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Aztec organization plans birds of prey show in Farmington Wochit, Wochit

Co-founder Mike Fauteaux enjoys way kids respond to birds

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FARMINGTON — At the end of the bird shows he and Raptors Wild cofounder Greg Rabourn regularly stage for community and school groups, Mike Fauteaux often experiences a moment he likes to savor.

"After it's over, we have an area where the birds are put on blocks, and we'll let some of the kids hold a falcon, especially if we see there's a real interest there," the former Aztec police officer said earlier this week. "One of the things I get out of that is not just the look the kids' faces, but the look on the parents' faces."

The experience of having one of those fierce-looking birds of prey perched calmly atop their wrist usually draws an expression of pure delight from a participating child and his or her mother or father. Raptors typically aren't pictured as cuddly, endearing creatures, but by the time Fauteaux and Rabourn have spent approximately an hour showcasing what their highly intelligent and well-trained birds are capable of doing, their appeal is undeniable.

"It makes an impact that can last a lifetime," Fauteaux said. "I know it did on me when I was a young boy."

The "Wings Over the Rockies" wild bird show will be presented at 2 p.m. Sept. 28 at Piñon Hills Community Church, 5101 N. Dustin Ave. in Farmington. Tickets are $16 for those 12 and older, and $10 for children 11 and younger. Visit raptorswild.org.

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Fauteaux and Rabourn will be showing off approximately two dozen raptors during their "Wings Over the Rockies" show this weekend, which will serve as the first public event staged by the men here since they founded their nonprofit organization Raptors Wild in Aztec last year.

They presented several dozen shows throughout the summer in Durango, Colorado, where Fauteaux grew up, but this will be the first chance many Farmington-area residents have had to see what the organization has to offer.

If a demonstration offered by Fauteaux at his Aztec home earlier this week is any indication, no one in attendance this weekend is likely to leave disappointed. His birds — which include various species of owls, falcons and hawks — are impressive physical specimens, nearly all of them characterized by beautiful plumage and intense, piercing eyes that seem to miss no detail, no matter how small.

The men, both longtime veterans of falconry, founded the organization to educate the public about the birds and to promote their conservation. He loves to relate the story of the peregrine falcon, a bird that was nearly wiped out by DDT and wound up on the federal endangered species list in 1970 before rebounding spectacularly.

"Now, they're more common than they ever were before they started to decline," Fauteaux said, explaining that he likes to cite the birds' resurgence as a hopeful example. "When an animal goes on the endangered species list, it is possible to through our intervention to bring them back to where they were."

One example of the species, a young male named Shadow, is among the birds Fauteaux keeps at his home in an Aztec subdivision. The peregrine is nursing a wing injury, but he appeared well on his way to recovery when Fauteaux lifted him from his block and displayed him for a visitor.

Many of the birds obtained by Fauteaux and Rabourn, who lives in Rio Rancho, are rescued from breeders. Some of the birds have reached the end of their breeding life and are viewed as expendable, while others are young birds that were targeted for sale but developed some flaw — either an injury or a cosmetic issue — that precluded that.

Fauteaux recently welcomed two young hybrid falcons from a breeder, one of which had a small, almost unnoticeable flaw in his head feathers, and another that had flown into a patio window and suffered a concussion. The latter, the aptly named Crash, was left paralyzed on his right side by the injury. But under Fauteaux's care, he has rallied nicely and regained the use of his right wing. He is expected to make a full recovery.

The star of the show, Fauteaux said, is Spooky, his Eurasian eagle owl, a native of Russia. Her species is the largest in the owl family, and Spooky has a commanding presence marked by enormous, luminous yellow eyes.

It is quickly apparent to a visitor that Fauteaux cares deeply for his birds, and the hurt caused by the recent death of three of them who fell victim to the West Nile virus was evident on his face when he talked about them.

But when he attached Crash to a lightweight cord called a creance in a nearby parking lot and encouraged him to test his strengthening right wing, Fauteaux allowed himself a smile of pride and accomplishment when the young bird, after some initial hesitation, responded by winging its way to Fauteaux's gloved left hand, where the body of a tasty quail waited as a reward. Crash quickly devoured the quail — bones, feathers, innards and all.

Observing moments like that are Fauteaux's reward for the time and effort he devotes to the birds. The process for founding the nonprofit organization was a complicated one, Fauteaux said, describing the numerous permits he and Rabourn had to obtain from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Every bird received by the organization has to be certified as unreleasable in the wild, and one of the group's primary missions, Fauteaux said, is to offer such birds a new lease on life.

While he knows better than to ascribe human emotions or characteristics to wild creatures, Fauteaux said some of the birds he has handled over the years have seemed to have their confidence bolstered by the care and coaching he has provided to them.

In fact, the birds are so well trained and disciplined, some of the shows conducted by Raptors Wild are staged indoors, as will be the case this weekend. Fauteaux positions the birds in closed boxes at the back of the venue, then introduces them to the audience by clicking a remote-control device that opens the doors. The birds fly out of the boxes, sometimes just inches over the heads of unsuspecting crowd members.

Fauteaux said the presentations emphasize education from start to finish, but he really enjoys he question-and-answer session that marks the end of the show.

"Kids come up with some of the best questions … especially little kids because they don't have a filter for what's a good question and a bad question," he said. "So they just ask everything, and some of them are awesome questions."

Fauteaux hopes to be able to present the shows for free in the future, but the costs of caring for the birds and the travel costs associated with the presentations don't allow that now. He is working to obtain foundations grants that will offset those costs, and he said anyone interested in volunteering to write those grant proposals for Raptors Wild would be welcome to do so.

The organization is limited in how much of a hands-on experience it can offer for volunteers, he said.

"We're not allowed to have anyone handle the birds," he said. "And there's not that much to take care of. But I am looking for a couple of apprentice falconers. There are a lot of different ways people can volunteer to help."

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610, or via email at measterling@daily-times.com.

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