SOMERSET — The peregrine falcon, too bruised to fly only three weeks before, flapped away from the thick leather gloves its handler was wearing, circled in the bright, bitterly cold air and headed northeast, disappearing from sight.
That's another success story for the Raptor Rehabilitation Program at Southwestern High School in Pulaski County.
Students in the program help care for injured birds of prey such as hawks, owls and eagles, called raptors, and return them to the wild if possible. The program has taken in more than 1,000 birds since biology teacher Frances Carter started it more than 15 years ago.
Many of the birds must be euthanized, but the number returned to the wild has averaged 44 percent through the years, Carter said.
Other programs and people in the state care for injured raptors, but the facility at Southwestern is the only one in the nation on a high school campus, Carter said.
The falcon, which students named Artemis, after the Greek goddess of the hunt, was an arctic bird.
It wasn't clear how she ended up in Kentucky or got hurt, said Noe Avina, 17, a senior who helped care for the bird, feeding her and putting her in a large, mesh-enclosed cage where she could practice flying and build up her wing strength.
Last month, a crowd of students watched as Noe told Artemis good luck and gave her a push to get her airborne. They cheered as she took off.
It felt good to get the bird back where she belongs, Noe said. "That, for me, was a big deal."
The raptor center is part of the school's Conservation Club, which has other programs such as a nature trail. The club has a greenhouse where students grow plants for the trail.
Students take a great deal of responsibility in the raptor program.
They built the wooden cages where the birds live, some permanently because they can't be released. They train birds for use in educational programs at other schools, state parks and events.
And every day — including weekends, holidays and summer break — students feed and water the birds and clean the cages, a job that can take two hours to finish, said Morgan Tapp, the Conservation Club president.
The students do the work because they love the birds, said Morgan, a senior who plans to study nursing in college.
"I can say I've looked a bald eagle in the eye. Most people can't say that," she said. "It's very rewarding."
Morgan's sister Adrian was club president last school year, when the raptor program won a national award from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and her sister Katherine also was in the club.
Before they get a chance to handle a bird, students have to do cleanup work to show they're serious, Morgan said.
They must also be trained on the right way to handle birds with powerful, sharp talons.
The students learn pretty quickly that birds have personalities. For instance, a female red-tailed hawk named Nakomis loves attention but won't work with male students, preferring girls with blonde or red hair, Morgan said.
Nakomis once plucked Adrian Tapp's earring off during a presentation.
"I think we've all gotten slightly attacked," Morgan said, but there haven't been any serious injuries.
Noe said the birds pick which students they will work with, not the other way around.
There are typically 30 to 40 birds at the facility at any time and often more in the spring when babies fall from nests.
Carter said the program costs $30,000 to $40,000 a year to operate. Students, parents and sponsors raise money by selling items and running bingo games and concessions at basketball games.
Bruce Jasper, a veterinarian in Somerset who has worked with the raptor program for years, donates his services to operate on injured birds and provides medicine at cost.
The students have helped care for many birds that would have died otherwise, Jasper said.
"That is a terrific program," he said.
Birds end up at the raptor center for a variety of reasons. People shoot them, which is illegal. They get hurt during storms or hit by cars while chasing mice or other prey.
People find the weak, injured birds on the ground or caught in fences and call state conservation officers, the raptor program or 911, which contacts the center.
The center has more owls than any other kind of bird. They are susceptible to being hit by cars because they have tunnel vision when they chase food, Noe said.
The center has one bald eagle, named Independence, that a man shot over a lake in Tennessee. His wing had to be amputated, so he can't return to the wild.
Morgan said students have to read to Indy for a month before they get the opportunity to handle him. They sometimes read their homework.
Students talk to the birds because the first thing the birds recognize about a person is the pattern of his or her voice, Morgan said.
The center has successfully rehabilitated two other eagles and released them.
Carter said the program is a powerful educational tool, not just in matters of biology and conservation, but in management and leadership.
"I found out you can get kids involved who would never get involved otherwise," Carter said. "It's really benefited students."