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In My Backyard / Higher Ground Raptors

Injured raptors have a true friend in Peggy McDonald, who nurses them back to health in her purpose-built Fitzroy Falls rehab centre.

It’s a measure of Peggy McDonald’s dedication to her life’s work, running Higher Ground Raptors, that when she started looking for a patron, she wrote to Sir David Attenborough.

“I wrote how much I admired him and what a wonderful advocate he has been for our environment and the animals in it and would he consider being our patron please,” says Peggy, from her Higher Ground Raptor headquarters at Fitzroy Falls.

“I’m not sure if I expected him to reply really but one day not long after, I received an airmail letter. He said that while he loved what we are doing and how important our work is, he sadly must decline given his many other commitments and the distance.

“He did, however, give me some very helpful pointers so I am currently on the lookout. I’ll find the right person in time.”

Anyone who knows Peg doesn’t doubt that for a moment. Made a Churchill Fellow in 2017, she is a respected authority in Australia on the rehabilitation of raptors, our predators of the skies. She has nursed and rehabilitated more than 1000 of the birds. For the  fellowship, Peggy travelled to the US, the UK, the United Arab Emirates, Canada and South Africa to learn more about raptor rehab. At Fitzroy Falls, eagles, kestrels, falcons, kites, goshawks and owls come to her hit by cars, shot by farmers, injured by flying into windows or caught in barbed wire. Her first was 30 years ago.

“It was when I had that bird in care that I realised what bright and sensitive creatures birds are, and none more so than our raptors,’ says Peggy.

“They have amazing intelligence and are an absolute joy to look after.”

Higher Ground Raptors, the rehabilitation and education campus of Australian Raptor Care and Conservation Inc, sits at the end of a quiet country road. Hundreds of sick and injured raptors are bought each year to the facility, which is also a research and training facility for vet students.

“I did my first internship at the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital in 2012 and it was at that point I realised we really could and should be doing better for these birds when they come into our care,” says Peggy.

The result is the Peter Spitzer Aviary, the biggest raptor rehabilitation facility of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere. It was named after the late local doctorand founder of Clown Doctors, who died in 2014. He was a dear friend.

“This aviary allows the bird continual flight rather than just going back and forth or perch to perch like typical rectangular aviaries that are standard in Australia,’ says Peggy.

‘It contains a central pavilion that stops the birds from seeing an end point when they are flying, particularly the faster flying birds. It allows them to do what they need to do and allows them to recover at their own pace.

“Once I can see them performing naturally and well, then those birds are released with hopefully the best chance to survive back out in the wild again.”

Peggy is currently raising funds for an education centre she hopes to build at Fitzroy Falls. She works with her governing body, NSW National Parks and Wildlife, to implement her Churchill findings, which include the necessity for pre-release conditioning appropriate to species.

“According to the leaders in the field, raptors are an umbrella species, which basically means if there are no raptors there is not a good biodiversity,” says Peggy.

“Probably a third of our raptor species are now listed, which means they are in trouble and they are in trouble all over the place. Even our beautiful white bellied sea eagles became listed as vulnerable in NSW just a few years ago.”

Largely self-funded for many years, Peggy has also been assisted by Wingecarribee Shire Council and several charities. She plans to devise an extensive training program and online manual to assist other raptor carers.

It’s time now in Australia to embrace the knowledge we have and start doing the very best by these birds. Places like the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital and the Minnesota Raptor Centre at the University of Minnesota in the US have vets on board. It’s a whole raptor rehab centre.

“They have learnt over decades what works and what doesn’t work, and we don’t have that here. My perfect dream would be that this would all turn into that one day.”


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