Non-releasable Birds as Tools for Education

By Jasjeet Dhanota

More than 350 sick or injured birds are brought to the California Raptor Center for rehabilitation and treatment each year.

A Place for Learning


When a bird of prey is sick, injured or lacking the instincts to survive in the wild, it can often mean the end of its life. Damaged wings and blindness hinder core survival skills needed for hunting and procreating. Even after receiving care, many birds can’t be released.

Hatchlings born in captivity can face similarly troublesome circumstances: if they imprint on humans, it hinders their ability to connect with their own species, making life in the wild nearly impossible.

But these issues don’t have to spell the end for birds of prey. The California Raptor Center at UC Davis has developed a program that allows birds to serve as tools to educate the public about science and conservation. The program involves public outreach and on-site educational tours at the raptor center, which is located on the UC Davis campus

More than 350 sick or injured birds are brought to the center for rehabilitation and treatment each year, but not all of them can be released due to lasting problems that prevent them from flying or hunting in the wild.

  • Free self-guided tours Mon-Fri from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
  • Schedule a guided tour or offsite presentation by calling (530) 752-9994. 
  • Share the following: Your name, organization, phone number, class grade level or adult group, number of attendees and 2 or 3 possible dates.
  • There's a small fee for scheduled tours and presentations. All proceeds benefit the raptors.


“Raptors which cannot be rehabilitated and released would have to be euthanized if there were no education facilities to accommodate them,” said Jo Cowen, Education Coordinator at the center. Rather than euthanize, the California Raptor Center provides a new home and uses them as educators.

Among the roughly 40 birds on display are turkey vultures, bald eagles, red-tailed hawks, screech owls and American kestrels. Some of them also serve as "taming birds," which are birds that have been trained to the glove and are comfortable enough to be held by volunteers during tours and presentations.

But the California Raptor Center doesn’t require visitors to schedule a tour; many choose self-guided strolls through the center, reading about the birds in each cage at their own pace.

Local libraries, elementary schools, Boys and Girls Clubs, and bird enthusiasts visit the raptor center throughout the year. Volunteers can tailor presentations to the needs of specific groups, from birders to young kids.

Volunteers emphasize a hands-on approach to learning. Young children can search photographs for an owl camouflaged in a tree or feel a real turkey vulture’s skin in the museum while older kids admire the feet and skulls of various raptors.

But the most popular attractions are birds like Grasshopper, a Swainson’s hawk who calmly perches on the gloved fist of a volunteer during presentations. Grasshopper, who is blind in his left eye, is an especially calm bird that sometimes even falls asleep while on the glove.

“One of the things that is so rewarding about the program is how much the adults enjoy and learn from the presentations,” said Cowen. “They are doing their duty by driving kids on a field trip, but they are always blown away by the quality of the presentation and how much they have learned from it.”

From adult birdwatchers to children celebrating birthday parties, each group leaves the center with more knowledge than they had upon arrival.

“I will often have parents say that they were at the CRC two or three years ago with their elder child and just had to come back with their younger,” said Cowan. The raptors at the center provide a kind of education that can’t be found in a textbook or a classroom.

Liz Williamson, who has volunteered at the raptor center for more than six years, says she loves "seeing the faces of little kids when they see a bird up close. They're an important part of the environment, and they're just fascinating.”

Support the education program by donating to the California Raptor Center

The California Raptor Center focuses on outreach to the Yolo and Sacramento counties, and has visiting groups from as far as Los Altos, California. Other volunteers in organizations across the state and country are also working hand in talon with raptors to increase the public’s understanding of these marvelous birds.