Nestled in the Appalachian foothills of southeastern Ohio, approximately 75 miles east of Columbus, are nearly 10,000 acres of reclaimed surface mine habitat unlike any other area in the state. One of the world’s largest conservation centers has been located here since 1984.
Birders know The Wilds as a phenomenal area to watch birds, especially in winter, when dozens of northern harriers, rough-legged hawks, and short-eared owls cruise over the grasslands, hunting for meadow voles. Regular occurrences of golden eagle and northern shrike add to the allure of winter birding at The Wilds. The summer months bring an array of grassland songbirds to the mix: grasshopper, vesper, and Henslow’s sparrows; prairie warbler; bobolink; and the occasional blue grosbeak. The Wilds is truly a year-round birder’s paradise. The National Audubon Society made it official by designating The Wilds as an Important Bird Area.
But did you know that The Wilds is more than just a great place to watch native birds? The nonprofit organization’s mission is “to advance conservation through science, education, and personal experience.” They accomplish this through innovative research, numerous outreach programs, and unique safari tour experiences.
The Wilds currently maintains 31 rare and endangered species from around the globe. Successful breeding programs result in scores of animals being born there each year including southern white rhinos, Persian onagers, Przewalski’s wild horses, cheetahs, and bantengs. Many of the species bred at this facility are in serious decline or even extinct in the wild. Some, like an endangered scimitar-horned oryx born in 2007, are returned to their native region, in this case to Tunisia, as part of reintroduction programs. The Wilds, along with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, has played a major role in reestablishing trumpeter swans and ospreys to Ohio.
Research at The Wilds also includes restoration ecology (especially of surface mined areas), reproduction techniques, and various long-term projects in collaboration with a number of universities, zoological institutions, and federal agencies.
Though The Wilds is first and foremost a research center, the organization has done an excellent job in raising environmental awareness through public outreach and educational programs. Several weeklong youth camps are offered each summer, some with a focus on exposing kids to career opportunities in the fields of ecology and conservation. Adult and family educational camps are held as well. Each experience gives campers a behind-the-scenes look at the animal management techniques, scientific research, and habitats and facilities of The Wilds, and experienced naturalists, veterinarians, ecologists, and other professionals lead each camp.
Perhaps the best way to discover The Wilds is through one of the guided safari tours. Offered daily May through September, and weekends in October, these unique experiences take visitors behind the fences and into the open-range pastures with the animals. An enclosed, climate-controlled bus with large windows or an open-air vehicle allows for close encounters with red-crowned cranes; American bison; southern white and greater one-horned rhinos; giraffes; Bactrian camels; sable antelope; Grevy’s zebras; and dozens of other species. Because the animals are not enclosed in pens, but rather are given acres of open habitat in which to roam, visitors can enjoy the wildlife in a way that is truer to real life than the typical zoo or safari park experience. The fences are barely visible from most places within the pastures. Native bird species, including grasshopper sparrow and bobolink, are plentiful throughout these areas and are often encountered from the tour vehicles.
Knowledgeable guides share information about the animals, research, and history of The Wilds throughout the approximately two-hour tour, which includes brief stops at various points to hike trails and visit the carnivore center and the newly installed aviary, which currently houses budgerigars.
Similar tours can be experienced from horseback, zipline, or boat.
Globally important work is being accomplished at The Wilds. Consider a visit to see the animals, learn more about current conservation methods, and enjoy the scores of native birds that occupy this special place in southeastern Ohio.
Better yet, become a member of The Wilds, contributing directly to conservation. For more information, visit thewilds.org or call 740-638-5030.
About the Author
Kyle Carlsen is the assistant editor of Bird Watcher's Digest. Find him on Twitter @kycarlsen.