DECATUR — Since last summer, when people have seen the activity going on at the Illinois Raptor Center, program director Jacques Nuzzo has affected ignorance.
“It’s been really interesting the last few months. People pull up here, and they go, ‘What are you doing back there?’ and we go, ‘Nothing,’ ” he said with a chuckle.
That’s because the center was not ready to reveal its plans or the source of the funding until Friday, when Ameren Illinois formally presented the center with a check for $50,000 to upgrade the mews, adding 36 new enclosures that will house the residential birds, freeing up all 30 of the existing mews for birds brought to the center for rehabilitation.
“We’ve been involved in this project for quite some time,” he said. “We didn’t want to talk about this project until we had this all set up and could get together with Ameren and thank them properly.”
The project will also include extensive upgrades to the hospital building, landscaping around the new mews, and provides the center with the capacity necessary to help many, many more birds, Nuzzo said.
Ameren Illinois CEO and President Richard Mark said Ameren is committed to making its equipment safer for wildlife, and that changes toward that goal include 8-foot horizontal poles to replace the 6-foot poles, so that large birds can spread their wings without touching both sides and being electrocuted. New insulators on 1,400 poles protect flying birds from injury, and equipment on and bordering the raptor center is entirely avian-friendly.
Companies do have regulations they’re required to follow, Mark said, and Ameren does, but many of the infrastructure changes were made specifically to protect wildlife.
“When we hear about an eagle being killed, it upsets us and makes us sick to our stomachs,” Mark said. “It’s like, what can we do to make sure this never happens? We want to protect these beautiful animals.”
Ron Pate, vice president of operations and technical services for Ameren, said the company has worked with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to develop a comprehensive raptor protection program and the contribution to the Illinois Raptor Center was part of that effort.
Nuzzo said plans are still being made, but among them are species-specific flight cages, and possibly limited tours of the center for the public.
Also attending the news conference were Solo, a female red-tailed hawk and Octavius, a male barred owl. Both are permanent residents of the center and often appear in educational programs. Mark referred to them as “the real stars here today.”
Executive Director Jane Seitz urged Nuzzo to coax Octavius to “talk.” Nuzzo leaned close and softly hooted to the owl, and Octavius hooted back.
“Loosely translated, that means, ‘Thank you, Richard,’” Nuzzo said.