When Chris Soucy, director of the Raptor Trust, brings Vilma the barred owl out of her cage for an impromptu visit, lucky Trust guests come out of every edge of the Millington property to take a look at the permanent resident.
Jack, an 8-year-old bird-of-prey fan, bounds up to Soucy and two gathered children and their parents to share with him the raptor facts that he knows. A husband-and-wife pair soon join the growing group, as well the plumber who is there on a job. He tells Soucy that the songbirds are his favorite.
Regardless of age, gender or hometown, it seems like everyone can find a reason to be enamored with birds of prey at the Raptor Trust, whether it’s for one hour, once a year or even once a week, the frequency in which some regulars visit.
About 10,000 people visit the Raptor Trust annually, which Soucy said is important because if you find an injured bird, you should know where to bring it, whether it is to the Raptor Trust or to one of the other bird rehabilitation facilities in the state.
It also provides the chance to see almost all of the New Jersey native raptor species on display in one place.
“Most people never see an owl in their whole life. You can see seven or eight from only a few feet away or an eagle or a falcon up close,” said Soucy. “It’s a good educational opportunity, good for all ages and we are within the confines of the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, an 8,000-acre wildlife reserve with trails and an education center.”
Open to the public seven days a week and 365 days a year from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., there is no charge to visit the 130,000-foot space, but a $2 donation is encouraged because the Raptor Trust is a nonprofit corporation that receives no government support but relies completely on private contributions.
The 600 birds currently recuperating are housed in secluded spaces and are not accessible to visitors, but 50 resident birds are housed permanently at the Raptor Trust because of their inability to be released back into the wild following physical or mental issues. Many of these birds are used for public education, foster parenting and captive breeding.
Because predatory birds need to be able to hunt to live, Soucy explained that there is a fine line between survival and starvation. However, the Trust tries to err on giving birds a chance in the wild if they think survival is possible.
About half of the 100,000 birds that the Raptor Trust has rehabilitated since the mid-1970s are able to be released back into the wild, while the remaining birds become permanent residents at a wildlife facility, or they die. Most injured or orphaned birds taken to the Trust are babies that fell out of a nest or their mother was killed.
So how are these birds getting to the Raptor Trust?
“Most of them come in a shoebox,” said Soucy. “Many injured birds have had some sort of human activity injury such as being hit by a car, they flew into a window, got an impact injury, flew into telephone wires or got electrocuted, poisoned, shot or any other imaginable horrible thing.”
However, not all birds brought to the Raptor Trust need medical care. Some just need to be fed until they are able to be released. Regardless of whether it’s 12 p.m. or 12 a.m., found birds can be brought to the facility for care. If you find an injured bird, visittheraptortrust.org to learn how you can safely bring a bird to the facility.
Nowadays, people are very receptive to helping injured raptors, but it wasn’t always this way. Until the Federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1972, there was a bounty on them as they were considered vermin.
“I think that over the decades, the perception has changed from them being horrible, mean killers into being very important parts of the ecosystem,” said Soucy.
Len Soucy, Chris’s father and the Raptor Trust founder, was an integral part of this change in dynamic following his interest in hawks after a visit to the Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in Kempton, Pennsylvania, in 1964. In 1968, he bought a home with his wife, Diane, on 14 acres of property in Millington where he began to care for injured raptors part time in the backyard.
“I grew up with owls in the bathroom and hawks on the curtain rod,” said Soucy. “My father saw some injustice in the way people perceived these birds and he made it his one-man mission to change that.”
As the Raptor Trust’s work became more well-known, more injured birds were brought to the Millington site. By the end of the 1970s, hundreds of birds were being admitted annually. In 1982, the operation was named the Raptor Trust and established as a nonprofit corporation. Today, Chris continues to run the facility.
“I continue to do this because if most of the planet is gone, it’s not going to be very beautiful,” said Soucy. “There won’t be beauty to my life to not hear a cricket chirping or see an eagle flying. These are the things that make our world work.”
THE RAPTOR TRUST
Where: 1390 Whitebridge Rd, Millington
Cost: Free, but a $2 donation is encouraged
Contact: 908-647-2353 or theraptortrust.org
Hours: 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. until Labor Day, at which time visiting hours end at 5 p.m.
What to do if you find an injured bird: Click here