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Naturalist educates, champions for feathered predator

  • 3 min to read

Mike Callahan has a love of birds, and the Nanjemoy Creek Environmental Education Center instructor will share that love of all things aviary during a presentation April 15 during a meeting of the La Plata Garden Club.

Callahan works with several birds that are housed at the center in Charles County, including a bald eagle, red-tailed hawk, a barred owl, screech owl and a pair of barn owls.

“When a country loses its connection to nature, it loses its cultural heritage,” Callahan said when asked why nature in general and eagles in particular are so important. “So keeping the outdoors as a part of our life is important and that’s become so evident in the last year with COVID-19.”

Callahan, who now wears a mask emblazoned with a photo of the lower part of a bald eagle’s face, said park visitation in county, state and national parks and refuges has gone up between 20% and 30%, and he added that bird feeding and bird watching have also increased as people are starting to notice the world around them.

“People are staying at home and are discovering the birds in their own backyard and getting out to be away from each other and be out in nature,” he said. “They’re getting back to nature and discovering the natural world. It’s become one of the positive things that have come out of COVID-19.”

And one of those natural things is an unnamed bald eagle, which was found drinking from a swimming pool in Wisconsin severely underweight and completely blind in its left eye. It was transported to the Nanjemoy center in 2012.

Recently, Callahan brought the bird out to show to members of the La Plata Gardening Club in advance of the presentation.

“Mike is very knowledgeable and he has great stories to share with us,” Debbie Chute, club co-president, said. “I’m very excited to have Mike as our presenter at our next garden club meeting.”

Callahan was scheduled to present to the club last year, but that was canceled due to the pandemic.

“I’ve heard about Mike and the several programs he’s done around the county,” Julie Meisel, the other co-president, said. “So we’re very excited.”

A champion of all things nature

Callahan, who is the conservation committee chairman for the Southern Maryland Audubon Society and also helps the organization monitor barn owl nest boxes, said there are several keys to handling large birds of prey.

“Gaining the trust of the animal is the first thing,” said Callahan, who uses a glove made of elk hide and Kevlar. “And no sudden movements.”

Repetition, giving food as a reward and treating it like it is a human being are important, he said. Callahan also said he’ll talk to the birds while caring for and feeding them.

“I know it sounds silly, but I disguise my disgust with emotions,” said Callahan, who feeds the birds chopped up mice donated by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. “I’ll say, ‘Oh that food is so gross,’ but I’ll disguise it to sound like I’m saying, ‘Oh, that food is so nice.’ That way they get used to my voice in a positive way.”

He said that when he takes the birds out for fifth-grade field trips, faces light up.

“The kids love seeing the live birds,” Callahan said. “They’re ambassadors for wildlife. Most people don’t get a chance to be a few feet from a hawk, an owl or an eagle, so when they come out I’m not the star of the show.”

Bald eagles can reach weights of about 6 to 15 pounds and have wingspans of about 7 feet. They eat 250 grams of food per day and can live up to 40 years in the wild.

Callahan, who said he was introduced to the outdoors by his third-grade teacher, Mary Martinez, said bald eagles are bouncing back after the United States in 1972 banned the fertilizer DDT, which caused eagles to give birth to their young in no shells or shells that were too thin.

He said bald eagles were removed from the endangered list two decades ago, though they remain protected on the migratory bird list.

A story on Yahoo on March 24 stated that a new survey by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found that “since 2009, when the last count was taken, the number of eagles had soared to an estimated 316,700 in the lower 48 states. At the species’ lowest point in the 1960s, there were fewer than 500 nesting pairs in those states.”

Callahan said the environmental center in Nanjemoy, which is not open to the public now but hosts Maryland Master Naturalist meetings and monthly star parties by the Southern Maryland Astronomical Society, is a “hidden jewel in Charles County.”

The La Plata Garden Club will host Mike Callahan and his birds of prey at Port Tobacco River Park on Thursday, April 15. The meeting is open to the public.

For more information on the club, email Julie Meisel at r_jmeisel@yahoo.com, or for more information on the Nanjemoy Creek Environmental Education Center, call 301-743-3526.

Twitter: @MichaelSoMdNews

Twitter: @MichaelSoMdNews