A group of wildlife rehabilitators, many with tears in their eyes, welcomed back Buster, an American kestrel falcon who was abducted Friday but returned to the fold on Christmas night.
“It was a nice gift — the spirit of Christmas present,” said Jim Jones, a board member of Volunteers for Wildlife, the Locust Valley hospital and educational center where Buster has made his home for 14 years.
The falcon, whose breed is federally protected, was discovered Sunday about 8 p.m., Jones said, in a box left outside the volunteers’ entrance, along with an anonymous note saying the box had been spotted on the side of a road. That was just hours after media reports went out about the creature’s “kidnap” from the facility, wildlife rehabilitators said.
The blue-jay-sized bird seemed relieved to see so many familiar faces, Jones said, with staffers sticking around well after normal hours — yes, even on Christmas Day — in hopes he would be returned.
The bird appeared to be in good shape physically, was “a little stressed and a little dehydrated,” and dug right in when presented with a mouse, his meal of choice, Jones said Monday. For the next few days Buster will be the house guest of a staff rehabilitator, to give him a little peace and quiet.
The ordeal is believed to have started between 1:30 p.m. and 4 p.m. Friday.
“It’s just devastating,” Jones had said earlier when pleading for Buster’s return. “We saw his jess, the leather strap we use to hold him, was cut. We haven’t heard anything since.” Earlier on Sunday, Jones said he and fellow center officials wondered whether whoever stole Buster may have been familiar with the facility’s operations.
“If you’re talking about who might have grabbed him,” Jones said, “they would have to know he was on his jess lead and that’s why they came in with something prepared to cut it.”
Over the weekend officials told reporters they would not press charges if Buster were returned unharmed to the center, located at Bailey Arboretum.
Nassau police, which had taken a missing-bird report on Friday, have been notified of the creature’s return, Jones said, and the wildlife group is not interested in pursuing the matter further.
Buster is imprinted on humans, so he cannot hunt in the wild, instead sometimes approaching people in hopes of getting food, Jones had said. He is not aggressive, but sanctuary officials were worried about him because as a “very, very mature” bird, Buster needed to be fed his diet of dead mice stuffed with vitamins, he said.
With his striking black and orange markings, Buster has been on hundreds of school and other educational outings because he likes to hang out with people and goes easily into his carrier, Jones said.
Buster lives in a room by the volunteers’ entrance. At night, he’s in his cage, but during the day, he’s let out to roam on a 3-foot-long leg strap.
“He likes to sit by the window and watch people go by,” Jones said. “He’s a great ambassador for the species.”
The first time Buster was snatched, he was probably just a baby in a nest in Central Park, the group’s officials said.
Someone tried to raise him in an apartment, but as the young falcon grew, he got vocal, liked to fly, ate and defecated a lot, Jones said.
The bird was rescued from Manhattan. He had been released but thought he was a human because that’s whom he saw early in life, the wildlife volunteer recounted.
“When he was released, he was walking up and down Central Park West screaming for food from people,” Jones said. A volunteer from the center rescued him.
According to Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology, the American kestrel is North America’s smallest falcon, hunts in open territory and is in decline in parts of the country.
The wildlife center has no video cameras, Jones said, but the theft of Buster is going to change that. He said, “We just never thought this would happen.”