Rapt attention — get to know vultures, the least loved birds of prey

Vultures play an important role in maintaining ecosystems, but the scavenging birds of prey more often are known for circling over dead animal carcasses or the food-obsessed cartoonish creatures in the “Ice Age” animated film series.

Grayson Richmond, president and head caretaker at Birdsacre-Stanwood Wildlife Sanctuary in Ellsworth, said vultures are highly underrated birds.

“Everyone sort of gravitates toward the owls and the hawks,” he said.

Birdsacre-Stanwood Wildlife Sanctuary President Grayson Richmond keeps a black vulture named Gauch company after the raptor scarfed up its evening meal of mice.

Birdsacre, which Richmond has run since 2000 after taking over from his father Stan Richmond, is a wildlife preserve and rehabilitation center straddling about 200 acres in downtown Ellsworth. The refuge is named in memory of ornithologist and wildlife photographer Cordelia “Cordie” J. Stanwood, whose 19th century home stands on the property and is open to the public.

The sanctuary has a network of nature trails traversing deep woods and skirting ponds and natural springs.

Birdsacre is home to two dozen wild birds including a young crow named Edgar Allen Crow, owls, hawks and four vultures. Richmond and volunteers help rehabilitate birds injured mostly in car accidents. It is very easy for them to get hit while searching for food near busy roads. Those that heal are released. Unequipped to live in the wild, the permanently injured ones are housed and are cared for.

“The birds that are here are permanent residents,” Richmond said. “If we weren’t here [these birds] wouldn’t have a home.”

Birdsacre is the permanent residence of two wild vultures and two “imprinted” ones that identify with humans as their social group rather than their own species.

Ziggy is one of four vultures that permanently live at Birdsacre. The imprinted raptor is gregarious and considered the “alpha male” of the birds.

One of the latter is called Ziggy, the “alpha male,” which rules over Birdsacre. “Everybody loves Ziggy,” Stanwood said.

The other imprinted vulture is Gauch. The black raptor has a shyer, subdued personality than Ziggy. Every bird has its own character and mannerisms.

Richmond enjoys getting to know each bird, because they’re all different. The other favorite part of his job is the sanctuary’s educational outreach.

To better acquaint the public with vultures, Richmond leads “vulture walks” during which curious children are allowed inside the raptors’ cages to observe them up close. He also occasionally brings “bird ambassadors” to local schools to teach children about ornithology.

Richmond is looking to expand Birdacre’s educational programming in the future. The nonprofit runs on donations, which is unpredictable and can cause stress.

“We’re entirely dependent on donations,” he said. “You’re talking about lights, paper towels, lumber, wire, sand. At times it’s like, ‘How does this place stay open?’”

Still, Richmond sees the wildlife refuge and its services as vital and worth investing in.

“Those who find us really do appreciate us,” he said.

Birdsacre is located at 289 High St. The sanctuary and trails are open seven days a week. Admission is by donation. For more information, visit www.birdsacre.com.