Birds of prey soaring high at Snowshoe

Jo Santiago, of Flying Higher, LLC, gives a presentation at  Snowshoe Mountain Resort Labor Day event Saturday. Above, she shares the story of Ty, the red tail hawk. S. Stewart photo
Jo Santiago, of Flying Higher, LLC, gives a presentation at Snowshoe Mountain Resort Labor Day event Saturday. Above, she shares the story of Ty, the red tail hawk. S. Stewart photo

Suzanne Stewart
Staff Writer

Jo Santiago of Flying Higher, LLC and four of her winged friends gave a presentation for visitors at the Snowshoe Mountain Resort Labor Day celebration.

Santiago travels the country with rescued raptors, or birds of prey, to educate about the lives of raptors and the need to keep them safe. She has worked with the birds for 26 years. Although she has formed a bond with them, they are still very wild and will never be considered tame.

“I just want to make it clear, these birds, although some of them have lived with me a very long time and may live with me until they die or I die – whichever comes first – they are not my pets,” she said. “They will never be my pets, regardless of how long I have them in my possession. It is my privilege to be their caretaker, their interpreter and their chauffeur.”

Santiago described the abilities of raptors as she walked around the room with Ty, a red tail hawk.

“I heard this on National Geographic years and years ago, and I thought it was a good way for people to understand just how well they see,” she said. “Just to give you an idea – if I stood in the end zone of a football field and Ty was at the fifty yard line, and if he could read and speak – if I held up this penny from that distance and said, ‘hey, Ty, please read to me what’s on this penny,’ he would say, ‘In God We Trust.’ He would say, ‘Liberty,’ and he would say 2004.’

“They see colors we don’t see,” she continued. “We walk around and just think of the things we miss. They see detail we don’t see. I have a bald eagle and he can see a rabbit two miles away. Imagine being able to see like that.”

Along with amazing eyesight, raptors are also environmental indicators for themselves as well as humans.

“They are really important to us,” Santiago said. “They’re environmental indicators and all that means is that they are really sensitive to toxins in the environment. If they start getting sick and are dying, or they can’t reproduce, they’re telling us the environment is too toxic for them. If it’s too toxic for them, it’s too toxic for us. We’re going to get sick, too.”

Raptors also have a calming effect on humans. As Santiago puts it, “they raise our spirit.”

All of the raptors in Santiago’s care are non-releaseable rescues due to injuries they have suffered. Most raptors in captivity have been injured by encounters with autos.

“Highways are like a buffet to them,” Santiago said. “They swoop down to grab a snake or small animal and they don’t know to look both ways, so they usually get hit by a vehicle.”

Ty was injured in a car accident and was rescued by the person who hit him. Santiago explained that if an untrained individual attempts to rescue a raptor from the road, it is important to be on guard and protected from their talons.

“You’re going to put some eye wear on,” she said. “Gloves – you definitely want to use those. Get a jacket, a blanket, a towel, something like that and you want to throw it over the bird. You want to cover the birds eyes. Once his eyes are covered – it’s just like pulling a sheet over your head during a thunderstorm. It’s very effective. If they can’t see, they tend to calm down.

“You want to secure their legs immediately because that’s where you’re going to receive a problem,” she continued. “They don’t understand you’re trying to help them and if they can’t fly away or run away, they’re going to come at you with their talons to protect.”

Once the raptor is covered, it is best to put the raptor in a box in order for him to calm down more and feel safer. Call the DNR in order to pass the raptor on to the proper authorities.

The raptors at Flying Higher might not be able to fly, but that doesn’t keep them from getting around.

“Ty can’t fly, but he is not helpless,” Santiago said. “He can still get to the top of the tallest tree, no problem. I found that out when I first had him. I had him out on a soccer field. We had just finished doing some morning programs at the school. I thought, ‘where’s he going to go, he can’t fly?’ Well, he taught me a lesson. He can jump seven feet on a horizontal, thirty-nine inches up on a straight vertical. I’ve seen him do it. So he can jump his way up to the top of the tallest tree. He’s not helpless.”

Santiago also introduced the crowd to Doc, a broad winged hawk; Zacchaeus, a Merlin falcon; and Obediah, an eastern screech owl.

When it comes to choosing names for the raptors, Santiago finds inspiration in their personalities or their time with her.

“Doc – I named him that because he was at the doctor’s so much,” she said. “Ty, I’ve had him so long I don’t remember how I came up with Ty. Obediah is biblical. It’s after the prophet Obediah and the translation of that means ‘Servant of God.’ Zacchaeus is also biblical. It’s after the little man, the tax collector, who wanted to see Jesus. He was too small and he climbed the tree to see him. The actual translation means ‘perfect’ or ‘perfection’ and I think he is.”

Santiago has a great bond with the raptors because she spends lots of time with them, getting one-on-one exposure to let them know she is their caretaker.

“You have to spend time with them, quality time,” she said. “I’ve invested in all of these birds which is why they’re calm with me. I’m now investing in the bald eagle I got a month ago. I’m getting to know him, his body language, his idiosyncrasies. It’s just like if you want to get to know someone better. What do you do? You spend time with them.”

For more information on Flying Higher, LLC and the raptors, visit www.flyinghigherllc.com

The Labor Day celebration included crafts, musical entertainment and fireworks.

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