Last August an exhausted peregrine falcon crashed onto the deck of a cargo ship in the mid-Atlantic, 1,000 miles off the coast of Scotland. Crew members kept it alive by catching small seabirds to feed it. When the ship docked at Perth Amboy, N.J., the crew contacted the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which passed the falcon on to a New Jersey bird rehabilitator named Len Soucy.
As it turned out, the falcon had been banded and could subsequently be traced to the Canadian Fish and Wildlife facility in Edmonton, Alberta, where it had been bred before being moved to Algonquin Provincial Park. Released a month later, it embarked on its first migratory journey to South America, when, Soucy speculates, Hurricane Bob blew the inexperienced bird way off course. Soucy held the falcon in one of his 60 "aviary chambers," then released the bird when it had regained enough strength to resume its travels.
The falcon is but one of thousands of birds—ranging from songbirds to eagles—that Soucy has nursed back to health in his backyard refuge. "Altogether, I have 85,000 cubic feet of flying room," says Soucy of his Millington, N.J. facility. "My biggest chamber is 64 feet by 16 feet, and 14 feet high. Four eagles can fly around it without ever colliding."
A bearded 6-footer in his mid-50s, Soucy is a tool and die maker, who has worked at his trade since he was 16. He describes his involvement with birds as an avocation, which judging by the sheer number of guests that he logs in and out of his sanctuary—nearly 1,100 last year—has assumed epic proportions.
Throughout his rambling, two-story house in rural Millington, egg timers and alarm clocks go off in dizzying succession, indicating the feeding times of his many guests. "Last spring we raised over 500 nestlings," says Soucy, "all of which had to be fed from one to three times an hour." As a licensed volunteer, Soucy takes in illegally captured birds that have been confiscated by the Fish and Wildlife Service, and as a "resource person" for the National Audubon Society, he cares for injured birds found in the area. He treats most of them himself, relying on local veterinarians in cases requiring X rays or surgery.
Soucy's interest in birds began when his wife, Diane, bought a bird feeder 30 years ago. "I was curious about the birds we were seeing, so I bought a bird book," he says. Not content merely to identify birds, Soucy, who describes himself as "something of an extremist," became a bird bander. But it was a trip to Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in Kempton, Pa. that aroused his interest in raptors, particularly eagles, hawks, falcons and owls.
"Until the '70s, raptors were unprotected by law," he says. "At one time there was even a bounty on them." Soucy's initiation into bird rehabilitation occurred in 1966 when someone left a cardboard box containing a wounded red-tailed hawk on his front porch.
"It had been shot," Soucy says. With the help of a local vet, the bird's injury was diagnosed in Soucy's kitchen. The hawk was then taken to the vet's office, where its broken wing was mended in a delicate operation that involved the pinning of fractured bones.
Soucy has since become both a master bird bander—there are some 2,500 in the U.S.—and a self-taught master rehabilitator. He read veterinary journals and studied anatomy and morphology, and developed such expertise in caring for birds—especially raptors—that he was the person the Department of the Interior called when it recently found itself with 25 stolen and confiscated European goshawks.
Somewhat hawklike in appearance himself, Soucy might seem intimidating except for a lighthearted manner. But on the subject of raptors he is serious and often eloquent. In part, his dedication stems from a conviction that predators are frequently maligned. "Cruelty's a human concept," he says. "There's a biological premise for every living creature." Soucy's imagination is fired by the finely honed survival skills of raptors. For example, he is fascinated by the ability of hawks to fly hundreds of miles without stopping, often feeding on the wing. And his language borders on the poetic when he describes an eagle as "a vision of man's spirit soaring."
In 1985 seven species of owls and 14 species of hawks (eagles and falcons are classified as hawks, too) were logged in and out of the Millington sanctuary. There are also some 50 permanent residents—permanent because the birds are incapable, for various reasons, of survival in the wild. Many of them serve as foster parents to the orphaned nestlings Soucy takes in. One great horned owl—a 20-year-old female who was raised in a zoo—lays and sits on her unfertilized eggs every year until Soucy whisks them away, replacing them with orphaned owlets. This spring she is raising an unnaturally large brood of 19.
With the aim of releasing every bird he takes in, Soucy goes to great lengths to keep his patients from becoming dependent on humans—or dangerously trustful. "I do everything I can to avoid human imprinting," he says. As many nestlings as possible are raised by avian foster parents, and food is surreptitiously slipped into aviaries through portholes. Owls often are fed live mice, which they catch themselves. When birds are strong enough to make it on their own, they're released into their natural habitat.
Four years ago the mounting pressures of financing and running what Soucy says had become "the biggest backyard refuge in the country" impelled him to form a nonprofit organization, The Raptor Trust. Now, in addition to rehabilitating an increasing number of birds, he develops educational programs for schools, publishes pamphlets and conducts tours of his sanctuary.
"It consumes my life," says Soucy. He still works as a tool and die maker, and although Diane helps run the refuge, along with a crew of about 20 volunteers, the birds demand more money and time than is available.
The refuge houses an average of 250 birds, including, last fall, an incapacitated loon with a voracious appetite for smelts—$5 worth a day. Diane is certain the people at the local market began to look at her funny because she kept dashing in for more. "I didn't know whether I should explain that I hadn't suddenly developed a wild yen for smelts," she says, "but that I was buying them for a loon."
Soucy's home sometimes resembles a frenzied hospital ward. But there are rewards: Thousands of birds have been successfully rehabilitated and released; visitors enjoy locking gazes with an owl or standing within a few feet of a golden eagle. Even some of the birds find ways of expressing their appreciation: Most years the great horned owl—the prodigious foster mother—lays her eggs precisely on Len Soucy's birthday.
Katharine Merlin is a free-lance writer who lives in Maplewood, N.J.