Birds of the same feather flock together and falconer, Christine Peyreigne, is proof that following your passion offers great personal reward and helps our native wildlife.
Peyreigne owns and operates Christine’s Critters Inc., a Wildlife Rehabilitation and Education non-profit in Weston, Connecticut whose mission is to rescue, rehabilitate and release as many injured birds of prey as they can handle.
Christine’s Critters relies on donations, program fees and their own money to care for its 15 permanent resident birds of prey, 40 reptiles and the more than 100 birds that receive care, rehabilitation and release each year.
But what drives Christine’s Critters is Christine.
She’s the engine that makes Christine’s Critters go.
With the love and unwavering support of her mother, Betsy Peyreigne and a handful of dedicated volunteers.
A Falconer and Wildlife Rehabilitator
The non-profit was born from Christine’s passion for birds of prey and her desire to offset the harmful effects that humanity has brought upon native wildlife.
Just 21 years old, Christine, knew at age 14 she wanted to dedicate her life to working with animals, and she began volunteering her time with various wildlife organizations to learn more about caring for birds of prey.
Betsy points out that she didn’t know how many hours Christine spent volunteering until they were filling out her college applications. In just four years, Christine logged more than 4000 hours at various wildlife organizations.
“Christine knew she’d do something with animals, but when we said find your passion, we didn’t know it would be this,” says Betsy.
Christine became a licensed general class falconer when she was 16 and began hunting with her falconry bird, a Red-tailed Hawk named Theron.
And then at age 18 became a trained wildlife rehabilitator.
She’s currently an undergraduate student at Mercy College and plans to become a veterinary technician.
But Christine’s goal is to own and operate an Animal Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in southern Connecticut.
Betsy says that she knew Christine couldn’t do wildlife rehabilitation while going to college, so she jumped in and said she’d help her daughter with this endeavor.
And Christine’s Mother has played a vital role.
Making of Christine’s Critters
When you drive up to Christine’s Critter’s located on their family property in Weston, you can’t help but notice a tennis court converted into an aviary.
And closer to the house is a cluster of three more aviaries and then another large aviary that is home to a bald eagle.
Christine comes up with the design ideas for the aviaries that improve with each build, and then a local carpenter executes her vision.
Some parents might not be thrilled about having aviaries engulf their property or having Red-tailed Hawks living in their home, but Betsy is exceptionally supportive of Christine’s dream and just goes with it.
“Christine is my youngest. What was I going to do anyway? It gave me something to do.”
And it also provides her with new friends, of the avian and reptile variety, to care for each day. Forty reptiles to be exact.
“We have doors with bolts, and people wonder what we do in here. They’re to keep the dogs (four huskies) away from the birds and the reptiles,” Betsy says with a smile.
“If someone said to me ten years ago you’d be holding hawks or have snakes living in your house, I’d never believed it.”
Betsy credits her daughter for her enthusiastic view.
“Christine’s passion is infectious.”
Birds of prey are some of the most beautiful birds in the wild. But they are also the most dangerous.
When a wildlife rehabilitator provides aid to injured, orphaned, displaced, or distressed wild animal so that they may survive when released to their native habitats, it can be quite dangerous.
It requires a person have the appropriate training, endless patience, and be comfortable handling the animals, so it doesn’t become deadly.
The level of care that Christine provides birds ranges from direct care, and rehab to arranging for suitable release sites.
“Whenever possible we try to rehabilitate the birds to send them back to the wild for a second chance at life. If they are non-releasable due to the extent of their injuries, we do everything in our power to find homes for them as educational ambassadors at nature centers,” Christine adds.
Wildlife rehabilitation is part science, part education, part problem-solving, and part care-giving.
“Many of our birds have injuries to their wings or just to other thermoregulation processes so we can’t just let them be exposed as they would in the wild,” she says.
Christine takes us to the aviary where her falconry bird, Theron, is supposed to live. But since it’s winter, he lives in the house so Christine can regulate his weight.
A Red-tailed Hawk is in there now that was struck by a car and as a result, has a severe eye injury.
“We’re trying to help her be able to go free. She’s waiting to go into the flight cage when there’s room.”
Finding Red-tailed Hawks a Home
Space is a severe concern for wildlife rehabilitators.
Christine has several large flight cages that reside on what used to be a tennis court, but currently, two non-releasable Red-tailed Hawks she’s babysitting for another wildlife rehabilitator are in one of the larger cages.
She says finding a home for Red-tailed Hawks that are non-releasable is a serious problem.
“Finding homes for Red-tailed Hawks can be quite challenging. On the Fish, Wildlife, Recreation and, Conservation (FWRC) database there are 18 Red-tailed Hawks looking for a home.”
She says that zoos want 2-3 Red-tailed Hawks for programs and they don’t need more.
Christine has successfully placed her birds with the Rhode Island Audubon and other local wildlife organizations.
But she says that some birds that don’t do well in captivity leave rehabilitators with no other choice but to euthanize them.
The two Red-tailed Hawks she’s babysitting are safe with her and have a home until one is found.
It’s quite likely the Red-tailed Hawks Christine is currently nursing back to health will be released once they’re well.
“This hawk was hit by a car as an adult. Otherwise, we’d be more worried if it was a juvenile. She’s already got hunting down, and she’s not one of those 70 percent that doesn’t know how to hunt.”
Back to the Wild
Christine says the challenge is teaching the bird how to hunt again with this impairment.
“We’ve been successful releasing Red-tailed hawks with eye injuries that were mild with partial eyesight back into the wild, and they’re doing well.”
She says they monitor them by seeing them.
Christine’s Critters does work with bird banders, but they can’t call a bird bander every time they have an injured Red-tailed Hawk because there’s just too many.
“We just let them go and give them a second chance at life. For the most part, it works out, and now we have a resident pair of Red-tailed Hawks on our property.”
Caring for Injured Wildlife
Christine was trained to be a wildlife rehabilitator by the state and through her college programs. She can access the injury, administer subcutaneous shots, pain medication and antibiotics if a vet is not open and then transports the bird the next morning to the vet for care.
She sees firsthand every day how her ability to administer care saves a bird’s life.
Christine’s education Red-tailed Hawk, Amelia came to her for care covered in maggots.
“If I hadn’t been able to administer Ivermectin (anti-parasite used to treat infections), Amelia would not have made it to the vet the next day. It saved her life.”
Christine can also administer Vitamin-K for rodenticide poisoning to start treatment immediately for a greater chance of recovery.
Rodenticide poisoning is a growing concern among raptors.
In California’s San Diego County, rodenticides showed up in 92 percent of raptors. In New York, rodenticides were found in 49 percent of 12 species of necropsied raptors. For Great Horned Owls, the figure was 81 percent.
A study by Tufts University found that 88 percent of raptors have rodenticide poisoning. It inhibits their coagulation factor, they cannot clot their blood and then bleed out.
Christine says administering Vitamin-K helps, but not always.
“There is no such thing as a hawk transfusion, and by the time the birds come in, it’s often already too late.”
Meet Some of Christine’s Critters
Chester – Female Red-tailed Hawk
Chester is a Red-tailed Hawk and got hit by a car and suffered a severe eye injury. As a result, she has no depth perception past 15 feet and can no longer hunt for prey, and can never go free.
“She can’t hunt at all,” Christine says. “We did hunting practice with her, and it didn’t quite work out.”
Amelia – Female Red-tailed Hawk
Amelia is a Red-tailed Hawk that’s been with Christine’s Critters two years.
She’s a beautiful hawk, but she’s blind in one eye and deaf.
When Amelia came to Christine, she had been on the ground as a nestling for three days and covered with maggots.
The bird’s injuries left her brain damaged, and now she flies in a circle.
“When I’m holding Amelia on the glove, and I make a pfft pfft noise, it makes her clinch very tight. Amelia’s hearing is off because no other birds do that.”
Amelia arrived at Christine’ Critters as a baby and Chester raised her.
Christine hoped Amelia would help raise baby Red-tailed Hawks when they get them in, but Amelia doesn’t take to the babies.
“Amelia likes to be the baby. Chester would care for the babies and Amelia would just stare at them and gave them a look like, what’s that. She just didn’t know what to do with the babies.”
Now the juveniles are housed in the flight cages with the other adult Red-tailed Hawks, so it’s less intimidating for the young birds.
Christine says Amelia is a funny bird.
“I love her. She probably my favorite Red-tailed Hawk here besides my falconry bird, Theron.”
Training for Glove
When spectators at shows watch Christine’s birds stand still on her glove, they think this behavior comes naturally.
Birds usually perch, but not on a person’s arm.
It takes a great deal of training and many hours of practice working with a bird to get them to stand on Christine’s glove.
“We get anklets on our program birds and just start standing them up on the glove,” Christine says.
The birds jump off, and it takes at least two days for Christine to train the smaller owls. But with Aurora, her Bald Eagle, it took 16 months.
Willow – Female Barred Owl
Willow, a female Barred Owl, is the most requested bird at Christine’s Critters’ programs.
Willow got hit by a car and suffered broken wing that is not healed correctly. As a result, she broke her tail because it interferes with her ability to fly.
Manilla – Female Northern Goshawk
Manilla is a female Northern Goshawk that came to Christine’s Critters as a juvenile from Middlebury, Connecticut.
When animal control called Christine and said they had a Red-tailed Hawk in need of care, she couldn’t believe her eyes when she saw the bird in question.
The bird wasn’t a Red-tailed Hawk. It was a Northern Goshawk!
Goshawks are on Connecticut’s list of endangered, threatened and special concern species.
They’re northern birds, and in North America, they range from western central Alaska and the Yukon territories in the north to the mountains of northwestern and western Mexico.
Goshawks are fierce about protecting their nest and will attack a human if they get too close.
Manilla has a permanent wing injury with neurological damage and will never be released.
“She’s a rare bird to get in and a great education bird,” Christine says.
This bird loves cold places, and Christine says when its 80 degrees outside she doesn’t want to come out.
As a juvenile, Manilla has brown feathers but will turn a deep gray and have beautiful red eyes.
Christine says having Manilla will be helpful if someone gets another juvenile Goshawk in captivity so she can help raise them.
Poseidon – Male Osprey
Poseidon is a male Osprey who was a permanent resident at Christine’s Critters.
He came to Christine as a nestling after falling out of his nest onto a power fence and fracturing his wrist.
His wrist was amputated, and he could never fly, so Christine used Poseidon for education programs.
She didn’t know he had West Nile Virus and then Poseidon became gravely ill. He was taken to the vet for care, and unfortunately, passed away on Veteran’s Day 2017.
Christine says she loves working with Osprey and specializes in getting them to eat.
“In captivity, they starve themselves because they’re used to catching live fish and refuse to eat a dead fish.”
Poseidon was no exception.
Christine and Betsy hung up a sheet and would lay on the ground outside the pen and put fish in snake tongs to hold the fish until he grabbed it.
Their faces light up when they explain how excited they were the day he grabbed the fish and ate it.
If Poseidon hadn’t eaten the fish, the other choice was to force feed him. Otherwise, he would have become dehydrated and weak.
Christine says she sees more birds with West Nile Virus.
“With more mosquitoes and wetlands than there used to be, mosquitoes affect the birds, and during the summer you worry about it.”
As a result, Christine’s Critters vaccinate all their educational birds against West Nile Virus, but it’s not 100 percent effective.
Signs of West Nile Virus
“The signs of West Nile Virus are neurological. If you see birds having miniature seizures, or they stop eating, then get them to the vet immediately for supportive care.”
Poseidon came to Christine’s Critters with the West Nile Virus, and she says they never lost a bird that way before.
“West Nile Virus can lie dormant in the bird’s systems. Birds can have it, but if you stress them out, then they can show signs.”
Key to Happy Birds
Christine says they take great pride at Christine’s Critters in keeping their birds very clean. The birds are sprayed down once a day.
“All our birds here are very happy. We provide fresh water every day, and a good varied diet of not just mice, but quail chicks, pheasants, and rabbits so they stay healthier.”
Christine’s Critters is a not-for-profit and doesn’t receive federal or state funding to care for the birds. She pays for all licenses, veterinary bills, medicine, enclosures, perch coverings, maintenance, anklets, pens, transportation boxes and food expenses out of her pocket.
And the cost to drive a long distance to retrieve and place the animals.
“We have to provide all the food ourselves. We buy mice, and a Red-tailed Hawk eats four mice a day, so it gets expensive feeding just one Red-tailed Hawk. We have 15 resident birds of prey and care for more than a hundred others throughout the year.”
She’s able to continue doing her rehab work at Christine’s Critters through public donations and education programs.
“It’s very costly to pay for veterinary care for my educational birds. Poseidon had an $1100 vet bill, and he didn’t make it.”
Betsy says when spectators see a beautiful hawk stand on her daughter’s glove they think being a wildlife rehabilitator is glamorous.
“But it’s not, and 99 percent of it is dirty work,” she adds.
Theron – Male Red-tailed Hawk
Theron is a male Red-tailed Hawk and Christine’s falconry bird.
Falconry is hunting with a trained raptor in pursuit of wild game.
Theron was trapped from the wild as a juvenile in December 2013, and he hunts with Christine for rabbits and squirrels on a daily basis throughout the hunting season.
Theron flies completely free when hunting and is trained to fly back to Christine.
He’s a releasable raptor legally held for falconry and doesn’t take part in many educational programs.
During a warmer, sunny day in February when we met with Christine, she brought Theron to a field close to her house so he could fly.
Christine and Theron follow the gun hunting laws because Theron is considered a weapon.
Flying with a Red-tailed Hawk
First, Christine activates Theron’s telemetry tracker with a magnet in case he flies away. The tracker will tell her where he is.
Bells live on Theron permanently so she can hear him from far away.
Most of Christine’s neighbors are friendly about her falconry, and she says it gives her a viable excuse to trespass with Theron.
And at times she’s like the little kid whose baseball rolls into the neighbor’s yard.
“Excuse me. I need to get my hawk back.”
Before Christine flies Theron, she weighs him to make sure he’s at the right weight to fly.
“Theron eats 80 grams of food a day to sustain him completely. But on days when he’s fat, we want to drop his weight, and he gets 20-30 grams.”
Theron is treated like an athlete and doesn’t eat fattening foods. He eats lean foods, but he does have days when he gets to relax.
As we make our way out into the field, Christine points out that if Theron flew off, anything on him doesn’t hinder him in any way.
She sets him free, and he immediately flies up into a tree. She says he knows to be keyed in on her.
Christine whistles. “Theron sees something up there.”
Red-tailed Hawks Soaring Above
She whistles again. We hear the rattle of Theron’s bells. She says he’s okay, and just a bit nervous around strangers.
We hear his bells again and she whistles. Theron looks up, and there are several Red-tailed Hawks soaring above, and we listen to their cries.
Christine gets close to Theron.
In the past, she says hawks have come down and knocked Theron out of the tree to show him that this is their territory.
Christine whistles again four more times. Now more Red-tailed Hawks are soaring above, and Theron keeps looking up at them.
Then in a split-second, his focus changes and he locks in. He dives to the ground to hunt something.
He nails a mouse. He’s still a wild animal even if he’s in captivity.
Christine goes to Theron as he polishes off his lunch as the Red-tailed Hawks swirl above him.
Their presence prevents Theron from flying this day.
He’s small in comparison to them. Theron is 700 grams, and these hawks are 1000 grams.
Just then a Red-tailed Hawk swoops in very low. Now there are five Red-tailed Hawks and two Turkey Vultures flying above us.
Christine grabs Theron. He knows he’s safe with Christine.
There will be no free flying today with the hawks above.
Instead, Christine and Betsy fly Theron in an exercise called creance flying.
Creancing involves attaching leather straps (jesses) to the bird’s lower legs and then attaching the jesses to a long line that can be up to 300 feet in length in an open space to give him fight time and training.
To the untrained eye, this process might look somewhat like flying a “bird kite.”
Theron flies back and forth several more times.
Christine says it took two weeks for him to fly back and forth for food, and she bonded with Theron very quickly.
Theron will be her falconry bird until she graduates from college. “I might keep him because he’s an awesome bird and doesn’t mind captivity.”
Theron flies back and forth from Christine to Betsy with each holding a tidbit of food (bait) to entice him to keep going.
Betsy looks at the last piece of bait on her glove and jokes, “This goes in the things we do for love category.”
“He’ll do this all day. He loves the lure (full meal) when he sees it.”
Just then he flies up and over to a branch and gets snagged.
Luckily, Theron didn’t have his lure yet, and Christine uses this as an enticement to come out of the tree.
It’s time to put him back in his transport box so he can feel safe until the other hawks soaring above fly away.
Higgins – Male Northern Saw-whet Owl
Higgins is a delightfully charming tiny owl that came to Christine’s Critters with a damaged wing.
He was attacked by a cat that brought him into the house, deposited him under the kid’s bed and was playing dead. The kids found him when they were cleaning their room and thought he was a stuffed animal.
“We immediately got him on antibiotics to stop the infection,” says Betsy. “Cat saliva is deadly to a bird. If a cat bites a bird, you have 24-48 hours to get them onto antibiotics before they die from the infection.”
A vet did their best to set Higgins’ wing, but it doesn’t open properly, so he’s not capable of flying.
“He’s very cute and can be so mean,” Betsy says laughing. “He’s feisty, and he has to be as a tiny small owl to survive in a world where everything is trying to eat you.”
Ash – Male Grey-faced Eastern Screech Owl
Ash got hit by a car, rupturing his iris. He can’t see out of the injured eye and can’t hear.
“He’s a beautiful grey color and blends in perfectly with his surroundings,” Christine says.
She points out that Ash is near feather perfect.
Higgins and Ash do programs together, and they’re a hit at kid’s parties.
“These owls are very calm and not excitable. Everyone is excited to see the owls because of their forward-facing eyes and circular face. People just identify with them.”
Archer – Male Cooper’s Hawk
Archer is a gorgeous male Cooper’s Hawk that came to Christine’s Critter’s as an adult after flying into a window and injuring his wing nerve.
He can’t open his wing because of damage to his radial nerve from hitting the window. Instead, Christine has to open his wing for him.
Cooper’s Hawks fly in fast and low to the ground, then up and over an obstruction to surprise prey on the other side. (Usually a songbird).
But this beautiful bird will never be able to fly again.
He’s the first bird Christine applied for as an education bird, and Archer is her oldest education bird.
“People don’t keep Cooper’s Hawks for education because of their temperament, but Archer is one of the exceptions,” Christine says.
She says Archer is a good bird and that she uses him in quieter, low key events, but not kid’s parties.
Since Archer was injured flying into a glass window, Christine is careful about not releasing any of her Cooper’s Hawks in areas where there are tall glass buildings.
Aurora – Female Bald Eagle
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, there are 143,00 Bald Eagles, and Christine’s Critters has one of them.
Aurora is a beautiful five-year-old female Bald Eagle who got hit by a truck in Missouri and taken to a wildlife rehabilitation center in Illinois with a broken radius.
The wing wasn’t cared for properly, so this fierce raptor can no longer fly.
She also has problems with her joints.
“When Aurora opens her wings, she looks amputated. But the wing is there. It just fused in the wrong direction. I wish more were done for her wing, but we’re doing our best to manage it.”
Helping a Bald Eagle Cope with Injury
Christine and Betsy have great patience with Aurora because this magnificent ten-pound bird needs help standing up.
They’re careful helping Aurora get up for the bird’s safety and their own.
Aurora is handled quite gently as if she’s a toddler learning to walk.
But this toddler has enormous talons and has already broken several pairs of Betsy’s glasses.
“When ten pounds of bird says no, they mean no,” Betsy jokes.
Christine says Aurora is the most vocal bird on glove.
The people from the rehabilitation center in Illinois remarked that in all the years they cared for Aurora, they never heard her talk and were afraid she was mute.
But with Christine, Aurora is the most vocal bird.
And it’s not just Aurora, Christine brings out the best in her birds. Most are well-behaved, get along together and are quite vocal.
After some work, Christine gets Aurora up on glove where she stands proudly and calls out for several minutes until she baits to get back to her enclosure where she feels safe.
Aurora is a stunning Bald Eagle with white marks on her brown feathers with a wingspan of six feet.
“I’m excited to see what Aurora will look like after she molts.”
Second Chance at Life
After meeting most of Christine’s permanent critters and those that are rehabilitating and waiting for release back into the wild, you can’t help but notice that all of these birds have one thing in common: they’ve all been harmed by humanity.
And most were injured by cars.
Christine says that over 80 percent of the birds she takes in have been hit by cars and the two birds she sees most are Barred owl and Red-tailed Hawks.
Luckily for these birds, and people who love birds as much as we do, there are places like Christine’s Critters to help give these injured birds a second chance at life in the wild.
Christine has a gift, or some would call it, a magical touch to relate to birds.
Birds that are unruly or quiet in the captivity of others are suddenly acting calm, become vocal and thrive under Christine’s care.
She has a natural ability to nurture wildlife and nature responds.
Maybe the birds think Christine’s a bird. Or the birds believe they’re human when they’re around her.
But whatever it is, it’s an amazing skill and her passion and mission in life.
We look forward to the day when this young woman can fulfill her dream and open a wildlife rehabilitation center in southern Connecticut.
Christine is impassioned, possesses the skill, has the gift, and just needs the land.
Hopefully, there’s a future benefactor out there who sees the good she is doing for wild birds and nature and donates the land she needs to accomplish her dream.
Life in the wild doesn’t have to be so hard for birds. Birds have everything they need to exist. Humanity complicates it.
We are fortunate to have people like Christine that protect birds. And then we protect the earth.
If you’re in southern Connecticut on Earth Day, April 21, stop by and see Christine, Betsy and the critters at two public events.
Christine will be at the Feathers and Fun at Wild Birds Unlimited on Black Rock Turnpike in Fairfield from 9:30 am – 11 am.
She’ll also be at the Bethel Community Earth Day Celebration from 12:30 pm – 3 pm.
Christine’s Critters, Inc. is a non-profit 501(c)(3) created in 2015 whose mission is to rescue, rehabilitate and release injured birds of prey. It relies on donations and program fees to care for 15 permanent resident birds of prey, 40 reptiles, and the 100 or more birds that are admitted into rehabilitation each year. To get involved, donate, send needed supplies from Christine’s Critters’ Amazon wishlist or just volunteer go to https://www.christinescritters.org/get_involved