A Beak to Nose Experience

March 26, 2018

For most, seeing a raptor is a rarity. For Gail Buhl, it’s just another day on the job.

Gail Buhl

The University of Minnesota Raptor Center treated a record 1,085 raptors in 2017 alone, so it’s no surprise that as the Center’s Education Program Manager, Gail Buhl (B.S. Biology ‘97) has seen a lot of birds.

But on a recent Friday afternoon, the raptor that captured the attention of Buhl and her colleagues wasn’t a patient, but a Red-Tailed Hawk perched in an elm tree across the street.

While Buhl and her colleagues chatted excitedly about the sighting, Liz, a Raptor Center volunteer, appeared holding another bird. “That’s Rowan!” Buhl said of the raptor perched on Liz’s gloved left hand. “That’s the same species that’s sitting in the tree, but now you can really see it!”

Being on a first-name-basis with raptors is all in a day’s work for Buhl, who oversees the Center’s education birds, who, like Rowan, are specially trained after being deemed unfit to survive in the wild.

Buhl’s career has been focused on creating what she refers to as “beak to nose experiences,” overseeing the nearly 1,200 community programs the Raptor Center facilitates annually at sites such as schools, libraries, and even the State Fair. Buhl also manages the Center’s educators and its collection, which includes scheduling a raptor’s weigh-in or vet appointment, assigning educators to attend community programming, or– her personal favorite–working hands-on with a raptor.

“I’ve always been interested in birds,” Buhl said. “ Apparently even before I could walk I was reaching towards robins in the yard and things like that. I have a natural draw to anything that flies, but especially birds.”

Buhl first began working with the Raptor Center as a volunteer during her time as an undergraduate in CBS. Although she initially began volunteering with hopes of attending veterinary school, Buhl’s work with the Raptor Center sparked an interest in rehabilitation work that ultimately changed her career path.

After graduation, Buhl worked as a wildlife biologist at a nature center before taking a position at Minnesota Zoo’s World of Birds Show. She went on to establish Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center’s raptor education program, a position she credits with teaching her the nuts and bolts of environmental education, skills she has continued to build on since returning to the Raptor Center for her current position.

Lately, both Buhl’s role and the Raptor Center have been expanding in exciting new ways. The Center is currently in the early stages of a significant renovation project with Buhl at the helm as one of the project managers. By spring, the Center plans to add two interpretive exhibits, revamp its gift shop, install a new A/V system, and redo its floors, walls, and lighting.

Adding to the excitement is the launch of “Outdoor Investigator”, the second part of the Center’s online learning platform, Raptor Lab. Designed for integration into middle school STEM curriculum, Raptor Lab supplies live data-tracking from the Center’s clinic, allowing students to learn about charting data, writing research papers, and conducting experiments all while discovering the rehabilitation process.

As the Center continues its main goal of facilitating a raptor’s rehabilitation and release into the wild, both the renovation and Raptor Lab will help introduce the public to the presence– and importance– of these birds. Buhl believes this will promote an understanding that will ultimately benefit both humans and raptors.

“If humans perceive a threat, the general reaction is to get rid of it, not to learn about it,” Buhl said. “That's a reaction we do not want. Raptors are an incredibly important part of the ecosystem. They're the top of the food chain. So are we. If you are paying attention to what is happening to them in the wild and in the ecosystems, what's happened to them may happen to us.”

And if there is one thing Buhl hopes she can teach others about raptors, it’s this:

“I really want people to know that these are our neighbors. They are part of our world and we are part of their world.”