For the birds

  • Scott Rashid bands a saw-whet owl.

    Michelle Blank
  • Scott Rashid releases a saw-whet owl back to the wild

 

Name Scott Rashid
Age 45
Day Job Chef at Eagle Rock High School in Estes Park, Colo.
Time spent doing bird stuff "How many hours are in a week?"
First date with his wife Going up to Rocky Mountain National Park's tundra to look for ptarmigans.
Other hobbies Aikido

ESTES PARK, COLORADO

Scott Rashid stands in front of his open garage door, a bed-sized crate behind him. "Want to see my new roommate?" he asks eagerly through my car window as I park in his driveway. Through the crate slats, an eagle, three feet tall, with a hooked beak and huge talons, peers back at us with alert, round eyes. "You know what kind of bird it is?" Rashid asks. Looking at its brown head, I venture a guess: "A golden eagle?" "That's the second one you've got wrong," Rashid replies jubilantly. "It's a juvenile bald eagle."

This avian visitor is just the most recent in the stream of birds that find their way into Rashid's house. People in this mountain town turn to Rashid if they hit a bird, find an abandoned nestling, see an owl trapped inside a building, or -- as with this eagle -- observe a bird that seems weak and suffering. "I get calls at 4:00 a.m.," says the tall, slightly gangly, balding Rashid. "I get calls at midnight." His wife of nine years, Susan, is used to all this. Sometimes the roommates take over the house: a marbled godwit in the bathroom, a sharp-shinned hawk in the office.

Rashid doesn't have a degree in ornithology; he makes his living cooking up lunches and teaching at a local high school. Rather, his interest in birds began simply: He enjoyed drawing them. In high school he was "amazed at the agility of birds," compared to his own self-proclaimed clumsiness. In college he pursued an art degree, painting overlapping images of the same bird from multiple angles to serve as a sort of field guide for viewers.

Rashid began bird rehab work in 1994. After a stint as an assistant in Fort Collins, Colo., he was on his own. "You never know what you're going to see," says Rashid, explaining that he's done most of his learning on the job. He now knows to keep birds warm when they are in shock, say, after flying headlong into a window, and he can deftly shift a bird from a smaller cage into a bigger one without touching it. Figuring out the bird's mood is key; Rashid is most effective when he knows if a bird is stressed or hungry or angry. And each bird is different: "One great horned owl may have a different mentality than another great horned owl."

It's satisfying work, he says. "Raising and rehabilitating one Steller's jay or house wren -- for that creature it's everything. It's that bird's entire life."

Rashid's bird obsession goes well beyond his roommates and his artwork, which he now sells to help fund his rehab operation. His latest project is a book on local owl species -- Small Mountain Owls -- which will hit shelves in fall 2009. The idea for the book grew out of a series of birding lectures Rashid gave in the early 1990s. He ran into a wall trying to find published data on pint-sized owls, especially the northern pygmy owl -- so he began to collect his own data, combing aspen groves and mixed forest stands around Estes Park and neighboring Rocky Mountain National Park. In 1998, he found his first pygmy nest. Soon he was also researching boreal owl habits and monitoring the tiny nesting cavities of flammulated owls and northern saw-whet owls.

He's now three years into a saw-whet banding project, gathering more information for his book. He sets mist nets at dusk and leaves a tape recorder playing the owl's call -- a series of whistling toots. Some nights he'll catch and band three of the palm-sized birds, their black pupils contracting in the flashlight beam. Other nights he comes up empty. Rashid welcomes company; he advertises on a local birders' listserv and entertains whoever joins him with an unending stream of avian facts or a game of bird-opoly, a birders' monopoly. His wife, meanwhile, has begun jokingly referring to herself as the owl widow.

But it's not as though she's alone, really. There are always the roommates.

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