“Nature always finds you,” a friend once told me.
I was living in the thick of suburbia at the time, but a family of barn swallows had taken up residence on my balcony, I had been working for weeks to gain the trust of a white fancy mouse that I’d rescued from a busy parking lot, and just that morning, a Mexican free-tailed bat had decided to sleep the day away above my front door.
Growing up in rural Texas, I was always surrounded by animals, wild and domestic. If my family wasn’t taking in stray pets or birdwatching for red-tailed hawks, we were bottle-feeding orphaned cows or warming half-drowned cottontails after heavy spring rains. One year, we even rescued and raised a raccoon kit whose nest had been invaded by fire ants.
In my youth, working with animals taught me to respect life in all its forms and allowed me to connect to that beautiful sense of wonder and discovery that children carry. Now, rehabilitating ailing birds and mammals with Ed Sones of Cedar Park has taught me something else: In their own wild way, the animals are taking care of me as much as I’m helping them.
I began volunteering with Ed after a significant personal trauma left me feeling bitter and lonely. My trust in people shattered, I mistakenly assumed that working with animals would allow me to distance myself from my pain. Instead, on day one, playtime with an orphaned fox named Remy turned into a therapeutic cuddle session, and I couldn’t help but let down some of my defenses.
Since that day, staring into the uncompromising eyes of great horned owls has forced me to confront my fears and regain my confidence. Being accepted into the Sones’ home and life has reminded me that building friendships with good people is not only wise, but necessary.
But most of all, releasing once-broken birds—watching them soar over the tree line and out of sight, brave and powerful and capable once more—has given me hope that my own wounds will heal.
May nature always find me.
Volunteers feed wild white-tailed deer every morning and evening. If left to wait for too long, brave does will come calling at Ed Sones’ front door.
Most of the does are too timid to approach volunteers, but slow movements and soft speech can often coax hungry regulars to eat right out of the bucket.
Volunteers’ daily chores include feeding the animals. Since Ed specializes in raptor rehabilitation, this means doling out thawed rodents and prey birds.
Ahni, Ed’s dog, enthusiastically makes the rounds with volunteers and often licks baby mammals’ faces and fur to clean them up after feedings.
Three skunk kits forsake their chicken legs and dog food to explore my boots.
Foxes are notoriously elusive in the wild, but pups raised by rehabilitators often bond to specific volunteers while remaining suspicious of strangers. Here, a gray fox that we called Remy licks my hand.
Special treats like cottage cheese and marshmallows raise the morale of this lonely raccoon. He was rejected by his litter as a kit but is still too young to be released.
Ariel, an Eastern screech owl and Ed’s resident education bird, enjoys having the sensitive feathers around her beak tickled.
Ed and volunteer Alex Brown extract defensive Cooper’s hawk 15691 from his enclosure for a flight test. If he passes, Ed will release him immediately to keep him from breaking feathers in captivity.
Ed and Alex work out of the back of the rehabilitation van to jess Stinky, a great horned owl, for its flight test at Southwest Williamson County Regional Park. Stinky was sprayed by a skunk during a failed hunting attempt, which can stun owls for weeks, but Ed suspects that the owl might have a wing injury as well.
Volunteer Paige Daye prepares to fly Stinky on 150-pound kite string using Ed’s tethered central point system.
Paige flies Stinky at Southwest Williamson County Regional Park.
Paige holds Stinky after several weak flight attempts. Since this owl is alert, he is likely suffering from a wing injury as opposed to head trauma.
Ed and Alex attach jesses to the feet of Cooper’s hawk 15691 at Southwest Williamson County Regional Park. The falconry hood helps to keep the otherwise hyperactive bird calm.
Paige and Ed test the flight strength of broad-winged hawk 15763 at Southwest Williamson County Regional Park.
After a successful flight, Paige and Ed retrieve broad-winged hawk 15763 and return to the launching strip for a second run.
Paige flies broad-winged hawk 15763 at Southwest Williamson County Regional Park.
Paige holds broad-winged hawk 15763 after a strong flight test at Southwest Williamson County Regional Park. The verdict? He is definitely ready for release.
Ed and Paige work together to detach broad-winged hawk 15763’s talons from Paige’s gloves. Raptors’ first line of defense is their powerful feet.
Ed thoroughly examines the wings of Stinky after his poor flight performance, feeling for tendon impairment, broken bones, and other injuries that are concealed by the owl’s thick plumage.
Ed diagnoses Stinky with a wing strain and immobilizes the wing using medical tape, which causes minimal feather damage.
Ed examines broken flight feathers on Cooper’s hawk 15691. He performed well on his flight test but would still benefit from several new feathers before release.
Ed and Alex imp in new flight feathers on Cooper’s hawk 15691. Imping is an ancient practice that involves replacing severely damaged flight feathers with functional feathers harvested from cadaver birds of the same species.
Alex prepares to release Cooper’s hawk 15691 after a successful imping.
Alex sets Cooper’s hawk 15691 free with brand new feathers.