“Want to meet Jack?” Leeann Shearouse asks, coaxing her Harris’s hawk out of its travel box.
Shearouse, a master falconer, has just returned from a falconry session in the countryside north of Asheville. The raptor’s brown feathers shine in the sunlight as he surveys his home territory with a single eye. Jack is just one of 85 injured birds at Carolina Avian Research and Education in Fletcher.
Before moving to Western North Carolina in 2009, Shearouse worked with birds in Palm Beach, Fla. In 2019, she launched her latest endeavor, where she cares for rare, endangered and special-needs birds. Garden beds, filled with tulips, surround each enclosure.
Looking around the site, Shearouse says, “I’m the team. I’m the mom. I’m the caretaker. I’m the poop sweeper. I’m the everything.”
Shearouse supports CARE by selling the canna lilies, daylilies and aquatic plants she grows on-site, in addition to teaching classes on falconry and gardening.
Xpress sat down with Shearouse inside her class area, which overlooks the waterfowl and exotics enclosure, where brightly colored birds flit among the shrubs and waddle along the pond edge in this avian sanctuary.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
What called you to work with birds with special needs?
Well, I’ve always worked with birds. I kind of morphed into just working with the birds of prey and some of the more rare birds that needed help. A lot of the birds are here because they have a physical disability. There’s a red-crested turaco whose leg was badly deformed at birth. Jack, the Harris’s hawk, he only has one eye. One of the ducks over there has a very bad leg. So either they have something physically wrong with them, or they’re so rare that we are trying to breed them.
How do these birds come into your care?
I’m well known in avicultural societies and groups, so people reach out to me. I turn away a lot of birds because I don’t think it’s a good fit. If it’s coming here, it’s got to be a bird that can be used in education. If it’s critically rare and endangered, I will try to breed them. Then we send them out to other avian facilities. I don’t want people to bring me their discarded bird pets.
What birds most interest you?
I’m very, very interested in frugivorous birds — birds that live on fruit. They’re tropical, and that’s why they have to have heated barns in the wintertime. And waterfowl. I love waterfowl.
Why did you come to Western North Carolina?
I moved to North Carolina because of my love of tulips. Who does that!?! I love them that much. And this is the farthest south that you can raise tulips successfully. I love them. And I breed them. I’m all about tulips and birds. I have a small nursery here where I sell aquatic plants, canna lilies that I’ve created myself and daylilies that I’ve bred. It’s a fun place to come out, get rare plants and see some extravagant birds.
What’s the most popular class that you teach?
Falconry. I think water gardening is also going to be popular this summer. I love teaching horticultural classes. And water gardening is my specialty.
I saw that you had a Fallen Heroes series of irises. What prompted that?
I was in bed watching cartoons with my little 6-year-old girl [in 1993]. We were having a beautiful Saturday morning. And the news came on that a police officer had just been shot in the head and was dead. And he had children and a wife. And they would never get to see him again. And it was so hard for my little girl.
I said, “You know, maybe we can do something more.” And so I said, “I’m going to create a series of hybrid irises. And each new iris that is superior, we’re going to name after a police officer that was killed in the line of duty.” And she was so excited. And I was excited.
About a year and a half later, I came up with the first iris. It was Rocky Hunt [honoring Sgt. James “Rocky” Hunt of the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office, killed in the line of duty in February 1993]. It’s a wonderful, big, blue iris. It’s still one of my favorites.
Currently, there are five irises in this series. And the latest one was named after our dear Capt. Jeff Bowen. He was a firefighter [who died in July 2011 while battling an arson fire]. I got to meet Jeff’s mother and his widow, and I presented them both with Capt. Jeff Bowen irises just last year. These families have a memorial plant that’s going to live forever.
How can somebody get involved with your organization?
Well, if they want to book a class, they can call me and come have a wonderful, fun experience and learn about birds of prey and the art of falconry. When it warms up a bit, they can learn about wildflower gardening or water gardening. And then I have another class called “Birds from Around the World.” All people need to do is go to the website, which is carebird.org.
Has the pandemic affected your organization?
No, I started doing these classes just recently. So, during the pandemic, I felt a little bad because everybody was really suffering and depressed because they missed their friends. And I didn’t miss anybody. Because I’m so busy here and I have all these birds to enjoy and it’s so beautiful. I love these birds. They’re really my life.