Inside the basement freezer at John and Vivian Maxson’s home in Bradford are more than 750 frozen mice, hundreds of dead rats and an uncounted number of frozen quail.
“We have to be careful what we thaw out for dinner,” John jokes.
All of the frozen animals are destined to be meals for the 14 hawks, owls and falcons in temporary housing in large cages scattered around their backyard.
The owners of the Born to be Wild Nature Center, the Maxsons rehabilitate and care for dozens of injured raptors each year, most of which were hit by cars. After they recover from head injuries, broken wings and other damage, almost all of them are released back into the wild. “We’re just interceding on behalf of the wildlife, giving them a chance when they normally wouldn’t have one,” John says. “A lot of it is just giving them the time to recover that they wouldn’t have in nature. If they’re on the ground with a head injury, they’d be susceptible to predation. But if they get rescued, they get the time to get right, and eventually they will fly off on their own.”
The Maxsons have been caring for wild animals for 20 years, and while it makes it difficult to go on vacation or enjoy free time, they wouldn’t have it any other way. “The whole concept of wildlife rehab was completely foreign to me back in 1998,” says Vivian, a medical assistant at South County Hospital. “The idea of being allowed to work with wild animals intrigued me, so I signed up for a two-day certification class.” She was soon teamed with a mentor who provided her with the experience necessary to earn a wildlife rehabilitator’s license. “And we’re still at it,” she says.
Vivian says her husband quickly embraced her newfound passion and began constructing a nature center in their backyard, starting with a cage the size of a card table and soon progressing to larger ones. They began by rehabilitating whatever animals needed assistance, from foxes and raccoons to squirrels and songbirds. But they eventually decided to focus on raptors. “At that point, we knew a lot of little stuff about a lot of animals, but nothing in depth about any of them,” John says. “Now that we’re focused on raptors, our knowledge and skills are pretty deep.”
Inside a 24-foot flight cage just beyond the Maxsons’ front door are two red-tailed hawks testing their wings. Another perches in a nearby cage waiting to molt so she can fly more efficiently after damaging her feathers in a collision. Other cages contain barred owls, peregrine falcons, a turkey vulture and other birds, some of which are too injured to survive on their own. Wild hawks and owls often visit the yard to interact with their recovering cousins.
The red-tailed hawks are Vivian’s favorites. “They are so majestic and powerful,” she says. “Red-tails are so beautiful, and each has their own personality. Lucky for me, they are a common hawk here on the East Coast, so we get in a lot of them.”
This winter was an unusually busy time for barred owls. The Maxsons rehabilitated seven of the gray-streaked birds after they were hit by cars during a six-week period in January and February. Spring and early summer are the busiest times of year – they call it baby season – when young hawks and owls injure themselves as they learn to fly, or the trees that hold their nests are cut down or fall in storms.
“Babies are a lot of work,” says John, a retired special education teacher. “You can’t just hand them a whole mouse. You’ve got to cut it up and give it to them in pieces with forceps. A great horned owl baby can eat two dozen mice a day, so that puts a big tax on our food bill.”
Last year, the Maxsons spent more than $10,000 on food for the rehabilitating birds. But they say it’s worth it when they watch their patients fly back into the wild. “That’s the wonderful part – putting them back where they belong,” John says. “That really rejuvenates us.”
He especially recalls the release of a juvenile bald eagle in Matunuck last year on Easter Sunday. “The whole release lasted 10 seconds,” he says. “He was raring to go. He came out of that box and was gone in a flash.”
Best of all, the Maxsons say, is when they can involve the person who initially rescued the bird in its release. “We want them to be there when the bird is set free so they will understand how important their role was in this whole process,” says Vivian. “We have met so many wonderful, compassionate people in our journey. It restores my faith in humanity.”
To help pay some of the costs of raptor rehabilitation, the Maxsons offer tours of their nature center to see the birds and hear their stories. They also bring some of the birds on visits to local schools, libraries and senior centers. Last year, they presented 53 programs in Rhode Island, Connecticut and Massachusetts to more than 2,500 people of all ages. “You’d think we’d be tired of it after 20 years, but not at all,” John concludes. “We get a lot of satisfaction helping the birds and helping people who don’t know what to do when they come across an injured bird. This nature center is my little oasis.” ￼
Most injured raptors begin their road to recovery at the Rhode Island Wildlife Clinic in North Kingstown, where they receive veterinary care before being transferred to the Born to be Wild Nature Center. For information about what to do if you find an injured wild animal, visit riwildliferehab.org or call the Rhode Island Wildlife Clinic at (401) 294-6363.