Wednesday, July 16th, 2003

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Progressive Animal
Welfare Society

PO Box 1037
Lynnwood, WA 98046

Kevin Mack
Dangerous Territory
by Kevin Mack, PAWS Wildlife Naturalist

On May 29th, a Red-tailed Hawk was standing on the ground in what was most likely one of his favorite hunting areas. The spot in which he stood was located along a seemingly unending swath of neatly trimmed grass that was divided up the middle by an impermeable layer of stone. Trimmed grass is a hawk’s best friend, and a rodent’s worst nightmare. The mice and voles unfortunate enough to have their territories in these open spaces had little chance of escaping the hawk’s watchful gaze. The sight of a scurrying mouse or vole is probably what drew the hawk down to the floor of his home. Moments before, he had undoubtedly been scanning his territory intently from one of the many ideal perches that it contained. Amazingly, dead trees were evenly spaced along the length of the grassy open space, and they were seemingly unaffected by weathering or decay. Occasionally one or more of the trees did succumb to the effects of gravity, but they would always miraculously reappear in a matter of days, if not hours. Even the strange vein of rock that ran through the middle of the hawk’s territory appeared to be an advantage, as it would frequently provide an easy meal. It seemed to offer up injured and dying animals on a regular basis. I doubt that the hawk was able to comprehend the reason for this. If he had been able to, he would have been better prepared to prevent himself from becoming one of the offerings.

On the ground, the hawk had just finished a meal and he decided it was time to return to a higher perch. He focused on a destination with his far-seeing eyes and launched himself forward with a powerful thrust of his legs. As his legs extended, his wings beat down, replacing the visible support of leg bone and muscle with the invisible support of lift. He continued to flap, propelling himself forward and upward with each stroke of his wings.

Red-tailed Hawk

For the first time in more than a month, Red-tailed Hawk 1421 stretches his wings outside of a cage.

He had taken off hundreds if not thousands of times in his lifetime; an act that may be considered magical by ground dwelling beings, but merely routine in a hawk’s experience. But this particular takeoff turned out to be anything but routine, and could have very well been the bird’s last. As the hawk started to cross over the layer of stone that divided his territory, he was struck by an irresistible force moving at a 90-degree angle to his own direction of movement. In a split second his world was thrown into chaos as he was overcome by a violent impact and was swept away. Pain, fear, and confusion overwhelmed him, quickly to be replaced by the semi-consciousness of shock. The movement slowed and then ceased, but the hawk was still suspended in mid air. The bird hung upside down, supported by one foot that had become stuck in a metal crevice. As he hung there, he had no way of knowing that he had just encountered the very reason for the existence of his preferred hunting grounds.

The driver and passenger of the car that had just struck the hawk suffered a bit of a shock themselves. Not only had they just hit an animal, it was also now hanging from the front of their car with its foot caught underneath the hood. They received some assistance from another driver who stopped to see what had happened. She worked at a local veterinary clinic and was familiar with the PAWS Wildlife Center. After the hawk was detached from the car, the driver was instructed to take the bird to PAWS for treatment. This is how, at 9:47 pm on May 29th, Red-tailed Hawk 03-1421 came into PAWS’ care.

Upon admission, hawk 03-1421 was in a very bad state. He was hemorrhaging, and blood was present on his beak, in his mouth, and in his trachea. He had abrasions and lacerations on both feet (caused by his own talons during the impact), and a severe contusion over his abdominal region. His crop was completely full, containing the meal that he had finished just before his fateful takeoff. He was certainly in no condition to digest that meal in his damaged and dazed state. The hawk was prescribed a regimen of fluids and medications to address his shock, and he slowly came around over the course of the next two days. By the fifth day he was stable enough to undergo X-rays, and the resulting films added a fractured left scapula to the bird’s list of known injuries. His wing was wrapped to immobilize the fracture, and after an additional eight days the bone was stable. Once the wing wrap was removed, the hawk was moved to a larger outdoor cage in which he could stretch his wings. Thirty days after he was admitted, the hawk was moved into a large flight pen, and there he conditioned himself for release.

On July 8th, Red-tailed Hawk 03-1421 was again sitting on the ground. He was looking through the open door of a large plastic pet carrier, and attempting to assess the meaning of the information that his senses were providing. The carrier sat at the top of a long slope, giving the hawk a sweeping view of a pond, a field, and the surrounding forest. He was about one mile (as the hawk flies) from the point of his last uncontained takeoff, and there was no path of stone bisecting the land in front of him. There were, however, other surprises awaiting him a short distance away; but the stress of these surprises would be far more familiar and tolerable than the impact, pain, and shock of his last wild flight.

Finally realizing that his continued captivity was merely a factor of his own inaction, the hawk exited the carrier. As he took flight, it quickly became apparent that dozens of unseen eyes had been watching intently from among the reeds surrounding the pond. The battle cry went out, and a dozen or more Red-winged Blackbirds streamed towards the hawk in unified defense of their territories and young.

Blackbird

A member of the “unwelcoming party”, a Red-winged Blackbird, hovers above Red-tailed Hawk 1421.


The hawk, more interested in assessing his location than in raiding blackbird nests, landed at the top of a nearby tree. One particularly bold blackbird repeatedly threw himself at the hawk’s back in an apparent attempt to pull out feathers or inflict some other form of damage. The attacks were ineffective at causing injury, but very effective at causing annoyance. Although the hawk had been unfamiliar with, and thus unprepared to handle the surprise appearance of a vehicle, he was very familiar with the situation he found himself in now. He knew how to handle an unwelcoming party. He first flew into the branches of a nearby deciduous tree that afforded him greater cover from the angry mob. After spending several minutes getting his bearings, he flew to a very tall fir tree about 150 yards away. This flight took him out of the blackbird’s “raptor no-fly zone”, but a single American Robin and one Steller’s Jay took over where the blackbird’s had left off. Two harassers were apparently less distracting than twelve, and the hawk spent several minutes reassessing his location before flying confidently out of sight.

As the hawk flew out of sight, I wished him a moment of peace at his next perch. I have little doubt that he will make his way back to the area in which he was found, where the hunting is easy but the danger is high. I can only hope that he lives out the rest of his life without having a repeat of what he experienced on May 29th. It is unlikely that his experience taught him to watch for cars before crossing the road, and even if it did he cannot impart that lesson to others. Therefore, it is up to those of us that do the driving to watch for him and all of the other wild beings whose homes we drive through on a daily basis.

Wildlife Release tally: June 25th to July 8th, 2003

20 Mallards
4 Rock Doves
6 American Crows
1 Band-tailed Pigeon
1 Red-breasted Nuthatch
4 Eastern Cottontails
1 Western Painted Turele
9 Virginia Opossums
1 Red-winged Blackbird
6 Canada Geese
1 Great Blue Heron
10 American Robins
1 Steller's Jay
3 English House Sparrows
4 House Finches
1 Brewer's Blackbirds
1 Red-tailed Hawks


Wildlife Release tally: 2003
501 animals

All rights reserved. 2003 Progressive Animal Welfare Society