Birds of prey drop in for Bird-A-Thon

By Pamela H. Sacks


When Larry Keating says his backyard is a “wildlife haven,” he isn’t kidding. Along with cedars, arborvitae and honeysuckle trumpet vines, Keating’s yard is home to 13 birds of prey.

Keating and his wife, Wendy, have red tail hawks, a Harris’ hawk, snowy, European barn and screech owls and peregrine falcons, among other birds.

Keating is not a wildlife rehabilitator. Rather, he is an educator. His birds have been deemed unable to survive on their own in the wild because of physical or psychological impairments. The birds have been carefully selected for their role as wildlife ambassadors. They have come from rehabilitation centers across the country.

“When you get new birds in, you go to great length to make sure it’s the right match with your educational programs,” Keating said.

Keating is a life science and environmental science middle school teacher in Marlboro. He uses his birds in his own classes and, occasionally, takes them to other schools. Often, he presents his programs before conservation and land trust groups, Scout troops, gardening clubs, “anybody who has an interest in the environment, or nature, or birds,” he said.

Keating and his birds will be right at home tomorrow as the headliners for the annual Bird-A-Thon sponsored by the Broad Meadow Brook Conservation Center and Wildlife Sanctuary, 414 Massasoit Road, Worcester. The fundraising event kicks off tonight with a guided bird walk from 6 to 8 p.m., which is free of charge.
Tomorrow, another free guided bird walk will be held from 7 to 9 a.m. Keating will offer a Live Birds of Prey Show from 10 a.m. to noon. The presentation is free with a donation to Bird-A-Thon. The money raised is used to support birding teams throughout the region.
“Broad Meadow Brook is an oasis in a heavily developed area,” Keating said. “A lot of people don’t realize what a little gem they have there.”
Keating often names his birds after famous people in the natural world – Rachel Carson, Henry David Thoreau, Aldo Leopold, the father of modern conservation. But make no mistake, he said: These birds are not pets.
“We’re not training the bird to love us,” Keating explained. “Raptors, for the most part, are not capable of that level of emotion. We train the bird to trust. We spend hundreds of hours developing a bond of trust. The raptor recognizes that you are not going to hurt it, or let anyone else hurt it, either.”
Despite having a bad reputation in some quarters, birds of prey, particularly owls, fascinate many people, Keating said. That attraction can serve as a hook to educate humans about predators and their value to the ecosystem.
“People come see these magnificent animals,” he said. “They represent raw nature in its glory.”
Keating, who lives in Westboro, has had birds of prey for 18 years. His interest in the birds developed 24 years ago while working with a particularly talented young fellow at Braddock Bay Raptor Research in New York, who was capturing, banding and releasing hawks as part of a migration study. During that time, Keating got to know an educator at the research center.
“The two of us clicked,” Keating recalled. “He recognized my passion for these animals.”
The Keatings work hard to maintain the natural environment of their backyard. The birds live in special housing and flight pens called mews. The size of the pen depends on the bird and the type of injury it has sustained. Those that can fly need more space. In most cases, owls can live in smaller quarters than hawks because, as Keating puts it, “owls are lazier than teenagers.”
“Some birds have very large, barred windows where they can enjoy social interaction with their environment,” Keating said. “Other mews are more isolated for birds that are more reclusive.”
As to his birds’ penchant for their public role, Keating laughed and said: “Some birds enjoy it. Some birds, their behavior improves dramatically in front of the public. They can be aggressive with me. In public they are angels.”