SANDPOINT — Homeschool Academy students made some new friends Friday — Cleo, Madeline, Rusty, Pennington and Dakota.
Those are just a few of the words uttered by students and their parents after meeting the five birds of prey, which were introduced to them by Raptor Biologist Janie Veltkamp and her husband Don from Birds of Prey Northwest.
"I liked the golden eagle," said 7-year-old Waylen Scott, adding the most important thing about the golden eagle was probably its talons. "They can grab fish with them and they can make nests."
While the majority of the children were impressed with the large golden eagle, Waylen's brother, 9-year-old Wyatt, said his favorite was the peregrine falcon.
"I like it because it can go 200 miles an hour," Wyatt said. "I think that is faster than people skydive out of planes — it's really amazing."
Homeschool Academy teacher Melinda Rossman was also impressed by all the birds, but Pennington in particular.
"My whole life I have been interested in birds, and today I was emotionally moved," Rossman said. "There was a couple of time I had tears in my eyes, like with that peregrine falcon."
Veltkamp first told the students to remember the birds are not pets — they are still wild animals in Veltkamp's care on special U.S. Fish and Wildlife permits.
The birds were introduced from smallest to largest, beginning with the four-ounce American kestrel.
Cleo's injury that landed her in a lifetime of care by humans is not a physical one, Veltkamp explained. She was picked up by humans as a baby.
"They thought they were helping her," Veltkamp said. "They took her into their house and began to feed the bird."
It was an important lesson of the day for the students as Veltkamp told them, "don't ever do that." The bird believes food comes from humans, so she never learned to hunt. It is OK to help a bird on the ground that is injured, she said, and to call someone like her who can help the bird.
After describing kestrel qualities, such as they hover like hummingbirds and do not build nests — although they are happy to take over a kestrel box if someone wants to put one out — Madeline the Merlin was brought out to meet the class. A merlin is a member of the falcon family, and Madeline was found near death in the middle of the road as a baby. She was also taken in and fed by humans, which Veltkamp described as "imprinted."
Some of the kids were visibly sad, looking at Rusty the Red-Tailed Hawk in anguish when they learned he fell 100 feet as a baby when he was swept from his nest in a windstorm. Rusty was blind in one eye and had two broken wings. Now, at about a year old, Rusty's wings are repaired and he showed them off to the kids by spreading them out as far as he could. The kids were also impressed to learn that, although he is still blind in one eye, he can spot a mouse nearly a mile away.
But the kids were, by far, most impressed by Pennington the Peregrine Falcon and Dakota the Golden Eagle. Peregrine falcons were endangered and there was once less than 20 pairs left because DDT, a chemical used to kill bugs, was killing birds as well, Veltkamp said. That chemical has since been banned, and a reintroduction project ensued to boost the population by bringing in chicks and raising them on top of skyscrapers until they were ready for release.
"The world would have been a much sadder place if we lost this mighty bird," Veltkamp said. "Isn't she stunning?"
As Wyatt pointed out, the kids were also impressed by the fact that she could dive at over 200 miles per hour.
Dakota the Golden Eagle also fell from his nest at a young age and was imprinted by humans after spending time at a vet and rehabilitation center. All of the birds that have been imprinted at Birds of Prey Northwest are trained as educational birds for purposes such as classroom presentations.
The kids asked questions that impressed Veltkamp, such as whether or not raptors have a good sense of smell. As it turns out, they don't need smell at all because they use their eyes to see their prey, their talons to catch their prey, and sharp, hooked beaks to eat their prey. Their lack of smell is one reason, Veltkamp said, why they will take in babies that are not their own or have been returned to the nest.
"In the wild, do some people shoot the birds?" asked one student as Rusty was being put away.
"Yes they do and it's against the law, and that's why we teach kids not to shoot hawks," Veltkamp said. "The hawk is your friend and you never want to shoot it ... that is an excellent question."
Several parents, like Chelsea Pomerinke and Wyatt and Waylen's aunt, Rikki Smith, were impressed with the birds.
Pomerinke, who was there with her son, 11-year-old Gideon, said she has had experience with the Veltkamps’ in the past when she found an injured red-tailed hawk on the highway and said they were "amazing" and very helpful. Sadly, Pomerinke said, the hawk didn't make it.
Pomerinke also said the Homeschool Academy and Rossman has been a blessing for her son. She said her son did not fit into a traditional school setting, fitting in socially but not educationally. This is Gideon’s first year in homeschool and she said Rossman is helping him greatly through her patience and personalizing the experience for him.
"It's her attitude and what she brings to the table," Pomerinke said. "It takes an incredible person to take all these different children and all these levels and make it work."
Smith's daughter attends the academy and Smith said last year was a struggle with teaching Kira, but the social aspect of the academy has helped because the 6-year-old wants to show everyone in the program what she is learning.
"Just being around all the other kids, and Melinda is fantastic," Smith said.
This is the first year of the Homeschool Academy, which provides supplemental education for grades K-8 and is focused on environmental learning for homeschool students in the Lake Pend Oreille School District.
The number of students has nearly doubled in size over the first six weeks of the program. Rossman is up to 30 students, about a third of the way to her goal of 100 by the end of the year.
An extra day was recently added for more academic support, so the academy now runs Tuesday through Friday and an assistant was hired to help Rossman part-time.
"My door is always open for input, for networking, to make this program one of the best in the world," Rossman said.