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Bird rehabilitator retires after decades of helping Michigan birds

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Rebecca Lessard had no conscious intention of building a career out of helping wounded raptors.  

Her degree is in biology, she always considered herself a mammal biologist, and when a veterinarian friend asked her 32 years ago to help rehab a red-tailed hawk, her life changed.

“And that was what started my career with raptors,” Rebecca said. “The first time I met up with him and held this bird was an absolute turning point in my life.”

She said it was “chilling” in an awesome way and ended up rehabilitating the raptor and released it back into the wild.

Three decades later, Rebecca has helped over 3,000 raptors throughout Michigan.

“So over the 32 years, I’ve worked with them, I’m constantly learning from them. It’s a very humbling experience, and it’s just been an absolute joy filled ride,” she said.

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  A new door opens and raptors get care

After Rebecca helped her veterinarian friend, she went on to get raptor training at the Minnesota Raptor Center.

She also talked to her late husband, Don Lessard, into rehabilitating raptors on their property north of Lake Anne. They eventually moved it to Empire in Leelanau County in the late 90s where Rebecca still lives today.

When they started the organization, Don and Rebecca had two young children that were homeschooled and learned so much from helping Rebecca with her mission.

They started getting permits and building flight pens. She also continued educating herself, attending conferences and workshops, ensuring she was able to give the best care to wounded raptors.

“My knowledge and experience base increased,” she said. “I just felt it could be our service work back to the planet.”

At first they planned on rehabilitating only five raptors in their first year, but they ended up caring for 12 birds. They had to build more flight pens.

Some of the birds that came into their care didn’t always make it.

“Many of the eagles that come in are euthanized. They are not rehab candidates,” Rebecca said.”

Raptors that were rehabilitated but could no longer fly became education birds. Rebecca glove-trained them, and took them to libraries, schools and other venues.

Up until Covid-19 hit, she was doing 150 programs a year.

Wings of Wonder volunteer Chirs Johnson, who is retired from the National Park Service, is in awe of Rebecca.

“I would go around to educational events with her and releases. Three-hundred... 500 people would show up to those. She’s beloved in the community. I just learned so much from her, and I feel privileged to have worked with her and under her,” he said.

At one point she had 11 education raptors.

Rebecca gave Chris two of the Wings of Wonder educational birds. One of them, the American Kestrel named Jada, passed away last June due to old age.

Chris still has Pearl, an 18-year-old red-tailed hawk that spent 15 years doing education programs for the nonprofit.

Pearl was hit by a car near Cedar in 2003, and rolled under a car, Chris said.

She didn’t have any broken bones, but she did have road rash from being dragged on the asphalt.

Raptors oftentimes will swoop down to eat roadkill, and end up getting hit by vehicles themselves.

Her primary feathers and follicles were torn from one of her wings. They don’t re-grow, so Pearl became an education bird.

Pearl now lives in a large raptor pen on Chirs’ property in Interlochen, Michigan. They moved the pen from Rebecca’s property to Chirs’ land.

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Forming the nonprofit and its members

Rebecca worked for free the first 15 years of helping wounded raptors. Then in 2001, after she and her family relocated to Leelanau County, she formed a 501(c)3 and got a board of directors.

However, it wasn’t until her initial board of directors changed that she started collecting a paycheck and putting money away for retirement.

“And that really launched Wings Of Wonder into what it’s become,” she said. “(They were) aghast I wasn’t getting a salary nor did I have any kind of retirement.”

They created fundraising and membership levels. Raptor admirers from across the globe donated.

“People from Ireland, and Whales, Australia, Korea. I mean, I’m just floored at the ripple effect,” she said.

The Wings of Wonder family lifted her up after her after her husband passed away unexpectedly from a heart attack in 2014.

“The Wings of Wonder membership family helped me through. I mean, I got 100s and 100s and 100s of cards. That’s what really prevented me from going down that dark rabbit hole which is very easy to do while you’re grieving,” she said.

The letters came from all over the world.

Don and Rebecca were married for almost 30 years. Their two adult children now live in Texas.

One door closes, another one opens

For years, Rebecca has been saying she wants to retire, but each time she got close to actually doing it, another raptor came into her care.

Finally last year, she took down her 100-foot flight pen — which not many raptor rehabs have in Michigan — to ensure she could retire.

Without the flight pen, rehabilitating birds is very difficult, she said. The 100-foot pen allows raptors to fly from one end to the other to build their atrophied muscles.

The only other way to do that is through creansing, where a raptor has anklets on and is attached to a long 500-foot tether. It flies around the trainer to gain strength.

But it’s not ideal for the bird or the person rehabilitating it, Rebecca said. It’s stressful on the birds and humans.

So what’s next for wounded raptors in Michigan? Wings of Wonder volunteer Jim Manley hopes to help.

He’s volunteered for the nonprofit for 15 years and got his rehab permit in 2009.

“It’s intimidating to think about stepping into those shoes that Rebecca has filled,” he said.

The idea of taking over the nonprofit or forming another one is in its infancy, Jim said.

Regardless, he admires Rebecca and all she’s done throughout her career.

“I'm just so impressed with the impact that she’s had, again, not on the birds, but on people and people that get to see these amazing creatures,” he said.

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A new bald eagle aviary and perhaps a book or two

Although Rebecca has retired from rehabilitating birds, she still has one more year of helping with a project in Harbor Springs.

She’s working with the Little Traverse Band Bay of Odawa Indians to create a tribal-run raptor center and an Eagle Aviary — a project that’s been discussed for 15 years.

Now that Rebecca is retiring, the tribe is moving fast to get the design solidified, she said, adding that they have to break ground sometime this year

“This is one… will be the first tribal eagle aviary on this side of the Mississippi,” Rebecca said.

Only tribal members can have eagle aviaries. It won’t be a rehab center, just a place where non-releasable bald eagles live.

It will also have a bald eagle feather repository and educational programs.

So what else is next for Rebecca?

Rest, hiking and writing a book about her aviary adventures.

CORRECTION: The tribal-run facility will have an eagle rehab center.