the happenings on earth. These birds of prey might look intimidating, but consider this: if you’re seeing them, you’re seeing a complete forest ecosystem, one that can sustain life much longer than a lifetime.

So encourage those young naturalists in your life to keep looking up. The skies are full of omens.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, Aug. 30, 2015 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.



  1. I love it when kids get in love with something in the natural world. And we can learn from them. If you ever get a chance to travel down along the Mississippi river, go to the National Eagle Center in Wabasha, MN. Winter or summer, it is a treat. When your boys are the right age to appreciate the grandeur of the Mississippi, that whole route is worth taking. There are a number of parks at various places where you can drive then walk and see quite a vista. I’ve been along both sides of the river along Lake Pepin because of family who used to live in Lake City. There are nice over looking parks in Prairie du Chien, Wi and across from there in Iowa (with mounds) all well. That is national, a monument maybe.

  2. There is an ancient feud between hawks and owls.

    Also interesting is how people react to the presence of raptors in certain neighborhoods. Often there will be chatter about the danger posed to pets. People start panicking about their cat being carried away and murdered. People shouldn’t even be letting their cats roam outdoors anyways. They never consider their cat is a literal killing machine. People don’t understand cats or raptors.

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