EPPING — Jane Kelly said it was a calling 14 years ago – 10 dead barn owls discovered over the course of two months along the roadside of Route 101, struck by cars.
“I felt it wasn’t a coincidence, that I was supposed to be doing something,” said Kelly, who reinvented her life as a retail store owner to become the Seacoast’s leading raptor rehabilitator. The years saw thousands of recovered birds of prey, countless educational talks and a recurring role on the Animal Planet reality show “North Woods Law.”
Now, Kelly is saying goodbye to the state where she discovered her passion and is moving home to Wisconsin where she was born and raised. She said she came to the difficult decision this year that she needed to be closer to family, and she will be back in the Midwest by the end of the month.
“It was a bittersweet decision,” Kelly said. “I hate goodbyes.”
Kelly said she will be continuing On the Wing in Wisconsin, while staying in touch with volunteers who helped her rehabilitate birds on her Epping farm. Plans are in the works for some of those volunteers to become certified and trained to continue Kelly’s work so Seacoast raptors still have someone watching over them.
“We’re losing an amazing person who has such a care and knowledge for the raptors in this area,” said Kristin McConnell, one of the volunteers who hopes to continue On the Wing’s legacy in New Hampshire. “She was just this matriarch of the sky dragons.”
From store owner to raptor savior
Kelly moved to New Hampshire 19 years ago while she was still the owner of a retail store chain in the Midwest with locations in Chicago and Minneapolis. She was 43 years old when she began discovering those first barn owls on the side of the highway between Auburn to Hampton. She had no background in biology, zoology – “no ‘ologies’” as she likes to say – but she confided in a close friend how troubled she was by the discovery.
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“She said, “The universe is speaking to you,’” Kelly said. From there, she took action, getting her start at the Center for Wildlife in Cape Neddick in York, Maine, and three and a half years later she started On the Wing out of her home de ella in Epping. She took up falconry so she could work with the raptors and better understand how they hunt and maneuver. Over time she has built a crew of 18 to 24 volunteers and a network of programs to keep On the Wing funded.
Kelly has worked with all levels of law enforcement on a weekly basis while saving raptors, as she increasingly became a go-to for rehabbing injured birds of prey reported to officers. That led to her becoming a regular on “North Woods Law,” in which a camera crew follows New Hampshire Fish and Game officers as they respond to wildlife calls around the state.
Kelly, who appeared in more than one episode, admitted she found filming challenging. She said she was “not an actress,” and that she typically had to repeat herself multiple times for the camera.
“I have a potty mouth,” Kelly said. “Probably had to do 25 takes.”
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The show was fun even for Kelly who is reluctant to appear on camera. “North Woods Law” often showed officers stopping in at On the Wing to see how a given raptor was doing, as well as releases of raptors that were ready for flight.
“Just count to three and let him go,” Kelly says to Fish and Game biologist Pete Tate in a scene from one episode as they prepare to release a red-tailed hawk. She said her relationship with the conservation officers and staff has been like family since she began working with them.
“They’re like younger brothers to me,” Kelly said. “I will miss them.”
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A passion for raptors
Kelly said rehabilitating birds is fulfilling, although it can be emotionally challenging. On the Wing took in 400 birds last year, but only 40% are returned to the wild.
In addition to physical injuries from cars, they also suffer from toxins after eating rodents that have consumed rodenticide. Some that can’t return to the wild go into education, but many must be euthanized, she said.
“Seeing deaths in waves during migration takes a toll on us,” Kelly said. “It can be rewarding, and it can also be very exhausting mentally.”
The release of a bird back into the wild is something Jane treasures and does not take for granted. She holds releases in front of large groups and uses the opportunity for education. She never plans a release unless she knows the bird is ready, only once in 14 years had a bird failed to take off.
“You want to make sure they can fly,” Kelly said.
The connection between the public and the birds is inspiring, she said. The releases draw people from all walks of life, which she said speaks to the awe-inspiring power that nature holds. Last weekend she said On the Wing had crowds of about 150 people at their release, many looking at the birds up close with amazement. There will be one final release of five juvenile great horned owls on Oct. 15 at 4 pm
“Those five minutes of harmony, of different people coming together, it just warmed my heart on behalf of wildlife,” Kelly said. “It just goes to show we can be together in harmony and set aside our differences.”