Facebook and Instagram have been making headlines recently. Not all of the news is good, and a lot of people have begun to think that social media is for the birds — and maybe it is! At the Alaska Raptor Rehabilitation Center in Sitka, bird lovers are flocking to TikTok to catch up with some avian social media celebrities.
During a recent visit to the Alaska Raptor Rehabilitation Center, I stood on the viewing platform, chatting with Richard Hart. Perched below us was Volta, a bald eagle. As we approached him, he began to let off a high-pitched sound, almost like a laugh.
“That’s their territorial cackle,” Hart told me. “So when we came up here, it’s pretty much him saying, ‘That’s my spot don’t try to take it from me.”
Hart started volunteering with the Raptor Center 13 years ago, and now he works as their development specialist. The Center has been around for over 40 years, treating more than 200 injured birds annually.
“We started off in 1980. And it was actually just two gentlemen here in Sitka healing one bald eagle in their backyard,” Hart said. “And over years and years of work, it’s turned into what we have here today, and we are Alaska’s only full service avian hospital.”
Hart’s job at the Raptor Center is kind of a catch-all- but a big part of it is outreach on social media. They’re on all of the big platforms, Facebook, Instagram, and of course, Twitter.
A few years ago, Hart began looking into a social media platform that was booming in popularity around the world, and was just about to catch on strongly in the US– Tiktok– a video sharing app originally founded in China in 2016.
“I read an article that was talking about how TikTok was getting close to a billion active users when it was still in India and China. And I had never heard of TikTok so of course, my reaction is ‘What social media site has almost a billion active users I’ve never heard of?'” Hart said.
Hart downloaded the app and began to investigate.
“I quickly realized that within this landscape that there was a major piece missing, and it’s what we do,” Hart said. “And it’s that educational, interesting side, and I found that there was that nice little footprint that we could just nicely fit into.”
Hart posted the first video in March of 2019.
“It was when dance videos were still all of the craze,” he said. “It was a lot of videos of our birds doing things, like doing a rouse with shake it off sound, or other things like that, where it was sort of still in that dance aspect, but being done with birds, and then using the little parts of the bottom, the text, to be able to give little factoids about those birds.”
From treating injured hummingbirds in the ICU to releasing rehabilitated eagles, Hart shows the TikTok audience the work the Raptor Center does from every angle. And the app is making it possible to reach new audiences all over the world.
“It’s definitely a younger audience, or people that really haven’t been exposed to the world that we are in here at the Raptor Center,” Hart said. “Which is one of the really cool things because a lot of the times some of the questions that we get asked on there are questions I’ve never been asked.”
One of the most recent videos to make a big impression: A great horned owl named “Clackers” who isn’t too happy about taking a trip to the bird doctor.
“When Clackers first came in, we opened up the front cage to his kennel, and he was in the back, and he just went, ‘Click, click, click, click, click, click click,'” Hart said. “And I happened to get a perfect little video of it.”
“And it’s just a noise that if you don’t know about great horned owls, or owls in general, I don’t think that you’d expect that noise to come from them,” Hart said. “We had a lot of people call him a muppet and other things like that, just because it is a very adorable video.”
According to Hart, the format — short videos, catchy music — is a pretty palatable package for educational content. It’s not surprising that the Raptor Center’s content dovetails with overall trends on TikTok, and views are taking off.
“Earlier today, we had a video of a sharp-shinned hawk that was released. And so I got to spend some time in the different comments explaining sharp-shinned hawks being exhibitors versus buteos, which are two different types of hawk species,” Hart said.
“It’s just fun to be able to have this cute little video that then turns into an educational lesson,” Hart continued. “It’s kind of a surprise, I want them to not realize they’re learning something.”
Since opening the Tiktok account in 2019, the Raptor Center has gained over 163,000 followers from all over the world. Hart said, since then, more avian rehabilitation centers have jumped on board, making TikTok more like “TikSquawk” every day.