Birds of prey at top of avian world’s food chain

Kent Knowles, of the Raptor Conservancy of Virginia, holds a barred owl at Armstrong Hall at Shenandoah University in Winchester on July 23. Kevin Green/Daily

WINCHESTER — Kent Knowles, of the Raptor Conservancy of Virginia, has been working with raptors for more than two decades.

While that might conjure up images of actor Chris Pratt and the CGI creations of the “Jurassic Park” franchise, Knowles works with real-life birds of prey such as owls, hawks and falcons.

Knowles does educational presentations of these birds for the Falls Church-based conservancy, which is a nonprofit organization dedicated to rehabilitating or providing a safe haven for injured raptors.

“We get in 200-some raptors a year from around the state,” Knowles said, noting that they house many raptors that are physically incapable of being reintroduced.

At Armstrong Hall in Shenandoah University on Thursday night, Knowles showcased his knowledge of various raptor species to more than 50 participants of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s Biennial Conference.

As Knowles explained the various raptor species, he and conservancy volunteer Frank Labell fielded numerous questions on all things raptors – particularly the socialization of the creatures.

Knowles pegged the audiences’ ravenous interest in the birds to one simple fact.

“They’re kind of the top of the food chain in the avian world,” Knowles said, adding that presentations like this are a “chance to outreach to the public, and try to get them to be a little more accommodating.”

Many of the birds that Knowles brought to Armstrong Hall are fairly common to Winchester and other portions of the Northern Shenandoah Valley.

The birds he brought are non-releasable educational birds that, in many cases, were injured from a collision with a car.

“When you are dealing with birds that have been injured, particularly those that have had surgery, there’s no magic wand that will restore them,” Knowles said.

One of the owls that Knowles brought was a large, mostly brown and tan-feathered barred owl – which is the most common owl in this area.

The barred owl arrived at the conservancy in October following what they believe was a car collision.

“When you have a car hit on a bird this size, you’re going to have eye damage,” Knowles said. “The question is how much.”

Both Knowles and Labell noted at various points during the night that raptor species such as barred owls vary greatly from human beings in terms of socialization.

“Raptors are not social creatures,” Labell said, as Knowles walked around with a young barred owl the conservancy received last October.

Labell said, “Unless the raptor needs to be hunting food, building a nest for raising chicks, the raptor wants to sit quietly and not attract attention.”

Since the birds are not social, Knowles said that they learn survival skills mostly on instinct alone — that and a process of trial-and-error.

Knowles said that most of the socialization with raptors like the barred owl happens when the parents are raising the chicks.

Once that happens, the parents “kick them out.”  That fully grown raptor will then go off and raise its own family, Knowles said.

“If you are in the area and you look like me, you’re competition,” Knowles said. “It’s more competitive than social.”

Once the owls mate, Knowles said they safeguard and protect their territory.

“Territory is life, territory is food and territory is the ability to have the next generation,” Knowles said. “They are not tolerant of others in their species coming on that territory.”

At one point during his presentation, Knowles mentioned that one of the only predators for a raptor such as an owl is, in fact, a bigger owl.

Following the presentation, Knowles said, “It’s a privilege to be able to work with [the raptors], and at least give a life to these birds that would not otherwise be living.”

Labell said, “There’s a tremendous interest in being able to be close to and see, and maybe understand a little better about, something you can normally only see far, far away.”

Contact staff writer Kevin Green at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or kgreen@nvdaily.com