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Alabama Wildlife Center celebrating Coosa the owl’s 20th birthday on Saturday afternoon

A near-death experience for a fledgling owl in 2001 resulted in a second chance for the raptor and educational close encounters for countless people across Alabama over the past two decades.

On April 17 from 1-4 p.m., the Alabama Wildlife Center (AWC) inside Oak Mountain State Park will celebrate the 20th birthday of Coosa, the barred owl whose life was saved after it fell from the nest and was attacked by a predator. Coosa was brought in by a rescuer and the severe wounds repaired through multiple surgeries by volunteer veterinarians. The owl could no longer use his talons to catch and hold prey, and would be unable to survive in the wild, so Coosa became the center’s first education ambassador.

Coosa has spent his life at the AWC but ventured outside his adopted home thousands of times to be met by schoolchildren and adults alike. For many people, Coosa is the first owl they’ve ever seen up close as he’s held by gloved, specially trained volunteers.

Attorney Doug Adair became AWC executive director eight years ago following his lifetime passion for nature and its creatures. He has a special appreciation of Coosa, who over the years has been joined as an education ambassador by hawks, falcons, eagles and other owls.

“Coosa’s had an amazing life. He really launched the Alabama Wildlife Center’s environmental education program,” Adair said. “The unique hook that AWC offers is we are able to introduce folks, up close and personally, to many of the amazing raptors that we are blessed with in Alabama.”

The AWC environmental education program has expanded from its beginnings with Coosa. Under Adair’s direction, it has gone from a few dozen outside efforts annually to more than 600 programs a year – before the pandemic – reaching hundreds of thousands of Alabamians. Adair has taken the AWC staff “to the next level,” involving scores of volunteers and veterinarians.

“It’s been a pretty steep incline in growth,” Adair said. “We reach a very broad audience now and are so pleased to be able to offer this unique program.”

Coosa and most of his fellow flying ambassadors were unable to return to nature after injury, surgery and rehabilitation. The AWC staff is able in most cases to eventually release wildlife that have been brought in sick or injured. The rehab facility is Alabama’s oldest and largest, annually caring for about 2,000 birds of more than 100 species.

“Training of the raptors is constant,” Adair said. “They don’t become domesticated like a dog or a cat. They will always be wild animals but they do become more comfortable being around people.”

The AWC in an independent nonprofit organization that has a relationship with the state park and the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. However, the center receives no state funding and depends entirely on donations and grants, in addition to the work of volunteers.

“It’s a very expensive proposition,” Adair said. “Just as we’re always searching for new volunteers, we’re always looking for funding.”

Raptors can live for decades, Adair said, noting that a bald eagle lived in captivity for 62 years. He hopes Coosa will continue to have good health and enjoy many more years educating visitors at the center and around the state.

Coosa’s 20th birthday will be celebrated with free cake, crafts and other family fun activities. Guests will get to tour the facility, meet the birthday bird and see other raptors as well.

The birthday party is free, although cash-only admission to Oak Mountain State Park is $5 per adult, $2 per senior (age 62-plus) and $2 per child (4-11). The park’s back gate is closed because of recent tornado damage.

The AWC is open every day of the year, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., at 100 Terrace Drive in Oak Mountain State Park near Pelham. To donate, volunteer or for more information, call 205-663-7930, visit wildlife@awrc.org or go to the AWC’s Facebook, Instagram or Twitter pages.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)