The Raptors of Strawberry Days

A 30-Year Tradition

On the north side of Sayre Park, a rapt group of kids and adults have crowded around an unusual Strawberry Days booth. In front of the white tent, a bald eagle—the familiar bird inscribed on the Great Seal of the United States of America—sits quietly on a wooden perch. Nearby, a large horned owl languidly opens its huge orange eyes and scans the crowd.

The eagle suddenly turns its white head to the side and flexes its wings, revealing chocolate brown and ivory feathers underneath. The wings stretch six and half feet from tip to tip and a gasp ripples through the crowd.

“Why doesn’t he fly away?” asks a little girl.

“She can’t fly very well because her wing was hurt,” replies one of the HawkQuest volunteers.

“Is it a girl?” another child asks.

“Yes. She’s a female bald eagle. She was born in Alaska. She was in a bird hospital there after she injured her wing on a tree branch. Then she came to us so that we can take care of her,” the volunteer replies. “All of these birds—that owl, the turkey vulture, the eagle, the falcon over there—are birds that can’t live out in the wild. We take care of them so that they can teach people about birds of prey, and how they need our help to survive.”

HawkQuest, a nonprofit based in Parker, Colorado, has thrilled locals with its booth at Strawberry Day every year since 1986. Founded that same year by master falconer and environmental educator Kin Quitugua, the organization believes that environmental awareness is a key to the survival of the world as we know it.

To teach people about the key place raptors occupy in our ecosystem, HawkQuest volunteers migrate widely each summer, appearing at fairs and events around the country. By 2015, the organization had presented its feathered teachers—hawks, falcons, eagles and turkey vultures—to more than 12 million people.

Kin Quitugua, who grew up in Guam, became fascinated with raptors after watching The Vikings, a 1958 movie starring Kirk Douglas. During one scene, a Viking releases a trained hawk that catches a pheasant in mid-air. Awed, the nine-year-old Quitugua vowed to himself, “I’m going to do that someday.” He was about 24 when he made good on that childhood vow. As an adult, he has trained, handled and flown birds of prey as diverse as the Bald and Golden eagles and the Saw-whet owl.

Quitugua often presents in classrooms, bringing live birds of prey with him. For example, his kindergarten-through-fifth grade HOOT presentation (Hands-On Owl Teaching), includes three live owls. Students use an Owl Discovery Kit and they undertake an imaginary mouse hunt. “You can bring slides, photos and film into classroom, but I feel it’s much more exciting to see the real thing,” says Quitugua. “I just love birds of prey; I just need four more lifetimes to figure them all out!”

HawkQuest cares for 35 different raptors, representing twenty-one different species. They include three bald eagles, one golden eagle and a turkey vulture. Their falcons include two American kestrels, an aplomado falcon, a gyrfalcon, two peregrines and a prairie falcon. There are two barn owls, a barred owl, a burrowing owl, an eastern screech owl, a Eurasian eagle owl, two great horned owls, a long-eared owl and a spectacled owl. Of these raptors, four will be coming to this year’s Strawberry Days.

“The people in Glenwood Springs love us,” says Quitugua. “Strawberry Days was our first booth show in 1986, and the people there have always been so gracious. Now when we come, we are seeing folks who first saw our raptors as kids. But now, they’re bringing their own kids. They have a kindred spirit with the birds.”

“We have made a lot of friends over the years,” he continues. “We put out a new t-shirt every year and people collect them.” Quitugua says that locals can help HawkQuest by buying a t-shirt, making a donation at the Strawberry Days booth or donating at HawkQuest.org.