Celebrating the wildlife releases of the PAWS Wildlife Center
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by Kevin Mack, PAWS Wildlife Naturalist
Six weeks ago I wrote about the release of Red-tailed Hawk 03-1421. He had been admitted to PAWS on May 29th after being hit by a car, and he was released on July 8th. While at PAWS, 03-1421 shared a large flight pen with another of his species. This other bird, Red-tailed Hawk 02-4434, had a lot in common with 03-1421. Both of the birds had experienced the sudden chaos and trauma of wandering unsuspectingly into the path of a moving vehicle. Both had been scooped up and transported to the PAWS Wildlife Center by caring members of the public. Both had undergone treatment for shock, been anesthetized for X-rays, and had responded well to treatment. Finally, both had progressed to the point at which they were strong enough to fly again. The nature of their injuries was different enough, however, that while 03-1421 spent only 5 weeks at the center, 02-4434 was in care for about 10 months.
Red-tailed Hawk 02-4434 arrived at the PAWS wildlife center on October 24th, 2002. He had been found along the Kent-Kangley Road in Ravensdale, floundering on the ground next to a dead rabbit. It’s hard to say for certain what had transpired. Perhaps the hawk had killed the rabbit and was attempting to fly away with it when a vehicle struck him. Another likely scenario is that he was flying low in pursuit of the rabbit and the vehicle struck them both. Whatever was the case, the hawk’s dinner plans had gone terribly awry. As he struggled on the ground, an object much like the one that had just struck him pulled to a stop.
Showing off his new tail, Red-tailed Hawk 02-4434 takes flight.
Upon admission to PAWS, Red-tailed Hawk 02-4434 had the same disheveled appearance that most animals have after being struck by a car. His feathers were in disarray and peppered with road grit. He had an abrasion above his right eye. His right foot was swollen and he was unable to stand. Fresh blood was visible in his mouth as he held his beak open in an attempt appear frightening to the large mammals that were handling him. He had gotten off fairly easily compared to most birds who are hit by a 3,000 pound chunk of metal. X-rays showed that he hadn’t suffered a single broken bone. But the injury that kept 02-4434 at PAWS for 10 months was related to a much softer part of his anatomy. During his encounter with the car, the hawk had skidded across the pavement on his rump. This had happened at just the right angle and with just enough force to tear out every one of his tail feathers. In just a few violent seconds, the poor bird had been stripped of his namesake. Unfortunately for him, the rectrices (tail feathers) of a Red-tailed Hawk serve a far more essential purpose than simply giving the species its name.
The broad tail feathers of a hawk serve a number of different flight-related functions. They are fanned out during soaring flight to provide stability and fine directional control. Just before a hawk lands, or reaches out to grab prey, the tail feathers spread wide to provide extra drag and slow the bird’s descent. A hawk can certainly fly without its rectrices, but not with the kind of accuracy and grace one would expect from a bird of prey. Hawk 02-4434 demonstrated this point once he was placed in a large flight pen. He was a capable flyer, but his landings were very hard. His feet would hit perches with a far more audible thump than that of his fully feathered cage mates. He would have had a great disadvantage had he been released in this condition. The best option for the bird was to maintain him at the center until such time as his tail feathers grew back. Thus began 02-4434’s long wait.
An ever-changing array of birds of prey shared the flight pen with our tailless charge during his 10 month stay. He saw other Red-tailed Hawk’s come and go and he even spent time with a Great Horned Owl or two. 02-4434 had lost his leg band (used for in-house ID) but he didn’t need one. We needed only look as far as his backside to tell who he was. Finally, in mid-July, we started to see what we had been waiting for. Each day when the flight pen was cleaned, feathers were found scattered about. There were two other hawks with 02-4434 at the time, and all 3 were dropping their feathers in a regular pattern. They were molting. About a week after the first dropped feathers were found, new rectrices began to grow on 02-4434. They started as all feathers do- small, dark, blood-filled shafts known as “blood feathers”. They continued to grow, and after about 3-4 weeks the bird had a beautiful new tail. His flight was noticeably improved as his air brake and rudder had returned. At last it was his turn to leave while others stayed behind.
Red-tailed Hawk 02-4434 takes in his new surroundings.
After 10 months of sitting in a cage surrounded by human noise, the hawk formerly known as 02-4434 was enjoying a peaceful moment by the river. The only sounds to be heard were the flowing water below, the rustle of leaves, and the alarm calls of a Belted Kingfisher that had noticed the hawk’s presence. We left him to enjoy his moment for however long he chose let it last.
PAWSwalk is almost here!
Wildlife Release tally: July 30th to August 19th, 2003
Wildlife Release tally: 2003
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