Mark Baker’s friends call him Birdman, and it’s easy to see why. There’s the alertness in his dark eyes, his baseball cap with a bald eagle embroidered on its crown, and the fact that he often has a raptor perched on his arm. Baker is a Master Falconer, and he also runs Eagle Dream, a bird-of-prey rehabilitation organization. In addition, he travels throughout New York presenting programs about raptors to the public.
Baker’s birds come in all shapes and sizes, from a softballsized screech owl that can sit in the palm of his hand to a red-headed turkey vulture with a 7-foot wingspan. Baker is not able to fully rehabilitate all of the injured birds that come into his care. Those successfully rehabbed are returned to the wild, while birds too disabled to be released are kept by Baker to use in his programs.
Several times a month, Baker loads his birds into a special trailer and travels to schools, libraries, park events, and sportsman shows. Once there, he sets his raptors on perches or hollowed out logs and waits for people to stop and ask questions.
At such events, people often need a moment to realize they’re looking at live creatures. Once they do, they pull out their cell phones and cameras to snap photos of the stoic birds. Small children tuck in their chins and stare, afraid and entranced all at once. At a recent event, one toddler needed his grandfather’s assurance that the birds wouldn’t eat him.
There is something arresting about the raptors Baker cares for, whether it’s the shocking white of the snowy owl’s coat, the subdued slate blue of a male kestrel’s feathers, or the comically annoyed expression on a great horned owl’s face. While we’ve all seen red-tailed hawks perched on telephone poles, and heard distant owl calls at night, a close look at these birds is a rare treat.
“One nice thing about doing shows is that people get the chance to see things up close that they’d never get a chance to see so close out in the wild,” Baker says. “That makes a good impression because then people know there is someone out there helping them.”
Handling raptors properly is no small feat, and is not to be undertaken lightly. A great horned owl can squeeze its taloned foot with 500 pounds of pressure per square inch – something you’d want to be aware of before handling such a bird.
Baker maintains four separate state and federal licenses for rehabbing, falconry, education, and breeding.
“[The licenses] are to protect the birds, to make sure they’re with people who can take care of them,” he says. The raptors are protected by law even after their death. It’s illegal to collect or sell the feathers of any raptor (or that of most any migratory, native bird) without a special permit. When one of Baker’s birds dies, he’s required to either burn the body, bury it, or donate it to an institution or individual who has the appropriate permits.
There’s a practical exception to feather laws that allows falconers and rehabbers to keep a few feathers to replace those that break or fall off a bird prematurely. “Imping” is the procedure of repairing broken or damaged feathers by attaching donated feathers to the bird’s broken feather shaft. “Mother Nature has a way with their feathers. It’s like a domino effect: when one breaks, it puts the pressure on the other ones, and then they all start breaking. Next thing you know, you’ve got a bird with no feathers,” Baker explained.
Most raptors are apex predators in the bird world, which means the majority of the injuries Baker sees in adult birds are caused by accidents or humans. Hunting raptors is illegal, but Baker has rescued a few raptors with gunshot wounds.
One special case sticks with him. One day he answered a call about a hawk with an injured wing. “When we got the call, it was cold that day, and we walked up the hill to find a bird in the snow,” he said. “If it wasn’t for the snow, that bird would have died. This shot hit the bird in just a way that it shattered the whole bone,” Baker said. “The only thing holding the wing on was a piece of skin. I told my wife, ‘I give it 48 hours.’ Forty-eight hours passed, and he was eating out of my hand. I said to myself, ‘This is a bird that wants to live.’” The hawk now resides with a licensed individual who uses it in educational programs.
Car collisions are a more common source of raptor injury. Moonwink, Baker’s barred owl, was hit by a car and lost sight in one eye. The bird displays remarkable calm, though it’s disconcerting to look at his mismatched stare: one eye is shimmering black, the other opaque white.
Baker has a great horned owl, Blinky, who bears a similar injury. Baker thinks Blinky fell out of the nest as a hatchling, either because his parent pushed him out or a predator invaded. The injury caused permanent damage to Blinky’s right eye. At public events, Blinky rotates his head from side to side in an attempt to compensate for his handicap. Of all Baker’s birds, Blinky is the most alarmed by the crowd, though Baker can settle him with a touch.
“He might try to bite me and everything else at first,” Baker said. “Until I get him up to a certain level and let him get a sense of who I am. When he can feel my heartbeat, he calms right down. Then I can put my nose on his beak. That’s how much trust I have in these guys.” To Baker, that’s what the relationship with the birds is all about: building trust, whether with a rescue or falconry bird.
Baker took up falconry, the art of hunting with a trained raptor, ten years ago. In New York, falconers must be licensed; the initial testing process takes six to eight months, the subsequent apprenticeship takes two years. It takes another five years of practice, plus recommendation from three Master Falconers and the New York State Falconry Advisory Board, to become a Master Falconer. As a Master Falconer, Baker can maintain three raptors for hunting purposes. His falconry birds are a red-tailed hawk named Ava, a Harris hawk named Bella, and a goshawk named Mia.
“A lot of people get into it, and then they find out how much work is involved and drop out. But once it’s in your blood, it’s there,” he said.
Baker enjoys falconry simply for the experience of connecting with his raptors. Whatever his birds catch, he keeps as food for them. “Some birds are designed for squirrels, some for pheasants and ducks. It all depends. Each of these birds has its own personality, their own speed,” Baker explained, smiling, his eyes far away at the thought.
New York allows licensed falconers to take a raptor from the wild and trap it while it’s still young (six months) and train that bird to hunt. After a year, the falconer can release the bird back to the wild or keep it for falconry. “In the wild, about 75 percent of juveniles won’t make it to adulthood,” Baker said. “It’s always been that way, because in the winter they’re young and poor hunters. So, this way we get to give them a fighting chance.”
While falconry and rehabilitation are integral parts of the work Baker loves, bringing his birds to the public and connecting people with nature is the most rewarding. At a recent event, Baker reflected on the mission of his work. “My passion is right here, seeing people’s eyes light up when they see one of my birds.”
Mark’s strategy is an effective one: when people see the birds so close, they’re drawn in and they’ll start a conversation. People are awed and curious about such lethal and beautiful creatures. It must have been the same awe that first brought man and raptor together 2,000 years ago.
Talbot Eckweiler is a recent graduate of St. Bonaventure University’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication. She has worked for Harvard Forest, Highstead, and Hawk Creek Wildlife Center to ensure the protection of natural resources.