By Brianna Gwirtz, OCJ field reporter
Most people consider the chance to see a bald eagle or an owl a rare and special opportunity, let alone coming face-to-face with one. A non-profit organization in mid-central Ohio has been allowing guests to interact with birds of prey and Ohio bird species up close for over 30 years. The Ohio Bird Sanctuary provides personal connections between humans and birds through education and rehabilitation.
Located today in Mansfield, the original Ohio Bird Sanctuary was founded on Gail and Chris Laux’s farm in Bellville in 1988. Gail had a passion for outdoor education from her previous work for Cornell University and other nature centers where she gained the proper training and education needed to rehab raptors. When she and her husband moved to the area, they saw a need for raptor rehabilitation in the community. At the time of the founding, bald eagles, osprey, peregrine falcons, and barn owls were all endangered in Ohio. They started with three bird enclosures and large enclosures were built in the pasture for the birds to relearn how to fly and gain strength.
The Sanctuary’s raptor rehabilitation and educational opportunities for the public continued to grow over the years. In 1995, the Ohio Bird Sanctuary began the move to a new location by leasing land from a local Boy Scout Council. In 2009 and 2010, the Ohio Bird Sanctuary was able to purchase the leased 52 acres and an additional 38 acres from the Scouts Council, providing a permanent home for the Sanctuary.
Amanda Vanderford is the Curator of Birds at the Ohio Bird Sanctuary. Vanderford oversees all the animals who live permanently at the sanctuary, as well as the rehabilitation programs.
“I supervise the bird care team, work on educational programs and keep lots of detailed notes on the progression of the birds and projects here as well,” Vanderford said.
The Ohio Bird Sanctuary currently employs seven people. They rely on a host of volunteers to assist in day-to-day tasks and with activities as well.
Educational programs are very popular at Ohio Bird Sanctuary and are a huge part of what makes the non-profit so popular and well-known.
“Ohio Bird Sanctuary has a lot of different programs that we offer and can tailor to different groups and needs,” Vanderford said. “People get the chance to experience wildlife up close, which is exciting and engaging for them. It’s fun and educational. Our goal is to create memorable experiences for people so they can learn how important our native species are to our environments. It’s a win-win at the end of the day. Our goal is to get people to fall in love with the birds and nature because people protect what they love.”
There is a diverse array of birds that call the Sanctuary home.
“We have roughly 70 birds who live here permanently. About 30 of them are birds of prey and then we have numerous songbirds that live in the songbird aviary. All of the residents are non-releasable for some reason or another,” Vanderford said. “We have a few ex-falconry birds, a few owls that are from breeding programs, but most of the birds came to us from our rehab program and weren’t great candidates to be released back into the wild for their safety and health.”
Some of the permanent birds on site can be used in educational programs and undergo training with Vanderford. The birds involved in programs, like Elliot the black vulture, choose to participate in training. Vanderford will ask the birds to follow a command and they receive positive reinforcement for completing the task. Birds are never forced to participate in training.
“Not every bird passes our tests for training and it’s important that our team communicates how everyone is doing,” Vanderford said.
When asked about her favorite bird to do programs with, Vanderford smiles and quickly answers that Elliott, the black vulture, is her favorite.
“Elliott is super smart and fun to talk about. He’s trained to be offline so he free roams. He goes to perches on cues and has so much personality. It’s fun to see people fall in love with him,” Vanderford said.
Some non-bird species also are part of the educational programs. The Feathered Friends group of animals includes kid-friendly species that are easy to be touched and handled, such as a toad, turtles, and a rabbit.
Besides providing learning opportunities, the Ohio Bird Sanctuary is also a busy rehabilitation center for injured songbirds and birds of prey.
“We are about to head into our busy season with our rehabilitation program. It’s officially baby season, so we always start to get busy around this time,” Vanderford said. “So far in 2023 we have received 40 birds but we usually will see around 450 to 500 birds a year.”
Veterinary care is provided to the birds, including x-rays, blood tests, and physical exams. The Ohio Bird Sanctuary is a non-profit organization, so all bird rehab care is paid for through donations or grants.
“About 90% of the wildlife we have here for rehab are affected by humans. Unfortunately, we see a lot of birds that are hit by cars or have had some human interaction,” Vanderford said.
During the fledgling stage, baby birds will leave the nests but are unable to fly yet. It’s a vulnerable time for the birds, but for those happen to find one, Vanderford suggests leaving the bird alone.
“We try to educate the public on that stage of a bird’s life. It’s best to leave the bird with its mom and not to bring it into us. So we will have conversations with people who call in to confirm the bird’s species and age, and then advise them the best action from there,” Vanderford said.
To keep up with the growing community needs, there have been many expansions in the last 34 years. The old mess hall from the Boy Scout camp is now the Education Center for programs, meetings, and private events.
The general public is welcome to visit the outdoor bird enclosures or hike on trails that sprawl across the 90-acre facility. The songbird aviary allows guests to get up close and personal with many different songbirds. There are cups of mealworms available to purchase so guests can feed the birds in the aviary.
In 2021, the team from Animal Planet’s Treehouse Masters show built a treehouse classroom at the Ohio Bird Sanctuary. The open-air classroom is suspended between a beech and sycamore tree. The design was inspired by the look of bald eagle nests.
In the last few months, the team has broken ground on a new avian encounter area. This area will allow field trips, schools, and private programs to be in their own space away from the general public. They hope to have this completed in the coming months.
Daily admissions have grown at the visitor center. It’s common to have over 100 visitors a day, with their busiest days on the weekend. There is at least one scheduled program a day for guests to attend. The rest of the visit is self-guided.
The Ohio Bird Sanctuary is open to the public Tuesday – Saturday 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. and Sundays 12 p.m. until 4 p.m. For more visit ohiobirdsanctuary.com.