By Ernie Williamson
“If all the birds die,” says Phil Huxford, “we are next.”
And that succinctly and dramatically describes why, since 2002, Huxford has brought his Birds of Prey program to more than 400,000 students and teachers in our area.
Featuring live birds, the program will be taken to 39 schools this year in Brazoria and Matagorda counties and expanding into Wharton County.
As a member of the board of directors of the Friends of Brazoria National Wildlife Refuges, Huxford has been the driving force behind the program that teaches students about falcons, hawks, owls, eagles and, yes, even vultures.
Huxford also presents his program at state, county and municipal parks, service clubs, churches and shopping malls. Many of the programs are free to the public.
Why this crusade to educate the public about birds of prey?
Huxford says the purpose of the program is not only to create interest in the birds, but generate in audiences a greater appreciation and understanding of nature and our environment.
“We need to change how we treat the environment,” says Huxford.
Birds of prey, also known as raptors, are birds that hunt food - usually other animals - using their keen senses, especially vision. Their talons and beaks tend to be relatively large, powerful and adapted for tearing and/or piercing flesh.
The birds make a lasting impression of the audiences. “Years from now, students will remember the birds, but they won’t remember me,” Huxford said.
In retirement, Huxford does all the work on a voluntary basis. The Friends of Brazoria National Wildlife Refuges hires falconers for his programs, but Huxford arranges schedules and makes contacts with potential sponsors. Sponsors include individuals, businesses and organizations.
All of the funds he raises go to the care of the birds. Both the Friends group and Birds of Prey are non-profit organizations.
When he is not doing all of that, Huxford has purchased - through a grant from the Brazosport Rotary - about 100 copies of The Young Birder’s Guide and distributed them to school librarians. He rejoices in the fact that one librarian told him that her copy was worn out from use.
Huxford has always been interested in nature and says as a boy he was always bringing “wild things” home.
In the early years, the Birds of Prey program operated in the red. Huxford relied on a falconer from Georgia. The man and his birds would come for six weeks, and Huxford would put the man and his birds up at his place and schedule programs.
Now, Huxford relies primarily on a falconer from the Bastrop area.
It is a busy time of year for the Birds of Prey program and for bird watchers in general.
The spring migration from mid-March to mid-May is a great time to visit Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge to see migrating songbirds and shorebirds. The refuge contains more than 320 species of birds.
Huxford has scheduled his next public Birds of Prey program at the Sea Center in Lake Jackson on April 16 with sessions at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m.
I couldn’t help but ask Huxford about vultures because they are often portrayed negatively in pop culture. Is there anything worthy about a bird that urinates on itself to keep cool and survives by eating carrion, the decaying flesh of dead animals?
Huxford put in a good word for the bird.
“We couldn’t keep up with all the dead animals on our roads if it weren’t for vultures,” he says.
“They are nature’s cleaning crew. Plus, they are very intelligent.”
(Contact Ernie at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or, send letters in care of The Bulletin, PO Box 2426, Angleton, TX. 77516)