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Birds of prey are like the rock stars of wildlife.
People love to be around them and act kind of awe-struck when they see them up close and personal.
That was certainly the case Saturday afternoon at the first Birds of Prey Day at the Marin Art & Garden Center in Ross.
"Raptors are cool," Allen Fish, director of the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory, told an audience of more than 100 hawk enthusiasts at the unusual event, a fundraiser for the Hungry Owl Project Raptor Rescue program.
Because 30,000 hawks pass through Marin during their annual fall migration and 19 species make the county their permanent home, Fish said Marin has earned the title of "raptor Wonderland."
And, for raptor fans, Saturday's event was like being in hawk
Staring wide-eyed at a rare merlin falcon perched regally on her keeper's gloved wrist, John Lennon, a 56-year-old Ross gardener, was obviously thrilled to be within a foot or two of a bird of prey so swift as to be virtually invisible in flight.
"I've never seen one up close like this before," he said, beaming. "In the wild they fly so fast that you can't focus on them. But to see one up close is fantastic."
All around the Garden Center patio, hawk handlers were showing birds, called "wildlife ambassadors," that the average person never sees so close up without being in a cage.
Mela Brasset of the Bird Rescue Center in Santa Rosa held a majestic red-tailed hawk on her leather-clad wrist as the 4-year-old raptor spread her wings in the afternoon heat. The hawk was stolen out of her nest when she was a juvenile, never learned to hunt and would starve in the wild.
"We take these hawks around to schools as part of our education program," Brasset said, "but the turkey vultures are always the favorites because they inevitably poop and barf. Kids love that."
Falconers showed their birds and prepared them for demonstration flights. Other handlers, including volunteers from Wildcare in San Rafael, showed a peregrine falcon, a one-eyed Swainson hawk, a Harris hawk and a little American kestrel named Kimosabe.
"The kestrel is the world's most perfect hawk," the Raptor Observatory's Allen Fish said. "It's so aggressive that if it were bigger, it would probably kill us all."
Instead, humans are the ones doing the killing of kestrels and other birds of prey, Fish was quick to point out, noting that American kestrels are disappearing at the rate of 4 to 5 percent a year, and are at their lowest population in 20 years.
Red-tailed hawks may be common in Marin, but "two out of three of them won't see their first birthday," Fish said, adding that the first-year mortality rate for raptors is 50 to 70 percent.
The birds are vulnerable to poison, disease, natural predators, climate change, loss of habitat and electrocution from power lines.
After a hawk was electrocuted, caught fire and fell to the ground, igniting a blaze in a Sonoma county vineyard last year, Windsor Vineyards produced the appropriately named Burning Hawk wine. Ten percent of each sale through May 29 will go to avian protection projects, said Wildcare spokeswoman Maggie Rufo.
The Hungry Owl Project, a Wildcare program, is trying to encourage beneficial predators, such as barn owls, to reduce the need for harmful pesticides and poisons to kill rodents, a large part of the raptors diet. One way they are doing that is by building and distributing nest boxes for owls and other birds.
At Saturday's event, Bob Holt, woodshop teacher at San Rafael High, said he and his students have built more than 300 nest boxes for Wildcare.
"The American kestrel is our smallest local falcon, and we can use the boxes to give them a safe place to nest," said Alex Godbe, founder of the Hungry Owl Project. "One of our goals is to protect all beneficial predators."
After listening to the presentation by the Raptor Observatory, Birgitta Akesson, a Novato nurse, said, "I didn't know that we have such a large variety of raptors. I knew they were endangered, but not to this degree."
HOW TO HELP
For information on nest boxes and other raptor rescue programs, go to www.hungryowl.org.
Paul Liberatore can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org