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Denver Rocky Mountain News, Saturday, May 22, 1999, "Spotlight"
By Rebecca Jones

AURORA Patti Quitugua has a bag of mice defrosting in the bathroom - tonigh'ts dinner.
Later on, she'll pluck the quail, "because if we don't pluck it, they will, and they get feathers everywhere," she says.

It's no picnic living with two eagles, two owls, two falcons, and five hawks. Plus three cats and a cockatiel. And her husband.

Her husband, Kin, and his "hobby run amuck" is the cause of all this. Kin, 47, has been fascinated with birds of prey ever since, as a child, he saw a movie in which a hawk captures a pheasant in midair. There are no hawks in his native Guam, but when he left home to study at the University of Colorado, he was introduced to the sport of falconry.

He's been training birds for 25 years and in 1986 founded HawkQuest, a nonprofit organization dedicated to teaching people about raptors and the importance of preserving their habitat.

Last year, HawkQuest volunteers presented wildlife education programs to more than 51,000 people, including schools and college classes. They also pass out information at big fairs and festivals around the country, though most of their work is in Colorado.

"A lot of groups do that," Kin Quitugua acknowledges. "But we also do a 'classroom in the wild,' where we take the kids out in the field so they get to see what the birds of prey really do - hunt a mouse or catch a rabbit."

Every wild mouse caught, well, that's one fewer frozen mouse Patti Quitugua has to cut up. She estimates their foster flock goes through about 60 mice a week - at a cost of 50 cents to 90 cents per mouse. The eagles eat a lot of quail, at $3 apiece. "And we buy rats. What are you gonna do?" she asks. "We can't feed them steak."

Most of Quitugua's birds have been physically or mentally damaged. None can be released, so they live out their lives in the Quituguas' backyard aviary.

Free Spirit, the bald eagle, must be medicated for frequent seizures, for example. Most of the bird's problems stem from its capture as a young eaglet by someone who thought it would be fun to keep an eagle as a pet. "That's a very dumb idea." Quitugua says. By law, only licensed wildlife rehabilitators may keep an eagle - and then, only a disabled one.

But the eagle's disability was not obvious Tuesday, when Quitugua and two HawkQuest volunteers brought it, a Harris' hawk, a falcon, and a great horned owl to Crest View Elementary School in Boulder. The youngsters sat in rapt attention on the gym floor as a Harris' hawk swooped overhead. They clamored to have their pictures taken with the birds.

Quitugua stood at one end of the gym and pointed to the far wall , a basketball-court's length away. "If a raptor could read," he told the children, "he could read the fine print on a newspaper on that wall." The kids gasped.

Later, as he held a great horned owl, he continued to amaze them. "If we were outside," he said, "and it was so dark we couldn't even see our hand in front of our faces, and if we were to light one candle, this owl could see a 3-inch mouse up to three football fields away with the light from one candle."

And this, while he held a falcon: "This falcon has a corkscrew-shaped nostril. That's how, when it flying 150 or 200 miles per hour, it can breathe easily. That corkscrew nostril slows the air down so it can breathe normally."

Quitugua says, "We just feel if you bring in the real thing, the actual birds, students get a much better understanding of nature than if you're just using slides and films."

For information about HawkQuest, including how to book a program or to become a volunteer, call (303) 690-6959.

Posted 12/29/00

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