July 26th, 2021

Birds of Prey Centre opens into another challenging season

By Herald on May 25, 2021.

A short-eared owl gives a piercing yellow stare from its perch at the Alberta Birds of Prey Centre in Coaldale. Herald file photo by Greg Bobinec

Al Beeber – Lethbridge Herald

Colin Weir had a dream and decades later, the Alberta Birds of Prey Foundation in Coaldale is still proof that dreams have wings.

Weir, a southern Ontario native, had a dream of starting a bird centre so he headed west and ended up in Coaldale. 

Along with co-founder Wendy Slater, Weir fulfilled that vision but thanks to COVID-19 and the restrictions forced upon the centre, this year and last have been tough on the foundation which relies upon donors, volunteers, special appearances and admissions to the centre to operate.

The facility opened to the public on May 15 for the summer season and will remain open until Labour Day Monday daily from 9:30 a.m. until 5 p.m.

Weir, whose professional background is in accounting, has run the centre full-time since the early 2000s when he left an insurance agency job.

The Alberta Birds of Prey Foundation is the province’s first privately-run raptor rescue and conservation organization, one which had its beginnings when Weir and Slater approached the Alberta Fish and Wildlife department with a proposal in 1982.

Before the facility was created, the property it sits on was flat farmland, a far different landscape that visitors now see.

Weir likens the transformation of the property to the baseball film “Field of Dreams.”

The Birds of Prey Foundation is located at 2124 16 Avenue in Coaldale, a few btlocks north of Highway 3.

“Nobody thought it could be done,” Weir said Tuesday, estimating that to construct the facility today would cost between $15 million and $20 million.

“It’s a testament to the commitment of people in southern Alberta to make this a reality. It couldn’t happen anywhere else in Canada,” Weir said.

A “life changer” for the facility, he said, was the support of former  Taber-Warner MLA Bob Bogle who even brought then Fish and Wildlife Minister Bob Sparrow to Weir’s home to discuss the proposal.

“He was an MLA like no other. We wouldn’t be here if not for Bob” said Weir.

“This is a sparkling example of great things that can happen in a community.”

Those great things, however, have been challenged by COVID-19 restrictions. Because of the pandemic, many programs which fund the centre have been temporarily shelved. 

Those programs include special appearances with birds across the province which used to have staff travelling as often as three times a week. School visits have been cut, and “visitors are non-existent,” said Weir.

This has impacted severely the foundation’s income. Because of social-distancing, staff are no longer doing demonstrations with birds because those would be considered public gatherings. And no photos are being taken with birds on visitors’ arms which eliminates contact between them and staff.

Numbers of guests allowed at any single time in the 2,000 square foot visitors centre have been lowered as well, Weir said.

“We don’t get any government subsidies; we self-generate all our income to sustain our operations,” said Weir of the facility which employs between 17-18 people.

Individual donors, he said “are the heart and soul of what keeps this place going.”

COVID, he said, “has severely affected our ability to do business but we’re not throwing in the towel.”

One sight visitors may come across this year is a pair of bald eagles who have made themselves at home for the past several months at the centre, which is popular with serious bird photographers, he said. And a couple of baby great horned owls may also be spotted.

One constant at the centre, for most of its existence, has been Sarah, the golden eagle, who even once sat on the arm of the British ski jumper Eddie the Eagle at the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary.

Since its inception, the Birds of Prey Foundation mission been focused on on several elements. They include, according to its website at burrowingowl.com:

1) rehabilitating and releasing injured birds of prey back to the wild;

2) Captive breeding and release of endangered species;

3) Studying and monitoring wild birds of prey populations;

4) Encouraging positive habitat stewardship through increased public environmental awareness.

Weir said some of the stories behind donations can be extremely touching, like a letter from a child with a coin include.

“This place has captured the hearts and minds of people.”

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