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Look into the eyes of a predator

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Jason Caldwell, director of Raptors Up Close of Berkeley Springs, W.Va., holds a barred owl, one of several birds of prey featured at his display at the Shenandoah County Fair. Rich Cooley/Daily

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This great horned owl is part of the Raptors Up Close exhibit at the Shenandoah County Fair. Rich Cooley/Daily

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This red-tailed hawk is part of the Raptors Up Close display at the Shenandoah County Fair. Rich Cooley/Daily

Birds of prey swoop down on Shenandoah County Fairgrounds

By Preston Knight -- pknight@nvdaily.com

WOODSTOCK -- By becoming an expert on birds of prey, Jason Caldwell is also sort of a master of the human sexes.

Men will see the birds that he takes out on display and normally comment on how cool they look and move on. Women will react the way Donia Ryman, of Mt. Jackson, did at the Shenandoah County Fair this week.

"They're so cute you just want to reach out and pet one," she said.

Caldwell said: "I know. Try to control yourself. ... The problem is, they don't like love. They like death."

Raptors Up Close, of which Caldwell serves as the director, is a new exhibit at the fair this year. Several birds of prey are on display -- not to be touched -- as a way to educate the public about how the raptors survive in the wild and what conservation steps have been taken to keep them from becoming endangered.

Caldwell, who is based in Berkeley Springs, W.Va., receives injured birds after they go through rehabilitation and also takes in "impacted" birds, which are illegally brought in from the wild and fed by humans.

He goes to a wide variety of events, including birthday parties, churches, libraries and schools. All of the birds on display at the fair, except one, are native to Virginia.

In teaching children about predators, Caldwell tells them to look at the eyes. If the eyes are to the side of the head, that means an animal is always on the look out, seemingly concerned for its safety. For the predators, eyes are in front, always focused on doing damage ahead, Caldwell said.

Of the birds at the fair, the great horned owl has the potential to cause the most pain, he said. It can squeeze 500 pounds per square inch, whereas an average man could squeeze 60 pounds, Caldwell said. And the owl has claws.

To showcase the bird's aggressive style, Caldwell walked toward its perch. Its mouth immediately opened and a claw rose. There was no doubt what was on its mind.

"They retain a wild nature," Caldwell said. "They live to eat."

That's why, if you were really wondering, they would not make good pets. If the birds are full, they have no need for you.

"It's a one-sided relationship," Caldwell said.

That hasn't stopped children from enjoying them at the fair this week. In contrast to the normal assortment of livestock to see, several youths were excited to get a glimpse of something different.

"The falcon looks like he's about to kick something," said Danielle Holsinger, 11, of Strasburg.

She made noises at the great horned owl and seemed to be getting a response.
"They're really cool," Danielle said.

One of the popular birds of the week is an owl that lost its right eye as a result of a car crash. That was one Ryman could see herself hugging. It's also one, like the others, Caldwell can see taking no appreciation for such a human act of affection.

"I have to explain to them that the owls don't love them," he said.

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