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The bird science of 'imping': A glimpse into North Carolina's science tourism

Once a month at the Carolina Raptor Center, hospital manager Sunny Cooper (shown) and colleagues perform the ancient operation of "imping."
Joe Wilwerding
Queens University News Service
Once a month at the Carolina Raptor Center, hospital manager Sunny Cooper (shown) and colleagues perform the ancient operation of "imping."

Leaders from the most important science centers in the world converge on Charlotte for their annual conference next month.

Participants in the event — from places like NASA, the Smithsonian and the Royal Ontario Museum in Canada — already create compelling science experiences. The organizers of the North Carolina Science Trail plan to follow their lead.

Discovery Place, which operates three of the Mecklenburg County locations on the statewide trail, is the host of the Oct. 7-10 conference of the Association of Science and Technology Centers.

A key objective for the North Carolina Science Trail, says co-founder Michele Miller Houck, is to reveal surprising, little-known examples of everyday science.

“Science is all around us, but many North Carolina residents are not able to see the science in everyday life,” Houck said. “Understanding the science all around us is important for making good decisions about our lives, our health, and the health of our planet.”

The trail was officially created in April and now includes 90 locations. Five are in Mecklenburg County — the Discovery Place science, kids, and nature museums; the Carolina Raptor Center; and the Sullenberger Aviation Museum.

The connection between informal and formal science

When Reid Wilson, secretary of the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, helped launch the science trail, he described it as a “springboard toward a more universal understanding of the scientific process.”

Recent data from the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction show Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools' performance in science in grades 5 and 8 slightly below statewide levels. Science tourism can help with this, Houck said, by casually creating a catalytic sense of wonder that attracts, amazes and motivates learners.

The catalytic summer for Sunny Cooper

The hospital manager of the Carolina Raptor Center near Huntersville provides an example of the potential outcomes of science tourism. Sunny Cooper grew up near Hanging Rock State Park, north of Winston-Salem. It’s now a partner on the North Carolina Science Trail, like all 41 state parks.

During a middle school summer, Cooper’s mother took Sunny to the raptor center and to the Duke Lemur Center for a birthday celebration.

They were two very different worlds, Cooper said, that were animal-based and not necessarily focused on becoming a veterinarian. Later, as an undergraduate biology major, she said career preparation felt confined to becoming a veterinarian or obtaining a graduate degree and doing research.

“Like there’s not a whole lot else out there that you think that you can do and like,” Cooper said. “It’s just so not true.”

Cooper now manages medical needs of all the wild patients that come through the hospital. Cooper oversees a small staff of five other individuals. Seventy volunteers transport birds and work regularly at the hospital. The center treats between 800 and 1,000 raptors annually.

The science of ‘imping’

Learning about the environment, wildlife rehabilitation and other career options enable people to obtain a connectedness to the natural world, Cooper said.

About once a month, Cooper and colleagues perform an ancient operation on raptors that shows what everyday science looks like.

Called “imping,” it’s a feather transplant for injured birds of prey. Using epoxy, whittled-down bamboo, and similar feathers from donor birds who didn’t make it, the hospital team matches and replaces feathers.

First written about by falconers in the 1200s, imping enables birds to fly again and eventually return to the wild. The word derives from the Latin word “imponere,” meaning “to place upon” or “to fix.”

What sparked Cooper’s interest in birds, rather than horses, dogs, or farm animals?

“Birds are a lot like cats, and I’m a cat person and not a dog person,” Cooper said. “They have somewhat similar behavior.”

Joe Wilwerding of Des Moines, Iowa, is a conservation biology major at Queens University of Charlotte. The news service is produced by the James L. Knight School of Communication in support of local community news.