“What’s that one?” someone asked.
The Parks Ranger with the falcon on his wrist smiled. “You’ll never guess, and you’ll never see one like it again. It’s a peregrine-gyrfalcon cross.”
The peregrine-gyrfalcon, with its speckled white front, might have been the handsomest bird there, but there was some competition. I counted twelve birds – two eagles, three owls, four falcons, and three hawks, all of different kinds. The two eagles – a hulking bald eagle that flapped furiously on the arm of its handler, and a big golden eagle that pecked moodily at its jesses – were the largest. At the other end of the scale were a tiny kestrel, impeccable in its vivid russet and slate blue plumage, and a small, nervous-looking merlin.
The birds on display were all birds that the Parks Service had taken into care. Most had sustained injuries that had left them incapable of fending for themselves in the wild. A little screech owl had one milky eye; the bald eagle looked in better shape, but he too was blind in one eye, with a wing so badly broken that he would never fly again.
The birds’ handlers were clearly passionate about their charges: eager to give the birds the best lives they could possibly have, and to communicate their own knowledge and enthusiasm about these impressive animals to the people who had come to see them. Yet there’s always something uncomfortable about seeing animals in captivity, and I came away from the Raptor Fest with oddly mixed feelings. It was impossible not to enjoy the opportunity to see such magnificent creatures up close, but it was also hard not to feel sadness at seeing them so literally brought down to earth.