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Photos by Christine Florada
Petersburgh, NY Down a dirt-caked country road about eight miles from the Massachusetts-New York border, where only a bent street sign tells you it’s Red Pond Road, Peter Dubacher has taken his family’s 20 acres and built, over the course of 33 years, a convalescent home for his flying friends. It’s here where Dubacher, his wife, Betty Ann, and daughter Elizabeth have taken in and cared for more than 1,500 birds, representing more than 100 species, that have either been injured in the wild or are unwanted by their owners.
Tomorrow, the Dubachers’ Berkshire Bird Paradise & Botanical Garden will be minus two birds .Through a program sponsored by Vermont and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, two baby bald eagles born at the family’s sanctuary eight weeks ago will be taken to Lake Champlain near the Canadian border and introduced into the wild.
For Dubacher, 57, it won’t be a bittersweet day. He says it’s an accomplishment that, outside of his family, is one of the things he’s most proud of. “To have my baby bald eagles picked for this program is outstanding,” Dubacher said.
He says it’s rare for two disabled bald eagles parents in captivity to bear healthy offspring. Mom – her name is Veronica – was coated with oil during the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989. Dad – he’s called The General – was hit by an airplane in Moab, Utah. The babies, which are black – they don’t get their signature white heads until around 4 years old – are growing from a steady diet of trout and white rats, whose odors fill their living quarters with a scent pleasing only to eagle snouts. When you enter the makeshift pen constructed of greenhouse frames and chain-link fence, Veronica’s sharp-pitched caws alert you to proceed with caution. The babies sound a similar but quieter alarm and appear to be frightened.
Amy Alfieri, 30,
a coordinator with the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department who will
be placing the birds in their new home, said separation anxiety for
birds lasts a short time. After a day or two, the birds will begin playing.
After that, flying is next on the agenda. “That’s our goal,”
Alfieri said. “We raise eagle chicks with minimal human contact
with the hopes they make it on their own in the wild.” Alferi
said she’s witnessed chick playing tug-of-war with a stick. After
they’re released, human-size boxes are what they’ll call
home for six to eight months. The boxes are positioned about 20 feet
off the ground and contain a Web camera for around-the-clock viewing.
This is the second year for the program. Of the nine eagles released
last year, only one confirmed death has been reported. “It’s
very moving to see them fly for the first time,” Alfieri said.
For Dubacher, birds are his life. He has spent only one night away from his property in the past 25 years. On the day of his marriage to Betty Ann, the ceremony was interrupted by a man who brought a wounded hawk to his house. It’s fun, though,” said Betty Ann, a physical therapist. “Peter knows every bird’s personality. He just doesn'tt know all the stuff in the books, but everything that with interaction and experience. We have a great life.”
Elizabeth, 11, might just have the best backyard in the history of childhood. Her classmates “always want to come over,” she said. For her, “birds mean life.” Over the years, their numbers have grown, and so have the facilities. Dubacher has constructed a maze of makeshift birds pens, where he leads visitors on a spoken guided tour with fun facts and stories about his birds.
Dubacher started out in the Army, then worked as a chef in a number of country clubs in the Albany area. He said his love of birds started as a hobby. “Then it just got bigger and bigger,” he said. “I love all kinds of life. Reptiles, birds, cats, plants. But birds are especially fascinating creatures. It’s really about helping the birds recover and live a productive life and showing people how birds live in their environment. That’s why I’ve incorporated the botanical gardens.”
Dubacher’s place is a nature lover’s paradise. A medley of bird calls blend in an almost orchestral fashion. Pheasants, hawks, peacocks, owls, cranes and parakeets, blanket the property. Orchids, ponds, African deer, waddling ducks and ferns abound. Dubacher’s organization is a non-profit that relies on donations alone.
He says his is one of the few places in the Northeast that does this kind of work. People call from across the country with stories of injured or neglected birds. He said he has never refused a single one. Including the time he got a call for “20/20” producer Frank Mastropolo, an animal lover who found an injured pigeon in New York City. “I told him to bring it up, and he did,” Dubacher said. “his birds will have a home here until (it) dies.”
There was a bad
time, too, though, when a pack of four dogs killed more than 100 birds.
And money for food and heating bills during the winter (15,000 a year)
can add up. But Dubacher says a country life with pets as his primary
friends is all that he could ask for. “I feel like I’m just
doing my basic duty,” he said. “It’s like a doctor,,,
he wouldn’t refuse a patient. And plus, how many people get to
say “Honey, I have to got feed the eagles now!”
Peter Dubacher, Director, e-mail: click here