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Abner Gibbs students learn about birds of prey

By Michelle Symington

MetroWest Reminder Assistant Editor

WESTFIELD When Julie Anne Collier began her Birds of Prey program at Abner Gibbs Elementary School last Wednesday morning, she told the young students to make sure they were comfortable and to remain very quiet.

"Birds are scared if people talk or move around," she told the students before taking the first bird out of its box.

Collier, a licensed raptor rehabilitator in Massachusetts, visited the school with birds of prey to teach the students about the animals through Wingmasters.

Wingmasters is a partnership between Collier and Jim Parks, also a licensed raptor rehabilitator. The two are dedicated to increasing public understanding and appreciation of North American Birds of Prey, according to her website (

Collier and Parks take care of injured birds that may be released back into the wild as well as those that are permanently injured. The two are also licensed to take care of and provide a home to birds that are left permanently handicapped.

In addition to providing a home for the handicapped birds, Collier takes them on the road as part of the Wingmasters educational program.

She said she is he only woman in Massachusetts allowed to take eagles to programs.

Students at Abner Gibbs Elementary School had the chance to see a falcon, a hawk, an eagle and two owls up close when Collier visited their school last week.

Before taking out the first bird, Collier told the students that birds of prey have the best eyesight in the world, especially the eagle and the hawk.

"They can see the way you and I see when looking through binoculars," she said.

She also told the young students that owls had the best hearing in the world. She said she could stand outside one end of the school and drop a paperclip and an owl on the other end of the school would be able to hear it hit the ground.

Collier brought five of the 20 birds that live with her at her Springfield home to the program.

She explained that many of the birds she cares for were injured by being hit by a car or by flying into things.

Collier told the students she brought her smallest bird, biggest bird, oldest bird, loudest bird and her most spoiled and favorite bird, which is the only bird that lives inside her house.

She taught the students about the birds' feathers, eyesight, diet, movement and more. She also brought in a variety of Native American items, such as a warrior hat, made with feathers from birds. Collier is part Creek and Chicksaw Indian.

She said the falcon, Massachusett, lives in the house because she is too old, small and frail to live outside.

When Collier told Massachusett she was beautiful, the bird spread her wings. When she told the bird she was ugly, she put her wings back down.

"She loves to be told she is wonderful and beautiful," she said.

The second bird to come out of its box was a Harris hawk named Saguaro.

She said that hawks are designed for soaring and plunging in the air. This particular hawk was hit by a car in Arizona and could no longer take care of itself.

The golden eagle, Lakota, is in the care of Collier because it was shot.

"We don't who did it and we don't know why," she said.

One of Lakota's wings is larger than the other, a result of her injury, according to Collier.

As she was describing the bird, Lakota became upset and wanted to go into her box. Collier explained that she trained the bird to let her know when it needed to poop because an eagle can shoot its feces backward about 10 feet. She placed the bird back into its cage.

The last two birds of the program were both owls.

The saw-whet owl named Chippewa, "chip" for short, was the smallest bird in the program, which quickly drew the attention of the children.

According to Collier, the small owl was hit by a car and because of his injury, it could not latch onto her hand very well.

She explained that owls are camouflage and blend in with trees to hide during the day.

"Owls by day are not asleep," she said. "They hide by day."

She explained that owls come out at night and fly with no sound because their feathers are very soft and fluffy.

And while eagles are the smartest birds, a 10 on a "one-to-10" scale, owls are not smart and would rate a one.

She said that owls are not wise, although they may be portrayed that way in stories.

"In truth, they are not very smart," she said.

After putting Chip back, she took out Netomp, a barred owl.

She explained that the bars on the owl's fur allows it to blend in with the trees to hide.

Collier asked the students to guess the weight of the larger bird. Many students guessed that it weighed over 10 pounds.

The owl actually weighed one pound. Collier said the feathers are very fluffy and make the bird look larger.

Although the students saw a variety of birds, the small saw-whet owl was the group's favorite.

Six-year-old Makayla Keier, said, "I liked the part when the little owl came out because she's cute and small."

Aimee Theroux, 7, said that she liked the small owl because it was "cute and small." However, she also liked the barred owl because it "was fuzzy and was really big, but it only weighed one pound."

She said her guess was that it weighed 10 pounds.

Seven-year-old Marc Cintron said his favorite was "the little bird because it was cute."

His favorite big bird was the eagle because he thought it was funny that it could shoot its poop back 10 feet.

Nicole Lamothe, 6, said she learned a lot and liked seeing the birds up that close. Her favorite was also the little owl.

Although Collier currently lives in Springfield with the birds, she plans to move to Leverett where she will have 7 acres of land. Once she moves, she said she plans to be open to the public.

For more information about Collier and Wingmasters, visit