FORT WAYNE — Allen County’s Metea Park could become home to Houdini the screech owl, Homer the American kestrel, Ruby the red tailed hawk and Apollo the great horned owl, and all their friends.
Soarin’ Hawk Raptor Rehab, a non-profit birds-of-prey rescue organization based in Fort Wayne, is in negotiations with the Allen County Parks and Recreation board to build an avian hospital and rehab facility at the 250-acre park near Leo-Cedarville.
The group rescues and releases about 100 raptors a year.
“The biggest thing is we’re just outgrowing what we have right now,” said volunteer Bob Walton, who’s been with the group since the introduction of peregrine falcons to One Summit Square in downtown Fort Wayne.
Currently, birds being rehabbed are all over the place – some are at a veterinary office, some are farmed out at four or five sub-permittees, some are at the group’s flight facility.
“We don’t have enough space,” Walton said.
But at Metea, the group could build a hospital, have pens for recovering birds and have larger flight pens that allow healing birds space to fly. The open fields nearby in the park would also allow birds to get exercise on 50-yard leashes.
“We’re getting more popular, and we want to be more professional,” Walton told parks board members recently. “It seemed like a good idea that we and the county could get together.”
Though negotiations are just beginning, it appears the county would have little if any costs beyond the space in the park. Walton said Soarin’ Hawk would pay to construct the buildings and then pay rent on the land via a long-term lease.
The county could benefit from increased attendance; admission to the park is $2 a person.
Walton told board members that exercising Moochie the bald eagle on Sunday afternoons has drawn crowds of up to 60 people.
“If they get 60 people at Metea on a Sunday, that’s more than we get in two or three weeks sometimes,” said parks superintendent Jeff Baxter. “I think the concept of working together is good for us.”
Moochie will exercise again at 1:30 p.m. today at the park; she’s scheduled to be released back into the wild at 4 p.m. Jan. 29 near the Mississinewa Dam.
While most raptors fly on a 50-yard leash, the 8-month-old Moochie is so big and so strong she flies on a 100-yard leash. She weighs 10.5 pounds and has a 7-foot-1-inch wingspan.
When she turns 4 or 5 years old, she’ll get her white head and tail plumage.
“It’s been a real success story for us and the bird, of course,” Walton said of Moochie, who was found near Peru with a broken wing. The planned release point for her is a winter roost for bald eagles, where the birds congregate while the rivers they normally hunt are frozen over.
“This girl has never hunted before,” Walton said. “Hopefully she’ll watch (the other eagles) and learn from them.”
Walton said that as magnificent as Moochie is, she’s just one of the 100 birds on average that Soarin’ Hawk rehabs a year, and the hope is that a permanent home will increase visibility and donations so more birds can be helped.
The few birds that can’t be returned to the wild become education birds, ambassadors for the group at outreach events. With a facility in Metea, they would have pens that would be accessible to the public and therefore perform their education role any time the park is open.
“If we set up the facility the way we plan, a lot more people will be educated,” Walton said. “This way, people can come to the park and see the birds.”
Baxter said he expected to report back to the county parks board with a more concrete proposal in March.