Last August an exhausted peregrine falcon crashed onto the deck of a cargo ship in the mid-Atlantic, 1,000 miles off the coast of Scotland. Crew members kept it alive by catching small seabirds to feed it. When the ship docked at Perth Amboy, N.J., the crew contacted the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which passed the falcon on to a New Jersey bird rehabilitator named Len Soucy.
As it turned out, the falcon had been banded and could subsequently be traced to the Canadian Fish and Wildlife facility in Edmonton, Alberta, where it had been bred before being moved to Algonquin Provincial Park. Released a month later, it embarked on its first migratory journey to South America, when, Soucy speculates, Hurricane Bob blew the inexperienced bird way off course. Soucy held the falcon in one of his 60 "aviary chambers," then released the bird when it had regained enough strength to resume its travels.
The falcon is but one of thousands of birds—ranging from songbirds to eagles—that Soucy has nursed back to health in his backyard refuge. "Altogether, I have 85,000 cubic feet of flying room," says Soucy of his Millington, N.J. facility. "My biggest chamber is 64 feet by 16 feet, and 14 feet high. Four eagles can fly around it without ever colliding."
A bearded 6-footer in his mid-50s, Soucy is a tool and die maker, who has worked at his trade since he was 16. He describes his involvement with birds as an avocation, which judging by the sheer number of guests that he logs in and out of his sanctuary—nearly 1,100 last year—has assumed epic proportions.
Throughout his rambling, two-story house in rural Millington, egg timers and alarm clocks go off in dizzying succession, indicating the feeding times of his many guests. "Last spring we raised over 500 nestlings," says Soucy, "all of which had to be fed from one to three times an hour." As a licensed volunteer, Soucy takes in illegally captured birds that have been confiscated by the Fish and Wildlife Service, and as a "resource person" for the National Audubon Society, he cares for injured birds found in the area. He treats most of them himself, relying on local veterinarians in cases requiring X rays or surgery.
Soucy's interest in birds began when his wife, Diane, bought a bird feeder 30 years ago. "I was curious about the birds we were seeing, so I bought a bird book," he says. Not content merely to identify birds, Soucy, who describes himself as "something of an extremist," became a bird bander. But it was a trip to Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in Kempton, Pa. that aroused his interest in raptors, particularly eagles, hawks, falcons and owls.
"Until the '70s, raptors were unprotected by law," he says. "At one time there was even a bounty on them." Soucy's initiation into bird rehabilitation occurred in 1966 when someone left a cardboard box containing a wounded red-tailed hawk on his front porch.
"It had been shot," Soucy says. With the help of a local vet, the bird's injury was diagnosed in Soucy's kitchen. The hawk was then taken to the vet's office, where its broken wing was mended in a delicate operation that involved the pinning of fractured bones.
Soucy has since become both a master bird bander—there are some 2,500 in the U.S.—and a self-taught master rehabilitator. He read veterinary journals and studied anatomy and morphology, and developed such expertise in caring for birds—especially raptors—that he was the person the Department of the Interior called when it recently found itself with 25 stolen and confiscated European goshawks.
Somewhat hawklike in appearance himself, Soucy might seem intimidating except for a lighthearted manner. But on the subject of raptors he is serious and often eloquent. In part, his dedication stems from a conviction that predators are frequently maligned. "Cruelty's a human concept," he says. "There's a biological premise for every living creature." Soucy's imagination is fired by the finely honed survival skills of raptors. For example, he is fascinated by the ability of hawks to fly hundreds of miles without stopping, often feeding on the wing. And his language borders on the poetic when he describes an eagle as "a vision of man's spirit soaring."