Raptor Rehab serves the entire state of Missouri, although sometimes with other agencies to move more quickly in emergency situations. Many of their patients, however, do come from the Lake of the Ozarks, especially Camden County.

Birds are beloved to the nature-lovers of Lake of the Ozarks, and maybe none more so than the bald eagles that can often be seen soaring above the water as they hunt for their next meal.

You know it’s popular when there is a whole Facebook page devoted to Lake of the Ozarks Eagles after all.

So many in the tri-county and beyond were concerned when Elsie, the female star of the page, was injured during a storm in late May 2017, fracturing a wing.

Enter the folks of the Raptor Rehabilitation Project of the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Missouri-Columbia. 

The largely volunteer program supported mainly by community donations treats raptors from eagles, owls and hawks to osprey, falcons and vultures. They also help specialty waterfowl such as pelicans, swan, herons and egrets. Raptor Rehab sees anywhere from 100 to 120 birds each year.

Elsie the Eagle has been recuperating and rehabilitating at the Columbia facility and recently regained the ability to fly. Her caretakers are hopeful that she will soon be able to be released back into the wild of Lake of the Ozarks.

According to Abigail Rainwater, manager of Raptor Rehab, the next month will tell what Elsie’s future might be. Regardless though, Elsie will have a good home. 

As long as the birds they help are not suffering, the Raptor program finds a home for them even if they cannot go back to the wild. The birds are trained as educational ambassadors for raptors and are homed with a suitable agency or facility. The Raptor Rehab Project itself has seven permanent residents who fulfill this need for them. Educational presentations are also part of their services.

Elsie is striking a good balance of resting her still-healing wing and exercising it to slowly regain strength, says Rainwater, but only time will tell.

Raptor Rehab serves the entire state of Missouri, although sometimes with other agencies to move more quickly in emergency situations. Many of their patients, however, do come from the Lake of the Ozarks, especially Camden County.

According to Rainwater, the lake itself with its plentiful stock of food in the form of fish is a draw not just for tourists but also birds of prey. So with a large population of raptors, it makes sense that more are found injured here.

Birds come to the facility through the work of the community, project volunteers and Missouri Conservation agents. If anyone sees an injured raptor, they can call the veterinary hospital’s emergency hotline. The Raptor Rehab Project has trained volunteers that will come out to safely capture the bird, or coordinate with another trained rehabber to do so if it is a few hours away from Columbia, says Rainwater.

In the past year, the program has successfully rehabilitated 19 big birds from the Lake of the Ozarks tri-county area with hopes that Elsie will soon become number 20. Luther the Pelican and Jayne the Red-Tailed Hawk are among the successful rehab graduates this year along with screech owls, barred owls, a red-shouldered hawk and a cooper’s hawk.

When birds successfully complete rehab, they are released into the wild in their home turf — or better said, home skies. That way, says Rainwater, they don’t go to a place that is oversaturated with other raptors.

At any given time, Raptor Rehab has an average of 12 birds — sometimes higher during the migration season, sometimes lower in the heat of summer — at its Columbia facility from birds in ICU and trauma immediate trauma care to those undergoing the true rehabilitation portion with flight training to make sure they are fully prepared for life in the wild. Many of these are migratory so they have to be able to fly hundreds if not thousands of miles.

Every raptor legally has 180 days that it can be cared for in the program with the possibility for an extension of another 180 days, according to Rainwater.

Most are able to be released in the first 180 days, but Elsie has needed about all of that in her recovery journey. 

Either way, she has been part of a community effort to care for these magnificent animals. Nearly 100 volunteers work with the program to bring in hurt birds and do their best to help them heal. 

The growing project has almost doubled in size in the last five years thanks to the increased interest in the project which actually started in the late 1960s, according to Rainwater. Volunteering with Raptor Rehab provides a unique experience to work with really beautiful and incredible species, she says, appreciative of how much they do for this program.

While getting a degree in animal management, Rainwater started out as a volunteer as well before becoming program manager. 

“I became hooked. I loved the daily care of the raptors, watching them heal, watching them rehabilitate and even watching them fly away knowing they’re going to ok out there,” she says.

To call in to get help for a hurt raptor or large waterfowl, to volunteer with the project or to make a donation, call 573-882-7821.