To Save Raptors, They Focused on Their Neighbours

The founders of the Alberta Birds of Prey Centre found local support when they supported local needs.

A raptor with dark brown wings, white speckled belly and striped tail flies above a woman and 2 kids.
Photo by Colin Weir

A raptor soars at the Alberta Birds of Prey Centre.

When bird rescuers Colin Weir and Wendy Slaytor set out to create a centre for wounded raptors in Coaldale, AB, they knew why they thought the town needed one. The challenge was getting everyone else in the community to know it too. 

Forty years later, the Alberta Birds of Prey Centre in Coaldale not only helps return approximately 150 injured raptors to the wild each year, but is also one of southern Alberta’s flagship tourism attractions—and a model for community partnerships and environmental restoration. I met Colin Weir at an Alberta tourism conference a few years after he established the centre, and I headed to the facility recently to hear how he made it a success.

Weir, an accountant, and Slaytor, an expert falconer, took their first steps in making raptor rescue a community project in 1984, when it was illegal to hold a raptor in captivity in Alberta, even for the purpose of rehabilitating it. The pair looked for an influential ally who could help change this legislation, and they found one in Conservative MLA Robert Bogle. With his support, they lobbied government ministers to allow them to help feathered creatures. Soon Weir and Slaytor were tending to sick and injured birds in the backyard of a small older home that, in realtor parlance, “needed work.” By 1986, in order to receive donations for their work, they had co-founded the non-profit society Alberta Birds of Prey Foundation.

Weir told me that when he began to dream of a bigger facility, he had a major realization: his neighbours and government officials had needs that a raptor-rescue centre could help meet. For one, the community needed more park space. As well, parts of Coaldale suffered from seasonal flooding that made them unsuitable for development but gave them great potential for a wildlife area. And then there was the simple fact that residents in the area assumed there must be a local centre for rehabilitating injured birds, and there wasn’t.

Weir and Slaytor felt they could get what they needed by helping others get what they wanted. During our interview, Weir said, “There’s all these different groups, and you all want something different. It’s just a matter of finding a project that appeals to meeting the needs of many different people, and finding a few key community people who will support you, as well.”

The municipal government had started discussions to secure a low-lying piece of farmland in Coaldale that was unsuitable for conventional development and create storm-water retention ponds on it. Current Coaldale mayor Jack Van Rijn told me he has seen historical photos showing a farmer driving a team of horses through chest-deep water on the land where the Birds of Prey Centre now sits. Weir thought a wildlife rescue facility could be incorporated into the plans to help birds and increase green spaces for people.

The result of those discussions was that when the Town of Coaldale set aside 28 hectares in 1988 for a stormwater-retention project, 4 hectares became the location for Weir and Slaytor’s new raptor facility. When I caught up with Mayor Van Rijn, he said, “We were fortunate that we were able to protect Coaldale from flooding, but it’s a huge bonus that the town of Coaldale was able to get a world-class facility such as the Birds of Prey Centre.”

It’s a matter of finding a project that appeals to meeting the needs of many different people.

Engineers from the Town of Coaldale were used to building storm ponds, structures that are efficient to build and good for catching run-off but that also create problems, such as providing a breeding ground for mosquitoes when water is stagnant. Since Weir envisioned a series of wetlands to provide habitat for birds and human neighbours, he and the engineers worked together to build modified storm ponds, with sloping sides planted with native vegetation. The Town also has conveyance agreements with St. Mary’s River Irrigation District that allows water to flow through the district’s drainage canals. These engineered wetlands with flowing water help to avoid the downsides of static storm ponds. 

After the main building of an old train station was moved onsite for education programs, the facility quickly became popular with local school groups. The centre, which Coaldale residents and tourists can access from the May long weekend until early September, now includes not only the facilities for injured birds, but also walking trails with display aviaries for permanent bird residents, environmental learning stations, two amphitheatres, a flight aviary for eagle rehabilitation, a visitors’ centre, and a duck pond. 

Another win-win for the centre and the community is that the proximity to green space is a selling point for neighbourhood homes, while also teaching residents about birds and biodiversity. For instance, lifelong Coaldale resident Joyce Vermeer and her husband bought their house when the Birds of Prey Centre was in the design phase, against her father’s advice. “He said, ‘You shouldn’t build here. That’s been a swamp its whole life,’” Vermeer recalled when we met. “But I wanted to be near the bird centre.”

She’s since become much more aware of the biodiversity that the Birds of Prey Centre has added to the region. “I’ve taken pictures of 125 species of wild birds on the facility grounds,” she said, providing photographic proof that avians approve of the landscape transformation. And she and other nearby residents have become protective of raptors, monitoring the great horned owls that nest in a tree next to the visitor centre’s parking lot. 

“In the evening people come to see the owls, and if there’s anyone bothering them, we say something. It’s brought neighbours together,” Vermeer said.

Mayor Van Rijn tells visiting dignitaries and business owners how the conservation organization solves water-management issues and attracts tourists. And when an owl nest built in a tree near the Alberta Birds of Prey Centre fell apart and Vermeer and other volunteers built a new one, Van Rijn says they used town equipment to install the owl nest. He is also helping Weir with grant applications to get Wi-Fi throughout the park.

The most important part of any environmental project is forming good relationships.

In some ways the facility has become a victim of its own success: the green space of the Birds of Prey Centre adds to neighbourhood amenities, which probably contributes to more residential development being planned in the area. Already, a high school and leisure centre have recently been built nearby. “I don’t want the facility to become an island,” Weir said. But raising funds to expand is becoming more challenging as demand drives up land prices and southern Alberta’s economy grows even bigger. This is particularly true after McCain Foods announced in 2023 that it was going to double the size of its Coaldale potato-processing facility and add 260 people to its Coaldale workforce.   

Weir is meeting these challenges with the same approach he has always used: searching for solutions that benefit multiple groups. “The most important part of any environmental project,” said Weir, “is forming good relationships with all of the other people in the community before you attempt anything. If you don’t start with that philosophy in mind, the chances of you succeeding are not as great.” 

Weir believes that to achieve success as a conservation group, it’s important to not get attached to a big end goal but instead to strive for a lot of small successes with incremental benefits. And of course there is the crucial element of getting others to see the vision, as happens in Weir’s favourite movie, Field of Dreams. Says Weir, “It’s just like in that movie. People are walking through the cornfield [and] nobody sees baseball players, except for a few people. And then in the end, everybody sees them. It’s a very similar journey to what we’ve been through here.”  

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