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Avian Conservation Center of Appalachia celebrates 10 years and looks forward to the future

By Kaitlyn Eichelberger

On Saturday, the Avian Conservation Center of Appalachia (ACCA) celebrates 10 busy years of wild bird rehabilitation, research projects and educational programs.

An anniversary event will be held at the ACCA’s new and in-progress outdoor classroom.

“The party is mostly for volunteers and supporters, past and present,” said Executive Director Katie Fallon. 

Founded in 2012, the ACCA was started in hopes of helping wild birds and educating the public on conservation.

“We were interested in conserving wild birds in the region,” said Fallon. 

Over the past decade, the organization’s mission has been met in a multitude of ways.

Annually, about 60 bird species are treated by the ACCA. 

“This includes everything from robins and hummingbirds and cardinals, all the way up to eagles and hawks, and everything in between,” said Fallon. “Every year, we admit more and more birds to our rehab program.”

In the year of the center’s founding, 100 or so birds were admitted for rehabilitation. Last year, they cared for more than 600. 

“Since our founding in 2012, we have admitted about 4,000 injured wild birds for rehab,” Fallon said. Two of their most notable cases were a snowy owl rescued in 2018 and a young bald eagle rescued in 2015.

Working with the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources (WVDNR), local police and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the ACCA captured an injured and emaciated snowy owl found in a mall parking lot, said Fallon. The owl had been hit by a vehicle and suffered a wing fracture.

“We fattened him up, his wing healed and we released him back into the wild,” she said. Snowy owls are not commonly found in the area he was retrieved from, so he was released in Erie, Pa., closer to where the species typically lives. The snowy owl’s recovery was closely followed and celebrated by supporters of the ACCA. 

“He was just a popular little owl who had a lot of fans,” said Fallon. 

The young bald eagle, out of the nest too early and unable to be re-nested, was placed with another bird in the center’s care — an adult bald eagle.

“The baby could remember that he’s an eagle, and then we were able to release him through a process called hacking,” said Fallon. Hacking is building of a surrogate nest.

“We were able to keep that eagle in the surrogate nest for a week and then we opened the box so the eagle could leave if it wanted,” said Fallon. “So that was a cool one, too.”

Alongside the many wild birds rehabilitated and released, the ACCA cares for a team of non-releasable ambassador birds. This includes a variety of vultures, hawks and owls.

“Caring for the non-releasable birds and being able to provide educational programs with them is super-important for conserving birds overall,” said Fallon. 

The ambassador birds visit schools, camps and more as part of the ACCA’s educational outreach programs. These presentations can make a long-lasting impact on the audience, said Fallon. 

“We see birds at our feeders, but it’s really unique to be able to get right up close with a hawk or an owl and have an up-close and personal experience,” Fallon said. “That can make a big impact on kids and adults and anybody who sees these presentations.”

Education, both for the public and center members, is something the ACCA prides itself on, Fallon said. 

The ACCA has about five undergraduate interns every summer, alongside a few veterinary student interns, a couple of work-study students each semester and 40 volunteers. 

One of the volunteers works at a wildlife rehabilitation center in Alaska. Another works at a wildlife center in Oregon, while a former intern is a veterinarian for all the birds at Disney World, said Fallon.

“We’re really proud of our volunteers and interns who have gone on to continue the work of conservation,” she said. 

A variety of backgrounds make up the ACCA team, including veterinarians, engineers, scientists and teachers. The research volunteers are members of many organizations, including the Raptor Research Foundation, the Society for Conservation Biology and the American Ornithologists Union.

The ACCA takes part in and runs a variety of research projects, said Fallon. Partnerships include the United States Geological Survey, West Virginia University, Hawk Mountain Sanctuary and the Meadowcroft Rockshelter. 

One of the research projects measures environmental contaminants through the study of turkey vultures. Scavenger birds, including turkey vultures, bald eagles, golden eagles, California condors and many different hawk species, consume the remains of animals that have been shot with lead ammunition. The ammunition may fragment and the birds consume the lead, potentially causing serious — and fatal — illness.

Each summer, volunteers travel to turkey vulture nesting sites, take the baby vultures from the nest for a few moments — with a permit to do so — and take measurements, attach wing ties for identification purposes and obtain blood samples. Using these blood samples, they test for environmental contaminants — specifically, lead. 

“Turkey vultures can handle a lot more lead in their bodies than [other species],” Fallon said. “They can be a good species to study to get a sense of how much lead is out there in the ecosystem.”

Currently, the ACCA is partnering with the WVDNR to place nest boxes on properties with suitable kestrel habitats. Kestrel populations are declining throughout much of their range, Fallon said. With the 80 boxes currently in place, the goal is for kestrels to nest and repopulate.

The ACCA doesn’t plan on slowing down anytime soon. In fact, with the development of a new outdoor classroom, they hope to expand their efforts. 

“Our huge goal is getting the outdoor classroom up and running,” said Fallon. They will move their non-releasable birds to the farm where the outdoor classroom is located, providing more space for their rehabilitation program and allowing for more advanced training with their ambassador birds. 

They plan to host a variety of activities at the outdoor classroom, including presentations with their ambassador birds, summer camps, evening classes and bird walks. They also hope to expand one of their outreach programs, the Young Birders Club.

“We’re excited to be growing all the time and we look forward to what the future holds.”

Visit the Avian Conservation Center of Appalachia’s website at accawv.org or contact Fallon at katie@accawv.org for more information.

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