A look at how the University of Minnesota is helping injured raptors fly again

A technique called imping uses cadaver feathers to replace broken feathers, allowing the birds to take flight sooner.

Hawks, owls, falcons and eagles are often seen soaring through Minnesota skies, from peaceful countryside to busy urban areas. Wherever they are, the collision of the human and natural worlds is often literal for these raptors, which are susceptible to serious injuries from cars, buildings and hunters.

The University of Minnesota's Raptor Center rehabilitates injured birds of prey, but some damage is severe and has a lasting effect — particularly when feathers are lost, bent or broken. While a single feather might not seem catastrophic, raptors have such specialized physiologies that each one has a specific role and placement along the wings and tail. Damaged feathers aren't repaired naturally until the bird's next molting, and without them, raptors' ability to fly and hunt is drastically reduced. That puts their lives in danger from both starvation and other predators.

In order to speed rehabilitation, the Raptor Center is trying a procedure called feather imping to get injured birds back in the air. It's based on an age-old process, and somewhat similar to skin grafts or hair plugs for humans: Damaged feathers are surgically replaced with the same feather from another bird. Since each feather needs to be in a particular place, the Raptor Center has a catalog of spare feathers from deceased raptors sorted by species and position. "It's an art as much as it is a science," says Victoria Hall, executive director of the Raptor Center. Veterinary technicians at the center perform about 100 feather implants per year.

The Raptor Center is a busy place. Last year, it took in and rehabilitated 1,032 birds of prey, and had nearly 300 patients as of May. The center also has a full slate of educational programs and training opportunities.

Corryn Vitek holds an injured barred owl. Veterinary technicians at the Raptor Center perform roughly 100 feather implants per year.
Last year, the Raptor Center took in and rehabilitated 1,032 birds of prey, and had nearly 300 patients as of May.
Feather imping is a process somewhat similar to skin grafts or hair plugs for humans: damaged feathers are surgically replaced with the same feather from another bird.
Jamie Clarke, a senior veterinary technician at the Raptor Center, glues new tail feathers on an injured barred owl during the feather imping procedure.
Corryn Vitek and Jamie Clarke, both senior veterinary technicians at the Raptor Center, glue the new tail feathers on.
A barred owl, injured when trying to nest in a chimney, will be released into the wild now that its tail feathers are intact.
After the procedure — and with its new tail feathers — the owl went for a test run atop a spruce tree.