Patti Reynolds from the Indiana Raptor Center stood before the crowd at the Keep Brown County Beautiful kickoff ceremony April 26 with a barred owl on her arm.
“This is a resident of Brown County,” Reynolds said, introducing “Elmo.”
The heavily forested environment of Brown County is a perfect habitat for the barred owl as well as many other raptors.
With a single mouse able to do about $25 a year in damage to farm crops, keeping an entire nest of raptors alive can translate into about $175 in crops saved every day.
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Even the smaller raptors, such as kestrel hawks, need to capture seven mice a day to feed their family, Reynolds said.
However, roadside litter that some may think of as harmless — such as apple cores and leftover bits of fast food — is actually a danger to Brown County’s owls and hawks.
“When I was a kid, you know, you’re supposed to throw your apple core out the window because some little animal was going to eat it,” Reynolds said.
Those little animals are what the raptors eat.
“These guys never know where their next meal’s coming from, so the easier it is to catch prey, the more likely they are to go for it, and that’s how they get hit by cars,” Reynolds said.
“They get killed. They get maimed. Sometimes they come in in such bad shape that they have to be euthanized immediately,” Reynolds said.
“Sometimes we can save them. We have about 55 percent survival rate, which is above the national average.”
It’s not just one raptor lost when a car hits one of these birds, Reynolds said.
Usually the male hunts and the female stays with the nest, unable to leave the eggs at all.
If the hunting male is killed or otherwise kept from returning to the nest, the entire nest of raptors will die, she said.
The female will starve to death sitting on the eggs, waiting for her mate’s return, and the eggs will never hatch.
“If you lose a family of barred owls, that’s five owls,” Reynolds said.
“We’re shooting ourselves in the foot by not controlling the litter by the side of the road that attracts the mice that kills the owls and the hawks,” Reynolds said.
“Because they’re the ones that, for free, are protecting our food supply, and so it’s really important, not just for people — not just for the tourists.”
Litter on the roadside isn’t the only threat people present indirectly to Indiana’s wildlife, Reynolds said.She told the story of a bald eagle, one of the first that was re-introduced to the Lake Monroe area in 1987.
“She came in as a patient, very, very ill, and she died,” she said.
Reynolds described the eagle’s heart during the autopsy as looking like a cooked hotdog and the entire interior of the bird smelled like carpet cleaner.
It was determined the eagle had eaten fish that had absorbed a chemical used to denature the end product of methamphetamine production.
Criminals will add the chemical to the remains from producing the drug, and then dump it all into creeks, lakes and rivers. If it kills the affected fish, eagles still eat carrion, so they’re still ingesting it, Reynolds said.
“So if you know someone is dumping, or you’re out picking up trash and see soda bottles with funny-looking liquid in them, call the police. Let them know what’s going on,” Reynolds said.
Information to help identify drug paraphernalia among trash is one of the many things Keep America Beautiful — of which Keep Brown County Beautiful is now an affiliate — can provide, said Sue Smith, an education director with KAB.
Education — starting with outreach programs in the schools — is one of the greatest tools for dealing with trash problems, she said.
Phil Stephens, director of the Brown County Solid Waste District, said Brown County continues to have a serious problem with roadside waste and illegal dumps.
The trash one person leaves encourages others to leave theirs there too, he said.
Garbage even ends up in Brown County Solid Waste District recycling bins, he said — in 2015, 7 tons of it, including broken toys, drywall pieces lumber and bricks.
In addition to education, vigilance is key.
The district and county officials are working on greater enforcement of local dumping ordinances, and possibly writing new ordinances to address trash piles on private property, he said.
To learn more about Keep Brown County Beautiful, email keepBCB@gmail.com.
To find out how to properly dispose of anything from household waste to appliances, visit browncountyrecycles.org or call 812-988-0140.
To learn more about Indiana’s birds of prey and how to help with their protection and rehabilitation, visit indianaraptorcenter.com or call 812-988-8990.