‘A tough old bird’

Published 5:00 pm Saturday, April 9, 2011

Despite his advanced age and on-going health problems, Red, the Jay C. Hormel Nature Center’s red-tailed hawk, continues to defy the odds. - Amanda Lillie/amanda.lillie@austindailyherald.com

Julie Champlin has been taking care of Red, the Jay C. Hormel Nature Center’s red-tailed educational hawk, long enough that he could be considered her adopted child.

In fact, Red has been with the Nature Center five years longer than Champlin. At 31 years old this month, Red has outlived his lifespan twice and encountered over half a million people.

“Red really is a part of our family here,” Champlin said. “He’s our oldest employee; he’s an icon for us.”

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However, because of Red’s old age, he is encountering liver issues that may not let him live to see his 32nd birthday. Two years ago, Champlin was told by a veterinarian at the Raptor Center at the University of Minnesota that Red probably wouldn’t even live to see the snow fall in 2009.

“He really is a tough old bird,” Champlin said. “Here we are in spring of 2011 and he’s still here.”

Although Red still serves as one of the Nature Center’s most important living educational tools, he has physical symptoms from the liver disease that cause him to spend most of his time indoors. He doesn’t eat as much as he used to, and he has arthritis in his talons.

There is nothing more Champlin or anyone else at the Nature Center can do to help cure Red’s illnesses, so at this point they are simply letting him enjoy his 31st year of life.

Despite his illness, Champlin said Red is still able to take part in around 200 classes each year as a living example of birds of prey and their relationship to their environment.

“He teaches an appreciation for and stewardship of the earth,” she said. “The more you know about your surroundings, the more likely you are to take care of it.”

“Everything is connected to everything else. When you learn about this, you learn about the connection between our natural worlds and ourselves,” Champlin added.

While Champlin cares about Red because of her love for nature and animals, she also thinks they have a special bond.

Red has an aversion to women, but for some reason he took to Champlin immediately. He has swooped at other women to protect his territory and once even pecked at a female intern but has always been comfortable with Champlin.

“I was the first woman the red-tail accepted, which makes me feel special,” she said.

After Red dies, Champlin said the Nature Center will probably get a new educational bird, although it may not be a red-tailed hawk.

Red will be cremated and his ashes will be spread on the prairie that has been his territory since 1980.

As Red’s caretaker, Champlin said that day will be difficult, but until then she is enjoying still having Red around.

“Red has beat the odds,” she said. “That’s something I admire about him — his extreme sense of survival.”