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Friend of the feathered

Alexandria graduate helped launch Raptor Center

By Faith Anderson

As a young boy, Dr. Patrick Redig was fascinated by birds and flight. Little did he or anyone else know that by the age of 26, Patrick would become one of the co-founders of The Raptor Center at the University of Minnesota. Today, the Raptor Center’s clinic treats nearly 1,000 raptors annually, and trains students and veterinarians from around the world to become future leaders in raptor medicine and conservation. The center reaches more than 200,000 people each year through its unique public education events and programs.

Dr. Patrick Redig releases one of the hawks that received care at the Raptor Center at the University of Minnesota. Redig is one of the co-founders of the Raptor Center, which treats nearly 1,000 raptors each year and trains students and veterinarians around the world. Contributed photo

Redig grew up in Hibbing, Minn, and he and his dad frequently went hunting and fishing. He still remembers those rare occasions when they’d spot a hawk or eagle in flight during these outdoor adventures.

“That was always a special thrill,” he said. In fifth grade, he learned about falconry from a book called: The Falcon of Eric the Red. That book captured his imagination, and a few years later he obtained and trained a kestrel, which is one of the smaller birds of prey, similar in size to a mourning dove. With that acquisition, Redig began practicing falconry.

Falconry involves the hunting of wild animals in their natural state and habitat by means of a trained raptor (bird of prey). Hawks, eagles, or peregrine falcons are some of the birds used in falconry. In the sport of falconry, birds are trained to capture an animal and return it to its master.

Raptors are meat-eating birds with at least three main characteristics. They have keen eyesight, eight sharp talons, and a hooked beak. There are about 480 species of raptors worldwide, some are active by day, while others are nocturnal.

The Redig family moved to Alexandria for Patrick’s senior year of high school. “I pretty much just went to school and worked at the local JC Penney store,” said Redig. “I was kind of the quintessential nerd, but I made some good friendships that persist to this day.”

He loved the school, the teachers and enjoyed getting to know the Alexandria area with its many lakes, rich habitat, wildlife and of course, great places for raptors to thrive.

Dr. Patrick Redig with one of the birds at the Raptor Center. Contributed photo

Redig pursued falconry for almost 35 years and became the founding president of the Minnesota Falconers Association. He’s also a lifetime member of the North American Falconers Association. As a person who kept hawks for falconry, Redig knew that it was just a matter of time before someone brought him an injured bird - a red-tailed hawk. “I was enthralled with the hawk,” said Redig, “and somehow the idea of being able to mend injured raptors developed in my head and led ultimately, but not directly, to becoming a veterinarian.”

Patrick Redig attended St. Cloud State University and obtained a BA in biology and then attended the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Minnesota, where he received his Doctorate of Veterinary Medicine. His graduate school years were spent at the University of Minnesota where he obtained a PhD in Physiology.

The founding of the Raptor Center

Being in the right place at the right time, having excellent academic training and a keen interest in falconry were some of the life experiences that provided the support for his career path. In the early 60s, populations of raptors like eagles and falcons were declining because of various factors including pesticides such as DDT. At that time, existing veterinary care for birds focused on farmed birds and there was very little research on diseases of wild birds.

Together, Dr. Redig and Dr. Gary Duke, a professor at the University, researched anesthesia, orthopedic surgery, and other necessary subjects. As they became more knowledgeable and proficient, they taught students.

“We started small…in my basement” said Redig, “and then to a space in a condemned building on the St. Paul campus of the University, then to our present home in the Gabbert Raptor Center, also on the St. Paul Campus. Through extensive fund-raising and outreach activities, we developed a non-profit, publicly-funded entity, focused on teaching, research, and service, as it pertains to raptors.”

Dr. Patrick Redig and Dr. Gary Duke analyze an x-ray in the early days of the Raptor Center. Contributed photo

After founding the Raptor Center, Dr. Redig returned to teaching and research at the U of M, and retained a working connection with the Center. He’s authored numerous publications for veterinary medicine, and served as an appointed member and Veterinary Coordinator of the California Condor Recovery Team.

Regarding his many rewarding life experiences, Redig said, “I love teaching and learning from students, but also love advising and informing people about things that lead to permanent changes that favor raptor conservation.”

Through his work with injured wild raptors, he discovered cases of lead poisoning from spent ammunition used for deer hunting, and that threatened the health of bald eagles. There’s been a gradual change-over from lead to non-toxic copper ammunition for deer hunting. That change should save the lives of thousands of bald eagles in the future.

He also coordinated an effort that led to the restoration of the endangered Peregrine falcon in the Midwest. The Peregrine is best known for its diving speed during flight - which can reach more than 186 miles per hour - making it not only the world’s fastest bird but also the world’s fastest animal. Dr. Redig served as the coordinator for the Peregrine Falcon Restoration Project in nine Upper Midwestern States from 1984-1998.

With the commitment of dozens of professional students, he developed an entire discipline of avian orthopedic surgery, which has been taught all over the world. That led to the recovery of thousands of injured raptors. During his time as a professor, he mentored dozens of grad students, and provided internship opportunities to more than 300 students from 23 countries.

“These are my disciples who now carry on this work globally,” said Redig. He personally attended to or oversaw the medical care of over 20,000 injured raptors before retiring in 2018.

From his home in Scandia, Minn., Dr. Redig shared this message: “Raptors, as well as all other birds, are subject to the decisions we make about our interactions with the environment,” he says. “Disaster was averted by a lot of hard work, and change in public attitudes and policy in the 1970s. We live in a golden age of raptors with more abundance of most, but not all species - those dependent on prairie habitats such as the short-eared owl, the Marsh Hawk, and the kestrel are presently compromised - they will thrive or not, depending on the decisions we make.”

Dr. Patrick Redig in front of the U.S. Capitol with a bald eagle that was nursed back to health thorugh the Raptor Center. Contributed photo

For anyone interested in identifying birds in their back yards, he suggests any of the Peterson field guides, and encourages folks to watch webcams to see eagles, Peregrine falcons, and others in their natural habitat. Dr. Redig suggests Googling “birdcams” for a list.

In 2011, he was inducted into the Alexandria Education Foundation Alumni Hall of Fame. They referred to him as “the most knowledgeable expert on medical aspects of birds of prey in the world.”

Regarding that award, Dr. Redig said, “Though I spent little time in Alexandria as a youth, I was most honored that they would claim me as one of their own and induct me into their Hall of Fame.”

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