A couple bald eagles announced the arrival of humans at the World Bird Sanctuary, a cackling repetitive croak made with heads thrust forward. It sounded like they were making room for dinner.
The giant Andean condor, with each of its 5-foot-long wings slowly unfolding? The condor eyed visitors like they should be dinner. If only they were dead.
Follow a gently curving path and you'll encounter these and many other winged creatures in the outdoor exhibits at this well-hidden sanctuary. It sits on 305 acres of Missouri hardwood forest, just minutes off Interstate 44.
For 35 years, the nonprofit group has worked to secure the future of threatened bird species in their natural environments. From programs using birds at schools, the propagation of species, field studies and mending injured birds, it's all run on donations.
Educating visitors about the feathered inhabitants is vital.
"Liberty is one of our resident birds, and he has his own pool, and he'd love to be out in the cold instead of the heat," said Wayne Baldwin, a volunteer and former science teacher. On a recent weekday, he was walking with the bald eagle to an open area where people could see Liberty up close and talk to the handlers.
The bird perched calmly on Wayne's outstretched left arm, swathed to the elbow in a heavy leather glove.
About 22 years old, Liberty in the wild might have lived to be about 12 -- "if he was a good hunter and had a stable habitat," Wayne said. Because of an injury, the eagle is a permanent resident, a favorite among the educational birds that travel to schools and events.
Wayne slipped Liberty onto his perch, letting him join a variety of other birds in the fenced-in area.
More than 75 birds reside at the sanctuary, not including the doves, turkeys, chickens and roosters. You'll find red-tailed hawks, a peregrine falcon, thick-billed parrots, about 19 eagles, 21 owls, vultures, pelicans and even a kookaburra. You can see a photo of each bird, his name and background at worldbirdsanctuary.org.
The sanctuary was founded in 1997 by ornithologist Walter C. Crawford, Jr., who began his career at the St. Louis Zoo, working closely with then director and "Wild Kingdom" star Marlin Perkins. Crawford continues as director of the sanctuary with a staff of 25 and numerous volunteers.
Up the road from the visitors center and the amphitheater is the Wildlife Hospital, where Director of Operations Roger Holloway was checking on some of the patients.
"People bring them to us and our absolute goal is to release them," he said, pointing out an 8-week-old, red-shouldered hawk who had run into a window. The success rate is 43 percent to 44 percent, with a lot depending on the injuries, how long (the birds have) suffered in the wild and how much they've been handled by humans before coming to the sanctuary.
"The No. 1 reason (for injuries) is collision with manmade objects, such as cars, fences, windows," Roger said. They get head trauma, eye injuries, broken wings, even seriously singed behinds.
In one of the largest pens in the hospital sat a juvenile bald eagle, who had arrived just the week before. It's believed he sat on some kind of electrified wires.
"He burned his butt off," said Roger, with no trace of humor in his voice. "All we can do is keep him on antibiotics, keep the wound clean and hope the tissue comes back." If his tail feathers don't heal, there's no flying and no release to the wild.
Still, there is hope.
"Raptors are tough and resilient creatures," he noted. "They'll come in to the hospital and we'll see barely a pulse and then a few weeks later, they're ready to take on all comers."
As with any program dealing with wild animals that might have a chance of being returned to their habitat, humans maintain as much distance as possible, handling the birds only as necessary.
Visitors can see some of the patients at the hospital through a special outside viewing window, and once a month they can take a tour. (See information box.)
The grounds of the sanctuary are set up for easy walking and for the most part are handicapped accessible. Picnic tables and rocking chairs are found throughout the area. Signs along the outdoor exhibits describe the birds, their origins and natural habitats. They live in large enclosures, nearly all built by Boy Scouts. They have ponds, tunnels, perches, hammocks, swings and even a tough plastic ball to play with.
The raptors are fed frozen/thawed fish and other small animals. You can buy some meal and feed the chickens. Or, rent some homing pigeons for your wedding.
Bald eagles in real life can't make the piercing shrill sound we hear in movies as they soar overhead. On the big or little screen, they've been dubbed. likely by a red-tail hawk.
Female bald eagles are bigger than males.
The Andean condor is a near-threatened species and one of the world's longest-living birds, with a lifespan of more 70 years in some cases.
World Bird Sanctuary at a glance
Location: 125 Bald Eagle Ridge Road, Valley Park, Mo.
Hours: 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.
Cost: Free for entry and parking; donations welcome.
Tours of Wildlife Hospital: Noon on first Saturday of the month with $5 donation.
Animal Encounters: 11:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. Saturdays and 1:30 p.m. Sundays through Labor Day in the amphitheater. Free.
Birds in Concert: 7 p.m. Thursdays in August with live music accompanying flight demonstrations in the outdoor amphitheater. Free.
Information 636-225-4390 and worldbirdsanctuary.org
Note: Absolutely no dogs allowed.