Nerding Out on Nature:

Because Earth is cooler than screens

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Wild Wings Raptor Center in Upstate New York

Last week, I had the honor of signing copies of my memoir, Wild Within: How Rescuing Owls Inspired a Family, at Wild Wings Birds of Prey Facility in Honeoye Falls, upstate New York.  I got to meet Hercules, a red-morph Eastern screech owl.

redmorphHere’s a travel article I wrote about Wild Wings a few years ago, for The Boston Globe.  Enjoy!

New Yorkers shelter and show birds too hurt to go free

HONEOYE FALLS, N.Y. — Wild Wings is a national chain restaurant serving crispy, spicy drumsticks in barbecue sauce. Wild Wings is also a family-friendly raptor rehabilitation center just south of Rochester.

People tend to get their wings mixed up, with humorous results. It’s not unusual for Terry Kozakiewizc, director of the raptor center, to get a call like this:

“I picked up the phone and the caller said he’d like to order three dozen wild wings.’’ Kozakiewizc said, breaking into a wide smile. “I said, ‘We’ve got ’em, hon, but they’re alive.’ ’’

Wild Wings Bird of Prey Facility, at Mendon Ponds Park in Honeoye Falls, houses over 20 raptors including eagles, owls, hawks, falcons, and a vulture. Most of the birds were hit by cars and have permanent injuries ranging from vision loss to damaged wings; they cannot be released back into the wild.

Kozakiewizc makes the raptors available for public viewing five days a week year round, hoping to foster awareness and increased respect for birds of prey. Watching a barred owl soar through the sky is exciting indeed, but getting to see Hunter, Wild Wings’ fluffy resident barred owl, close-up on her perch inspires me to drive more mindfully.

The author and her daughter, Maia Hart Smith, observe a snowy owl at Wild Wings.

The facility offers educational programs and guided tours. Participants can dissect owl pellets or paint a portrait of a live raptor on its perch. Visitors can stroll along Bird Song trail to feed chickadees, then step into Wild Wings’ colorful Cottage Store with its avian-themed gifts. Just out the back door, a tidy outdoor compound of wood and wire cages houses stately red-tailed hawks, diminutive Eastern screech owls, bald and golden eagles, and an elegant black-spotted snowy owl named Pearl.

Each enclosure gives the raptors numerous perches and room to move about, even to take limited flight. Volunteers have paid close attention to each species’ needs — brightly-colored hanging toys tempt the curious crow, and a pile of low stones provides a perfect seat for the tundra-nesting snowy owl.

My daughter was most enamored of Wild Wings’ resident bobcat, who roused herself from a nap in a bed of straw and dashed up to the fence. Tara, captive-bred and declawed, lives in a spacious cage with ramps and bridges for roaming. But while we stood there, her amber eyes remained fixated on my child.

“She sees her as a toy, hon,’’ Kozakiewizc told me, and so we retreated into the Cottage Store for hot cocoa, coffee, and cookies. Kozakiewizc explained that Wild Wings is a family affair, and that she’s the only paid employee.

“My husband builds enclosures for the birds, and my son Nick does a lot of the educational programs for kids.’’ She pointed to a grinning young man helping to restock a shelf with child-sized footballs in the shape of bald eagles and furry leopard-print purses.

Their affection for each bird is palpable. Kozakiewizc recounted the recent death of Shasta, a 25-year-old red-tailed hawk. “I’m so glad he died before he had to be cooped up for the long winter,’’ she said, and went on to relate the story of how, for the past three years, a wild red-tail had brought freshly-caught squirrels to the aging Shasta, continuing even after his fellow hawk died.

Me with Bodhi, the Barred owl star of Wild Within: How Rescuing Owls Inspired a Family.

Me with Bodhi, the Barred owl star of Wild Within: How Rescuing Owls Inspired a Family.

If You Go to Wild Wings . . .

27 Pond Road Honeoye Falls, N.Y., 585-334-7790, Fri-Tue 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Free; donations welcome.

Find Wild Wings on Facebook!  And on Twitter!

Awestruck Over Birds of Prey at California Raptor Center

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“Mom!  There’s an owl in the bookstore!”

From where I stood, I could see the little boy round the corner of a shelf and skid to a halt with his mouth open.  I felt his awe.  In front of 50 or so people on folding chairs at the Avid Reader in Davis, California perched three raptors–a burrowing owl, a  Western screech owl, and a great horned owl.  Staff and volunteers from the California Raptor Center spoke about the birds and their work as raptor rehabilitators in conjunction with a reading from my new memoir, Wild Within: How Rescuing Owls Inspired a Familya book about how I learned to train owls for educational presentations such as this one while waiting 2 1/2 years to adopt my daughter.


Volunteers from California Raptor Center wax poetic about birds of prey. (Photo from California Raptor Center.)

A week later, she and my husband and I visited the California Raptor Center.  On a sunny September morning, we parked under oak trees and met another volunteer who led us around the wood-and-wire mews.  (Raptor folks call their big bird cages mews.)  Such centers exist around the world; often, they’re open to the public on specific days of the week or during annual open house celebrations.  Staff and volunteers perform a multitude of duties–they treat injured birds of prey who may have collided with a car or ingested rat poison or tangled with a cat; they hand-feed orphaned baby birds with the goal of releasing them into the wild; they feed resident birds and clean their mews daily; they do educational presentations for the public on the natural history of the birds and on the importance of raptor conservation.

Mews at the California Raptor Center

Mews at the California Raptor Center

Resident raptors live at such centers because they have permanent injuries.  A bird of prey with one eye or a bum wing or an unhealthy preoccupation with humans (usually because it’s been illegally raised from an egg) can’t hunt in the wild.  These birds can live over 20 years in captivity, thanks to staff and volunteers who dedicate their life to serving them. Mikey, a red shouldered hawk at the California Raptor Center, arrived in 1996 as a chick.  Staff discovered a lesion in one eye; the eye eventually disappeared.  He’s an education bird, which means he’s calm around people when sitting on a glove or perch for an educational program.


Mikey, the red shouldered hawk

I take my University of Oregon journalism students to Eugene’s Cascades Raptor Center whenever possible.  It’s especially gratifying to watch people who’ve confessed to a fear of birds as they learn–over an hour of wandering the grounds–how very cool raptors can be.  Peregrine falcons, for instance, fly straight down in pursuit of prey and achieve 200 mph speeds.  Owls can rotate their head 270 degrees either way; lopsided ear placement gives them a powerful range of hearing, and silent flight allows them to sail down on smaller birds and rodents and scoop up a midnight snack in the dark.  And there’s this:


After we looked at the birds on display at the raptor center, we stepped into a wonderful little museum.  Here, adults and children alike can spend hours learning about raptors.  We looked at the taxidermy birds (much easier to examine than their live counterparts behind wire) and dissected owl pellets.  Owls swallow their prey whole, but can’t digest bones and beaks and other sharp parts.  They cough up a pellet which volunteers dry and then set out for visitors to pull apart in search of rodent skulls and other fascinating tidbits.

Interested in visiting a raptor center in your area?  Partial List of Raptor Centers in the U.S. If you can’t find one close to you, do a search online and prepare to be awestruck!

Owl Pellets

Visitors can explore the California Raptor Center Monday through Friday from 9 AM to 4 PM, and Saturdays from 9 AM to noon.  Admission is free; donations are gratefully appreciated.  CRC is located at 1340 Equine Lane, Davis,California. 530-752-9994 

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Writing Process Blog Tour

I haven’t blogged in quite a long time.  Instead, I’ve been working on my just-published memoir, Wild Within: How Rescuing Owls Inspired a Family (Lyons Press, 2014) and writing columns and articles for The Writer Magazine.  You can see my newest articles and essays over at  (Check this blog soon for family-friendly adventure travel in Oregon and beyond.)

Thanks to my writer friend Ana Maria Spagna for inviting me to take part in the Writing Process Blog Tour, during which writers are answering the four questions below.Hart-facebook-72dpi

1) What am I working on?

I’m working on a feature article for Oregon Quarterly about the foster care tuition waiver and how it allows students who’ve grown up in foster care to attend the University of Oregon.  I’ve just turned in a feature article for The Writer about magazines that publish writing from children and teens.  And I’m about to revise my first middle-grade novel, Avenging the Owl, to be published by Sky Pony Press next year.

2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?

My great-grandparents worked as circus and vaudeville comedians, and so I have a high regard for wit.  This comes through in most of my writing, regardless of subject matter.  I write travel articles and essays, nonfiction articles on the craft of writing, and short and book-length memoir. Readers can find elements of humor in almost all of these.  Wild Within is unique in that it blends two stories–learning to rehabilitate and train injured birds of prey, and working 2 1/2 years to adopt my daughter from Oregon’s foster care system. Despite some grim anecdotes, there’s a lot of humor in the book.  My previous memoir, Gringa: A Contradictory Girlhood, tells the story of growing up Anglo, heterosexual and boring in multicultural Los Angeles with a lesbian mother and a deep desire to be a Latina.  I like to think it’s witty, as well.

3) Why do I write what I do?

I’ve always been interested in writing about social issues and illuminating the stories of under-represented demographics.  For a long time, people didn’t realize that gay and lesbian parents–newly-out–were losing custody of their children as my mother did in 1979.  It’s a shameful period of our history, and it deserves investigation, particularly in terms of how parents and kids were affected.  I’ve written about my moms, about my brother with Down syndrome, about the plight of foster children in the United States, about the precarious position of birds of prey worldwide and why it’s critical to conserve their habitat and well-being. Even my travel pieces tend to be about underrepresented destinations–Wild Wings Nature Center in upstate New York, for instance, or backpacking to Sitka on an Alaska Marine Highway ferry.

4) How does my writing process work?

I’m a slow writer. Wild Within took five years to write, and about 20 drafts.  I usually write longhand in a notebook, and transcribe my owl-scratch onto the computer.  I read my work out loud, draft after draft, until it sounds just right.  Then, I make my husband read it; he’s incredibly intelligent, and he can tell me when I haven’t fully explored a theme or when I’m being sentimental or obtuse.  I love working with editors to shape a finished piece; it’s exciting and gratifying to see the work in print.

7. Melissa-and-Bodhi

I’ve tagged the following three Oregon writers to continue this conversation next Monday, September 22nd:

Cecelia Hagen is the author of Entering, from Airlie Press, and the chapbooks Among Others (Traprock Books) and Fringe Living (26 Books Press). Her poems have appeared in Rolling Stone, Prairie Schooner, Blood Orange Review, Natural Bridge, and the Christian Science Monitor. Her poem “At the Bus Stop” can be found in the stairwell of a downtown parking garage in Eugene. She has received fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, Literary Arts, Soapstone, and Playa, and her writing has won the Passager magazine annual award and an Intro Prize from AWP. She lives in Eugene, Oregon and teaches memoir classes in the community.

Cai Emmons first novel His Mother’s Son, was published by Harcourt in 2003. It won the 2003 Ken Kesey Award for the Novel (an Oregon Book Award) and was released in paperback in 2004.  Cai’s second novel, The Stylist, was published by HarperCollins in 2007.  Booklist said of the book: “With family relations twisted as a French braid and language as vivid as a platinum dye job, Emmons’ potent novel features magnetic characters and complex and compelling secrets.”  Cai’s third novel, The Seventh TenetA fourth novel, Continuous Travelers, is underway.  Cai’s essays and stories and reviews have appeared in such publications as:  Arts and Letters, Narrative Magazine, The New York Post, Portland Monthly, and The Oregon Quarterly. 

Mary DeMocker teaches the harp and writes about climates of all sorts. Her work has appeared in Sun Magazine, Oregon Quarterly,, ISLE (Interdisciplinary Study of Literature and the Environment; Oxford University Press), The Oregonian, and music journals. She is cofounder of 350 Eugene, a local, rapidly-growing chapter of the international climate recovery group She lives with her husband and teenagers in Eugene, where they chopped down the fence to better share a sauna, lawn mower, ping-pong table, trampoline, and six chickens with their neighbors. For links to her blog Climate Mom: From Worrier to Warrior, visit her website.