The Third Annual Homegrown Arts and Music Festival at Snowshoe Mountain Resort last weekend featured artists and musicians sharing their crafts with the public. In the Village, as bands took the stage to entertain, artists displayed pottery, jewelry, homemade soaps, candles and more.
Visitors were also treated to the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame traveling museum and a presentation by Flying Higher, LLC director Jo Santiago.
For the past 25 years, Santiago – known as the bird woman or bird lady – has rescued birds of prey and traveled around the country giving presentations with her feathered friends.
Currently Santiago, who has a federal permit to handle the birds, has four non-releasable birds of prey in her possession. Although the birds seem like pets when they are in the presence of Santiago, it is only because they are familiar with her and she has spent years building a relationship and trust with them.
“I have a passion for birds, especially birds of prey, otherwise known as the raptors,” she said. “They seem tame because they have established a relationship with me and a trust with me. They are tame with me and pretty much only with me. When we’re talking about birds of prey, we’re talking about the eagles, the kites, the condors, the harriers, the osprey, the accipiters, the buteos, the caracaras, the owls, the falcons and the falconettes.”
Santiago showed a pair of owl talons given to her by a friend, who mistakenly obtained them from a dead owl. She explained that while it is okay for her to possess birds of prey and objects related to the birds, it is illegal on the state and federal levels to possess any part of the birds of prey.
“You cannot possess any part of these birds, dead or alive,” she said. Not their eggs, not a piece of their nest. They are totally protected. Not even a feather. If you find a feather and you don’t know what it belongs to, don’t pick it up. If a conservation officer comes along and sees you with that feather, he can still fine you.”
The only reason Santiago will keep a bird is if it is non-releasable due to an injury or permanent damage. Her goal is to care for the birds and release them back into the wild, although that is not always the case.
“All the birds I have here are unreleasable birds of prey,” she said. “They’ve had something happen to them, unfortunately, in the wild that usually had something to do with people. All of these birds had incidents with vehicles and they either can no longer fly or can no longer fly well enough to be let go. They will live with me the rest of their lives or the rest of mine, whichever comes first.”
Santiago had four birds with her for the presentation and brought them out one at a time.
Ty, the red tailed hawk, has been with Santiago for 18 years. As the veteran of the group, Ty is very comfortable around large groups and settled himself on Santiago’s hand as she talked.
“They can see things we don’t see, they can hear things we don’t hear,” she said. “They can see color we don’t see. We only see a little slice of what they see. This came from National Geographic, I didn’t make this up. If I was out on a football field in the end zone and I held up this penny, and Ty was at the fifty-yard line and if he could speak and read, he would say ‘1997’ from the fifty-yard line.”
The hearing of birds of prey is excellent, too. Santiago said when she wants to know what is going on outside, she takes Ty with her and watches his body language because he will let her know.
“I forget about the binoculars,” she said. “I take him out. I put him on my fist and watch him. He conveys to me all kinds of things. They communicate with you and they communicate the same way human beings do. That’s by body language. I know how to read him and he knows how to read me.”
Birds of prey are helpful to the environment because they eat and hunt things that are unsavory and considered pests. Along with hunting and killing snakes, mice, rats and other small pests, birds of prey will eat roadkill.
“Not only do they eat roadkill but they can eat dead animals with some kinds of diseases like bovine anthrax and rabies, and they don’t get the diseases,” Santiago said. “They’re like an environmental vacuum cleaner. Probably the most important thing of all that they do is they are what are know as environmental indicators. They’re at the top of the food chain as predators. They’re very sensitive to toxins in the environment. When they start to die or they can’t reproduce, or they are getting sick, they are telling us that the environment is toxic.”
While birds of prey are resilient, Santiago said they aren’t invincible. She asked that if anyone uses poison to control the rat or mouse population to stop using that item because it is usually a slow acting poison. On many occasions, people have brought Santiago birds that have been poisoned by mice or rats that consumed poison.
Ty came to Santiago as the result of a car accident that paralyzed his right wing.
“As a red-tailed hawk, he liked to hunt from up high in a tree next to a roadway because that open roadway is like a buffet down there,” Santiago said. “He saw a nice mouse, swooped down, and he doesn’t understand about looking both ways. He got hit by a car. It didn’t break the wing, but bent it way back and did severe nerve damage and paralyzed the wing for life.”
While Ty can no longer fly, he is still active and is a fast runner and can leap long distances.
“Although he cannot fly, he can still get to the top of the tallest tree because he can climb with his talons,” Santiago said. “He can jump seven feet in one leap on a horizontal. That would be proportionally equivalent to a six-foot man taking a leap and going 25 feet from a standing position. That’s how powerful he is. He gets along just fine.”
Doc, the broad-winged hawk came to Santiago after he was hit by a car. He suffered a severe concussion and was starving to death when she rescued him. He contracted a fungal infection in his lungs which left him incapable of migrating.
A rare bird of prey to find in West Virginia is the Merlin Falcon. Santiago said that she has only seen two and is now in possession of one named Zukias. Merlins do not live in West Virginia. They merely pass through during migration and like the others, Zukias was struck by a vehicle and left with an injured wing.
The last bird of prey Santiago shared was a eastern screech owl named Obediah or “Obie.” Obie was napping during the presentation because he is nocturnal. Obie was also hit by a car and now lives with Ty, Doc and Zukias.
Santiago explained that she grew up in New York City, in Spanish Harlem, so she was never exposed to birds of prey except on television.
“I tell people my heart was made for this because it doesn’t make any sense that I would want to do this,” she said. “I grew up with roaches and pigeons and rats. But when I would see on TV birds of prey, they just did something for me. It’s my passion. I think we all have that within us about something and it’s how we excel.”
Santiago said that she is in the process of adopting a Bald Eagle which she hopes to acquire to enhance her visits with wounded soldiers through the Wounded Warriors project.
Suzanne Stewart may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org