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"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."
"Here" is the Wildlife Images Rehabilitation and Education Center near the town of Merlin on southern Oregon's Rogue River. The center, its brochure proclaims, is "dedicated to saving our wildlife and educating our children." Siddon has been saving wildlife for 42 of his 51 years—the last 10 in Oregon, before that in Southern California—and in 1982 he returned more than 400 injured birds and animals to the wild, among them three bald eagles and nine golden eagles.
On a drizzly winter day, Siddon is standing, a chunk of raw chicken in his hand, on a gravel driveway between his ranch-style house and the center's barn door, looking up at an American kestrel, or sparrow hawk, perched atop a 20-foot pine tree. "This guy never wanted to leave," he says. "We turned him loose five years ago, and he's still hanging around. Watch this." He tosses the chicken into the air, and before it reaches the apex of its flight the little hawk, which often hunts from trees, swoops down, clutches the meat in its talons, banks steeply and soars off toward the river, all in less than a second's time.
"Did you see that? Did you see it?" Siddon asks. He's considerably more than six feet tall, ruggedly built, with a thick head of white hair, and when he talks about his birds he always smiles. And he's usually talking about his birds. "It's tough for them at this time of year," he says, looking after the kestrel and grinning broadly. "They can't do a lot of soaring in this weather, and prey species are scarce, so I help out once in a while. Look here in the barn now."
Inside the barn is a blind spotted owl named Ollie, standing on the concrete floor, head turned toward the open door. Siddon walks over and drops another piece of chicken near him and whistles softly. At the signal, Ollie grabs the meat in a talon, turns and walks away to find a place to enjoy his meal in solitude.
"Ollie is a permanent resident, of course," Siddon says. "We're able to save about 60% of the birds and animals we get, and about 90% of the ones that do survive can eventually be released. If we think there's at least a 50-50 chance a creature will make it, we release it.
"My feelings are strong on that subject. I don't believe in keeping wild creatures penned up, and I don't believe in captive wildlife breeding, either, unless there's simply no other way to preserve a species. What they're doing with the California condor right now would be an example of that. But I know of people who are crossbreeding peregrine falcons with other species, hybridizing them. When the crossbreeds escape from falconers—and some will—what will be the result on native gene pools? They've already gone a long way toward ruining various species of fish with hatcheries. Whether you believe in God or in the scheme of nature, you shouldn't manipulate. Let nature take its course.
"When we do have to keep a bird or animal, though, we make good use of it in our educational programs—but the wilderness is where they belong. And we've treated and released just about everything here over the years—deer, bears, cougars, raccoons, weasels, bobcats, turtles, skunks, foxes—you name it and it's probably been here. Right now, though, most of our guests and patients are birds."
These guests and patients have been brought to the center by private individuals who know of Siddon's work, and by state police and state and federal wildlife officials. Most of the injuries Siddon treats are the result of gunshots, poisons, traps or motor vehicles. Birds of prey in particular suffer at the hands of humans. On slow days, hunters are often tempted to regard soaring hawks and eagles as targets of opportunity. Because several species of hawks and owls hunt near roads, many of them are killed or injured by passing traffic. Birds of prey are also especially susceptible to the poisoned baits set out by ranchers for coyotes.
In the first of several wooden pens behind the center's barn are four magnificent bald eagles. "Two of them are gunshot victims," Siddon says, his smile fading for the first time. "That one over there, on the left, injured his wing when he flew into a power line over near Klamath Falls. My theory is that when birds look at wires, they think they're seeing twigs, and they think they can fly right through them. The other bird, back there in the shadows, caught a fish with about 15 feet of monofilament line in its mouth, and he ended up with the line wrapped around his wing, crippling it."