SI Vault
Michael Baughman
May 16, 1983
"I'm doing what I want to do," Dave Siddon says. "I figured out a long time ago that doing what you really enjoy is a lot more important than getting rich, so I'm here, and I'm happy."
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May 16, 1983

Dave Siddon's Life Is For The Birds, And That's Just The Way He Likes It

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Farther along are several golden eagles. Two of them are also gunshot victims. They are looking well and will soon be released to the wild. So will a large, lovely female golden eagle that was found by a woman about 80 miles away in a meadow near a mountain lake. She drove the nearly starved bird to Siddon on her lap. Apparently it, too, had flown into a power line and broken a wing. Siddon fed the bird back to health and implanted steel screws in the injured wing. It will be ready for release this spring.

"The eagle over there," Siddon says, pointing to a large female golden that has been screeching continually for several minutes, "is imprinted. That means she grew up with humans and associates with them instead of with her own kind. We'll never be able to release her. But she more than pays her own way. She was featured in a John Denver television special, and not long ago she made a Ford Thunderbird commercial. She's a beautiful bird now, but when we got her she was suffering from malnutrition. Her owners—she'd been stolen off a nest—had been feeding her bologna, which doesn't contain enough protein for eagles."

Beyond the pens is a large cage containing various species of hawks, including Happy, who, according to Siddon, is probably the most widely photographed red-tail on earth. Most Americans have seen her on Buick commercials and in print ads. All proceeds earned by Siddon's birds go back to the center. An accomplished independent film-maker himself, Siddon has contributed segments to both The American Sportsman and Last of the Wild television series. Public donations also help pay the bills, and the center is healthy financially.

"My wife, Judy, and 28-year-old son, David Jr., work with me, and we've hired a young biologist for our educational programs," Siddon says. "They give their presentations—films, talks and exposure to the living birds and animals—in school assemblies across the country. We've been in 32 states so far, and last year we reached about 600,000 youngsters. We have a traveling Birds of Prey program, a Vanishing Species program in Colorado and a Watchable Wildlife program here in Oregon. Next year we hope to expand and get to the Northeast, Southeast and Midwest. We want to add two more Birds of Prey programs and two on Animals Nobody Loves—skunks, vultures and the like. When you can get to young people and show them a hawk or eagle up close, they're a lot less likely to shoot one if they ever take up hunting. And they're going to be a lot more likely to learn to love wild creatures, not to see them as something to destroy, or exploit, or ignore."

The Wildlife Images Center isn't open to the public yet, but Siddon is building new pens for his birds—they will offer better viewing opportunities—and he hopes to open soon on a limited basis, for guided tours and photography workshops. If he can find a good buy on some AstroTurf to cover the floors of his new pens, things will be ready by summer.

"In a way I'm living my father's dream here," he says. "He was born in Tennessee and raised and cared for birds all his life. I grew up in Southern California, the San Fernando Valley, and our backyard was always full of cages. My father treated injured birds, and he raised doves, finches and parakeets and sold them to make money for vacations. He worked as a mechanic, but he always hoped to be able to devote all his time to birds. But the Depression came along, and then the war. He knew a lot, and I learned from him. I haven't had any formal training to speak of in what I do here, but I had my first patient when I was nine years old—a mourning dove. Next there was a mockingbird. When I was 12 I remember a barn owl, and by the time I was 17 I was up to golden eagles. Look! See up there?"

A screech owl is sitting on an oak tree limb, staring down from 30 feet away. "We released her awhile back, but she's not sure she wants to leave, either," Siddon says.

In another line of pens is an assortment of owls and a vulture with a bad left leg. Siddon reaches into one of the pens and comes out with a pygmy owl, which is barely larger than a sparrow, but with formidable talons and bright yellow eyes. "Ounce for ounce, he's as deadly as any predator alive," Siddon says. "Around here we have to remember that all of these are wild creatures, not pets. I almost lost an eye to a golden eagle once, and a thumb to a raccoon."

Walking back toward the barn, Siddon remembers a story. This one really makes him smile. "But, of course, it's their wild-ness we want to preserve," he begins. "In 1981 a state biologist brought me a bald eagle from up near Glide, along the North Umpqua River. It was one of a pair that had been observed in that area. The bird was almost dead when my friend got him here by pickup on a Sunday morning. He couldn't even hold his head up. It was strychnine poisoning. I could smell it right away. He'd probably been at a tainted carcass set out for coyote bait. We force-fed him for weeks, finally nursed him back to health. When it came time to take the bird back where it came from to release it—this was in April—the press and television people came out to watch.

"That always makes me a little nervous, because I'm afraid a bird might just fly up to the nearest tree limb and sit there looking back at me. But everything went perfectly. Like they said the next day in the Roseburg paper, Walt Disney couldn't have written a better script. When I set the eagle free, he sailed straight across the river. He was full of energy, really going!" At this point, Siddon begins to flap his arms like wings, trying to recreate the moment. "He caught a thermal and went up 800 or 1,000 feet and then circled for a while. Then he caught another thermal and rose another 1,000 feet. Minutes had passed by then. When he finally leveled off up there, he was just a speck. And then another eagle appeared, sailing in from somewhere! Suddenly there were two of them there, and off they went together. Why, by that time the woman running the television camera was in tears. It was perfect all right—better than perfect! That's what it's all about!"

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