Animal Helper: Rocky Mountain Raptor Program

Each book in the new photographic journal series, Animal Helpers, features different ways animals are being helped by experts, volunteers, students, interns, and even campers around our country. Through this unusual series, we hope to bring recognition and awareness to the extraordinary animal helpers and nonprofit centers, clinics, sanctuaries, and rescue zoos in which they work. In the meantime, we will be using this blog to cheer on the work of even more of these unsung heroes, who dedicate their time, patience, and funds to helping save wild animals, one life at a time.

Animal Helpers Out West – Swainson’s Alert with Judy Scherpelz, Executive Director, and Christine Thomas, Volunteer, Rocky Mountain Raptor Program, Fort Collins, CO

On any given day, Judy Scherpelz, Executive Director of the Rocky Mountain Raptor Program (RMPR) in Fort Collins, Colorado, might be worried about the owls, hawks, falcons, and other birds of prey who are in the clinic because of car strikes, drought, fire, twine entanglement, electrocution, and the dreaded West Nile Virus.

Fierce as they seem, even raptors are prone to forces of man and nature.

This year, with the worst drought in history alongside some mighty big fires, birds of prey have come into RMRP in record numbers.

“This has been a really hard summer,” remarks Judy, “Young birds are so hungry that they’ll go after road kill that they normally would not go after so these inexperienced youngsters are coming in starving and injured.”

Working long hours, seven days a week, Judy and her small but dedicated, staff rush out to rescue the birds and give them a second chance at freedom. The youngest birds are fed and their wounds are treated as needed. Eventually they attend “mouse school,” where they learn to eat live prey, and “flight school,” where they learn to use those big wings. Now that its fall, RMRP is graduating some of their raptors, including the Swainson’s Hawks, a western raptor related to Red-Taileds.

In fact, by late summer, RMRP staff is officially on “Swainson Alert.”

Like other hawks, Swainies migrate from the U.S. to their wintering grounds in Argentina, where they are known as “grasshopper hawks.” (Those hopping insects are their favorite food.)

What is unusual about these medium-sized hawks is the numbers in which they congregate and the incredibly long distance that they migrate. In Colorado, Swainies gather in huge groups—100 to 500 birds at a time—called kettles. “That term comes from the resemblance to the smoke coming out of a kettle,” explains Judy, “As the birds rise up into the thermals in the sky, they look like smoke coming out of a kettle.” The birds then migrate over 6,000 miles in eight weeks, flying almost 135 miles a day. And, by the time they arrive at the isthmus of Panama/Mexico, there may be thousands of Swainson’s Hawks in a kettle, notes Judy.

Out west, baby Swainies hatch in June. By migration time, they are only three months old. They might be adult size but “they’re young and dumb,” laughs Judy. “Young birds need adult supervision during migration,” she explains, “The older birds know where to feed and how to find food; and, they’ve been to Argentina, so they know the route.”
An important part of releasing young Swainson’s Hawks, then, is to find the kettles so that the young birds can join their elders. The youngsters cannot be released on their own; they will starve.

So, exactly how does one find a kettle in Colorado?

Ask longtime RMRP volunteer Christine Thomas.

Each August, she and her husband, Michael, spend their spare time driving a truck down backcountry roads in the grasslands to search for kettles. “There is no memo from the birds,” jokes Christine, “So, we get out of town on dirt roads and we look high. We look low. We might drive 120 miles a day looking for them for five days to a week.”

Because the Thomases are avid birders, they have traveled these unpaved roads and rural parts of their county a lot looking for raptors. Christine has learned what the birds like—including grasshopper-ladened alfalfa plantings and bathing in puddles from irrigated fields. She often locates plots with water, even those that have pivot sprinklers. Over the years, she and Michael have learned to find out when and what farmers are planting and cutting. They spend a lot of time talking with landowners so that they can learn more about the birds’ habits. They look up, at telephone poles and possible perching spots for the birds; but, they know they have to eventually look down. The hungry birds will be on the ground, eating grasshoppers.

Christine is in awe of these hawks, which she likens to long distance runners. “They spend one-third of their lives migrating all the way to Argentina and then back. They are built for distance and endurance.”

“The first time we saw a kettle of hawks, it took our breath away,” says Christine, “There were so many of them, maybe 500, and when they took off, it was so awesome, like Christmas Day!”

Once the Thomases find the flocks, they hurriedly call the center. Staff then quickly gathers and bands all releasable Swainson’s Hawks at the center, places them into carriers, and races them back to the location, a drive that often takes at least an hour. Prior to release, the Thomases do ensure that the location is a safe spot to release the hawks, preferably in a location without fences or traffic.

Fortunately, the Thomases have gotten quite good at deciphering the clues to find the kettles. If the hawks miss this “great escape” and have to overwinter with RMPR, the care is expensive. The hawks eat three to four mice per day at a cost of about $1 per mouse. Not including labor, the cage, or other raptor necessities, the expenses quickly add up.

This year, RMRP released 16 Swainson’s Hawks (which includes three overwintered from last year); and will overwinter nine.

For more information about RMRP, please visit their website,

Thank you to Jennifer Keats Curtis author of Animal Helpers: Wildlife Rehabilitators for introducing us to Judy, Christine and the entire staff at RMRP. They are doing wonderful work for these beautiful hawks.

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