Nov 052009
Authors: Matt Miller

Every Thursday, Doug Johnston makes his rounds cleaning cages and stuffing flesh into the glinting talons and sharp beaks of squawking birds of prey.

Johnston, 56, has experienced a lot life has to offer, but nothing quite matches up to his days volunteering at Fort Collins’ Rocky Mountain Raptor Program.

“It’s the coolest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” Johnston said.

With the motto “A second chance at freedom,”/for more than 30 years the RMRP has aimed to rehabilitate and set free injured and sick raptors found throughout the Rocky Mountain region./A raptor is any bird that hunts with its feet, including eagles, hawks, owls and falcons./

“Our main goal is to rehabilitate the birds and educate the public,” said Bob Francella, the director of public support at the center./

The birds, which are found and reported by regular citizens, are brought to the raptor medical care facility located at 720B E. Vine Drive in Fort Collins where the program assesses them for injury and illness and treats them. The RMRP’s current service area covers nearly 300,000 square miles/– an area larger than the state of Texas.

Most injured birds the center sees have suffered collisions with vehicles, and about 60 percent have run into buildings, power lines or been poisoned, Francella said. On rare occasions birds are brought in that have been shot./

The RMRP’s 150 or so volunteers, including Johnston, are instrumental in caring for birds as they heal in the program’s main facility, which handles 95 percent of the program’s cases. The more serious cases go to CSU’s Veterinary Medical Center for surgery.

Although Francella said a peaceful ending is the “best thing” the program can do for birds that are too sick or injured, it does manage to release 75 percent of its patients back into the wild. On average, the center saves 275 raptors a year.

“Any time someone puts in effort to help an animal it’s a good thing,”/said freshmen biology major Audrey Huntsberger./ “They are trying to help the ones that couldn’t make it make it.”/

But the RMRP does more than just save birds, it provides a future even for birds too injured to return to the wild, Francella said. The program keeps 30 “ambassador birds” to help educate the public about raptors, and that’s the reason Johnston can, on occasion, be found around the city with a bird on his arm.

“It’s just the most fun to talk to people and watch them go ‘oooh’ and ‘ahhh,'” Johnston said.

Volunteers at the facility go through extensive training before they are able to handle the powerful animals on their arms, Francella said. The program helps educate citizens about the importance of raptors and the role they have in maintaining a healthy ecosystem.

“If there weren’t a raptor center we would be overrun by various rodents,”/Francella said./ “(These birds) really provide a check and balance with nature.”/

In addition, birds of prey act as an environmental barometer to show scientists if toxins have moved up the food chain, he said, and the Centers for Disease Control has also worked with the RMRP in the past to do research on West Nile Virus./

However, Francella said despite the program’s unique work, the economic recession has not been kind to the RMRP. With about 60 percent of its $400,000 annual budget coming from individual donations, maintaining a strong donation base has been difficult.

“It’s been a real challenge,”/Francella said, adding that this year the center has already treated 302 birds — well above the norm./ “Places that used to give us discounts are no longer able to do so,” she said. /

In order to raise funds, the RMRP will host a holiday open house on Dec. 13, as well as an annual auction on Feb. 10./ People may also make donations through mail or on

In addition, the program announced late in October that it is looking to sell its 27-acre land parcel on Vine Drive to help fund a permanent “dream center,” according the center’s Web site.

But whatever the future looks like for the RMRP, volunteers like Johnston will be ready to help any bird that comes through the program’s doors.

“I could not imagine my life without it,” Johnston said. “It’s all about the birds here. They are not pets; they are all unique and different.”/

News Editor Jim Sojourner contributed to this report. Staff writer Matt Miller can be reached at

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