Southwest Avian Protection Services rehabilitates the injured and diseased
“Being able to take something that is just fixing to die and then release it – there isn’t anything like it – and to do it over and over and over again, it hasn’t got old yet,” says Charles Littlejohn, master falconer and owner of Southwest Avian Protection Services (SWAPS) in Dove Creek.
Littlejohn is a man with a mission. Inspired by his passion for falconry, which he began in 2010, he has moved on to raptor rehabilitation and education. This means Littlejohn holds three separate licenses, from different agencies.
“I’m a falconer, I’m a rehabber and I’m an educator,” he explains. In addition to a full-time job, his work with birds keeps his wife, LuAnn, and him busy feeding, housing, rehabilitating and educating people about raptors.
Littlejohn told the Four Corners Free Press that his interest in falconry – hunting with trained birds of prey – began after he read about Genghis Khan’s falcon, which according to legend saved Khan’s life by keeping him from being poisoned by a snake.
Littlejohn has a peregrine he uses for his falconry, but he currently houses eight more birds in Dove Creek and is in the process of applying for an educational permit for a bald eagle.
All the birds at SWAPS have names and, except for his peregrine, are either in the process of being rehabilitated or are used for educational purposes.
The falconry license is issued by Colorado Parks and Wildlife. “You have to catch and release two birds in a three-year period to get a falconry license, to show that you can trap and release,” explains Littlejohn.
Additionally, you need a sponsor. “You’ve got to have somebody who will show you the ropes – guide you along – if you have a problem, you’ve got somebody to call and take care of the situation.”
Littlejohn, who has a background in emergency medicine, became interested in rehabilitating birds of prey after speaking with the veterinarian he used for his raptor. “Dr. Charles Hawman told me that rehabilitators were falling out, and I thought I might want to do that.”
Hawman is one of the only avian veterinarians in the region, and he encouraged Littlejohn to pursue becoming a rehabilitator, since the only other licensed wildlife rehabilitators in the CPW southwest region are in Montrose and Pagosa Springs. Statewide, there are only 11 wildlife rehabilitators who will accept raptors, with most of them located in the Front Range or eastern Colorado.
Since Littlejohn already held his falconry license he had fulfilled almost 90 percent of the requirements for a rehabilitation license. Having worked as a first responder for 18 years, he said, “Medically, I learned what I did there and transferred it to this – it works out beautifully.”
For a sponsor for the rehab permit, he contacted Diana Miller in Pueblo, who runs the Nature and Wildlife Discovery Center and is one of the 11 avian rehabilitators licensed in Colorado. To this day, he stays in close contact with Miller.
Littlejohn holds permits for owls, hawks, eagles and falcons and explains that because these birds are protected anyone who handles them is subject to state and federal regulation. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act was established in 1918, and implemented international conservation treaties with Mexico, Canada and Japan and Russia to ensure sustainability of the protected species native to the United States. Specifically, it prohibits “the take (including killing, capturing, selling, trading, and transport) of protected migratory bird species without prior authorization by the Department of Interior U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.”
As a wildlife rehabilitator, Littlejohn is authorized to handle and care for these birds with the intent of returning them to their natural habitat when possible.
Littlejohn gets birds in different ways – from the CPW, from individual good Samaritans, or the Colorado Department of Transportation, which accepts CPW calls off hours.
LuAnn Littlejohn says their organization is also listed on the CPW website, which helps people find them.
If you are driving along and hit an owl or a hawk, or are out hiking or boating and see an eagle on the ground that appears to be injured what should you do?
The first thing is to call SWAPS or the local CPW office and let them know about the injured animal, telling them what it is and the specific location you encountered it.
Once a bird arrives at SWAPS, the first step in rehabilitation is the Intensive Care Unit, consisting of flight cages, mews, and protected boxes of different sizes. All birds are initially kept quiet in order to reduce stress, and once they are stable a thorough examination is undertaken to determine the extent and cause of the injuries or distress.
Sometimes birds can appear stable but are actually too sick or injured to recover. According to the SWAPS brochure, this is because “Wild birds often appear to be in better health than they really are to avoid being preyed upon by other animals.” In this case, they may have to be euthanized.
Littlejohn explains this is most often due to blindness, broken wings or damaged feet. A bird that needs an amputation below the elbow cannot be rehabilitated.
Littlejohn, who clearly cares about the raptors, explains that “after I’ve seen amputation, I would never do it – maybe at the wrist, the very tip – but anything else, no. It’s just too hard on the bird, and it’s not fair to them.”
Birds can be injured, starving, frozen, poisoned, or also have diseases such as West Nile. Littlejohn has to know the different symptoms of all these conditions and how to treat each one. “I can look at something and think, this is what’s going on,” he says. “So far I’ve been pretty accurate at diagnosis, but prognosis – what is going to happen – you never know.”
He explains that you have to treat each bird as an individual. The most common injury is being hit by a car, but those birds often don’t survive. Then there are fences – the birds will fly into a thin wire and injure a wing, making them unable to fly.
He also explains that lead poisoning is a factor. Hunters will use lead ammunition, and then a bird of prey will eat an animal that has lead shot in it, and the lead will poison the bird.
Hunters will also shoot birds of prey, which is illegal since they are protected, and if they injure the bird instead of killing it, hopefully it will end up being found by a good Samaritan and rehabilitated.
SWAPS currently has nine birds in rehabilitation. They have a 100 percent recovery rate overall during their two years of operation. They took in 11 birds in 2021 and were able to release all of them.
“This will change,” says Littlejohn, since not all of the birds will survive or be reintroduced back into their habitat. “A bird has to be able to stand up, fly and catch its own food.”
He has a 30-foot flight pen with different perches for the different types of birds in his back yard. In order to operate as a licensed rehabilitator, Littlejohn says he is required to have a 100-foot pen for the larger birds, which is located at the SWAPS property in Dove Creek. The site includes a structure with mews allowing the birds both inside and outdoor access, educational signage, housing for raising and keeping live prey, and the large flight pen.
Littlejohn showed this reporter a hawk with a broken pelvis that he is currently keeping. “Technically I should have been able to take that bird in, let it relax and rest in a large cage, what we call a limited movement cage, and in two weeks let it go.
“Well, we took it out there where it belonged, and threw it up in the air and it hit the ground and ran like a chicken,” he laughs. “It didn’t want to fly.
“We brought it back home and we did another flying test, then I talked to the doc. I even called my sponsor, who’s been doing this more than 30 years. She said, here’s what you got to do, and I’ve taken her advice. We’re just going to keep it, and hang on to it, and see what happens in six months.”
When a bird does recover, which generally takes an average of three to six months, it is essential to release it where it was found. Littlejohn says he calls the people who found the bird and invites them to the release. “I prefer [releasing them] exactly where they were found. You can go within so many miles but after 10 miles you have to have permission to release it further away than that.” He smiles as he describes how happy the “good Samaritans” are to see the injured bird they rescued fly away into the wild.
Last year he got a call from CPW about a redtail hawk that had been found near Lewis. It was starving and had frostbitten feet. Most raptors cannot maintain their body heat well in severe cold and instead migrate to warmer climates. Luckily, Littlejohn was able to save and release the redtail after four months of rehabilitation.
Littlejohn says birds from Idaho or Montana will come here to winter, while a Swainson’s hawk may go to Brazil. They can fly 200 miles a day, he says. “They can’t smell their food if it’s frozen solid.”
Rehabilitation is a lot of work. Besides maintaining the areas for the birds, diagnosing and treating their injuries, SWAPS has to provide food. LuAnn explains that to this end they raise both rats and gerbils, currently housing 11 breeding female rats and plenty of gerbils. They also feed the raptors beef hearts, which they get from local ranchers.
Littlejohn recently received a Wildlife Rehabilitation Grants Program grant for 2022, which he will use to buy food. “If I spend $2400 on frozen food, then I can use that much money for other things,” explains Littlejohn.
What happens to a bird that survives but cannot be released? They often become “educational birds.”
Littlejohn applied for and received a license from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service which enables him to keep educational birds, which can be used to educate people about raptor conservation and ethics. This enables him to bring the birds to public places, including schools.
“I’m not going to deny anyone the ability to look at one up close or teach them about conservation,” says Littlejohn, who explains that he operates SWAPS as a nonprofit, and will not charge for anyone who wants to come see one of his birds.
“Abigail” the turkey vulture is an example of an educational bird. She was injured in Arizona in 2020, probably by a car strike, and rehabilitated by Susan Davidson.
“She was transferred from rehab to our educational license in spring of last year,” he says. He has had her for a year, and now she trusts him, spreading her wings demonstrating that she is relaxed as he holds her. She weighs four pounds – “a heavy bird,” laughs LuAnn.
When asked if she’ll pose with her husband with the bird, LuAnn declines, saying that she’s scared of the bird, because it can grab or peck her.
Littlejohn explains, “They’re wild animals. She’s a wild animal regardless if she’s been taken care of since she was a baby. I’m not scared of them, but I respect them. I have been grabbed before and it’s not pleasant.”
LuAnn continues, “They don’t let go – they grab and they hold. If they grab you – you’re grabbed.”
Littlejohn adds, “They’re like an alligator or a pit bull – once they get into that position, they have to stop and think about it and relax to let go and there’s nothing you can do.” Thus, the need for an experienced falconer!
Besides applying for educational permits for raptors he has rehabilitated, SWAPS can also apply for a transfer for other birds, which is what he did with Abigail. Currently he is applying for a bald eagle, which will be transferred to SWAPS from a zoo in South Dakota.
He explains that this bird has been injured, and he has lined someone up to fix its wing. The application for the transfer is 57 pages long, but Littlejohn is encouraged about getting the bird. “Won’t that be awesome to have a bald eagle here in Dove Creek?” exclaims LuAnn.
Littlejohn explains that falconry, rehabilitation and education work together. When a bird can’t be rehabilitated, he applies for an educational permit for the bird, and then uses it for education. He has worked with Southwest Open School (SWOS) and the Montezuma Land Conservancy. He has taken birds out to Fozzie’s Farm and shown SWOS students his birds.
“You want a bird for a wedding, a fair, a school, call me,” he smiles.
SWAPS will not charge but will accept donations. The public is encouraged to visit their educational site in Dove Creek. They are expanding their educational location to the highway, in hopes of making it more accessible to visitors and passers-by.
SWAPS will be at the Four States Ag Expo at the Montezuma County Fairgrounds on March 26-27. Both Littlejohn and LuAnn encourage anyone interested in learning about raptors to come out. Abigail the turkey vulture will be there!