A Voice for Raptors

by JACK McNEEL

Janie Veltkamp has a large facility on her property near the south end of Coeur d’Alene Lake designed to care for raptors, also known as birds of prey. This includes eagles and ospreys, hawks and falcons, and owls, among others. “We have a two-fold mission here at Birds of Prey Northwest,” Veltcamp explained. “The primary mission is education with live raptors. The secondary mission is rehabilitation for injured wild raptors. We know we can’t stop the guy that’s shooting eagles, but give us an hour with a third grader and our live birds of prey, and they’ll grow up to be conservationists.”

Working with raptors wasn’t in her plans when she started college. She initially received a four-year degree in nursing and worked as a nurse. Then she went back to school and earned a master’s degree in biology from Purdue University. She was on her way to medical school but first volunteered to help with a peregrine falcon release project in Indianapolis. “That’s when I met peregrine falcons, and everything changed,” she remarked.

Her life since about 1993 has largely been devoted to raptor rehabilitation and educating others about the value of these amazing birds. Initially, she volunteered on a peregrine raptor rehabilitation project in Indiana and then helped with several other reintroduction programs. In 10 of the past 25 years, she has helped to reintroduce endangered raptors in various states.

Veltcamp moved to Idaho 15 years ago to property north of St. Maries. She soon got the required state and federal permits from Idaho and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

When asked how many bird she has worked with, her reply was “thousands.” Asked which species were included in those she has worked with just this spring and summer, she answered, “seven merlins, eight orphaned ospreys, young eagles, red tailed hawks, great horned owls, and kestrels.”

In a typical year, she will rehabilitate 10 to 12 eagles alone. Bald eagles are more common in northern Idaho with its abundance of lakes, which attract bald eagles, but she also receives eagles from other facilities. “We get golden eagles from the Twin Falls area, and I have a peregrine here from Ohio,” she said. “I get many from elsewhere in Idaho, but they may come from all over the country.

The birds she treats and releases are in addition to the educational birds, which can never be released due to injuries preventing them from living in the wild. She presently has 15 such birds, including bald and golden eagles, a peregrine falcon, osprey, goshawks, red tails, pigmy owls, and horned owls.

Veltcamp has long desired to establish a facility on the north end of the lake, east of Coeur d’Alene. Her idea is to have a raptor education center with a wing to rehabilitate injured wild birds of prey and a second wing devoted to birds that are non-releasable and held for educational purposes. That’s similar to what her facility now does but would be in a more populated area and thus more accessible to the public. The dream of a new center is still alive, but outside financing has not yet been available.

“Everything we do here is self-funded through donations and grants. We get no state or federal support.” She quickly noted that she wouldn’t be able to keep up with the expanding work without the help of her husband, Don, plus a network of volunteers.

Two recent events in Veltcamp’s life are particularly noteworthy. Last fall, the Coeur d’Alene Indian Tribe received a permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to operate an eagle aviary, the idea being that many eagles are injured in one way or another to the extent they will never be able to survive on their own. This tribal facility was designed to keep them alive and healthy. When the birds molt their feathers, the tribe collects those feathers for ceremonial use and also makes them available to other tribes.

Tribal members brought in Veltcamp to help give instruction on how to properly care for these birds. The tribe does not yet have facilities to hold eagles, so, in the interim, the eagles are being held at Veltcamp’s property across the lake from tribal headquarters. “The tribe has eight eagles here now,” she said. “We have 18 eagles in total, which is about maximum.” Some of those birds are being rehabilitated for later release and others for use in educational work.”

The other notewothy event was the early August release of Veltcamp’s first book, Beauty and the Beak. It’s the true story of a bald eagle shot by a poacher in Alaska in 2008. The bird’s top beak was blown off by the shot. An Alaskan center rescued her and named her Beauty and held the bird for a year in hopes the beak would grow back. That didn’t happen, and the bird was scheduled to be euthanized. Veltcamp happened to be vacationing in Alaska at the time and was allowed to bring the bird back to Idaho, where she assembled a scientific team of herself, an engineer, and a dentist. They created a prosthetic beak for Beauty, using a 3D printer.

Since 1993, Janie Veltcamp’s life has been largely devoted to raptor rehab and educating others about the value of these amazing birds. Photo by Jackie McNeel.

Beauty still lives on Veltcamp’s property. “She is 16 this year. She could conceivably live another 35 years or so,” she said. “In captivity, eagles and other raptors can double and triple their life span when they’re free from all other mortality factors.”

Beauty and the Beak has already received rave reviews. It is published by Persnickety Press, which is a sister imprint of Cornell Lab of Ornithology. It’s aimed primarily at third through sixth grades, but adults enjoy it too, and it contains additional content dealing with eagle biology, natural history, and conservation. “My intention was to write about one bald eagle but focus on conservation of all eagles, including pointing out the risks they face from illegal shooting and lead poisoning, both of which are preventable,” said Veltcamp.

The book was a collaboration with co-author Deborah Lee Rose, an awardwinning children’s author. “It’s turned out to be a great success in terms of conservation, educating youth about eagles, and national readership,” said Veltcamp.

Asked to summarize the high points in her life, Veltcamp said, “Just doing my job, reintroducing raptors, and finding Don, the man of my dreams, at the age of 50. I’m approaching 62 and proud of my age,” she said. “It took me 62 years to get here, and I don’t know many women that age publishing their first book and handling eagles in front of third graders.”

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