Celebrating the wildlife releases of the PAWS Wildlife Center
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by Kevin Mack, PAWS Wildlife Naturalist
On October 29th, 2003, Sharp-shinned Hawk 03-4284 arrived at PAWS as many of his kind do... with a splitting headache. The headache was the result of an instantaneous, unplanned deceleration that took the hawk completely by surprise. Sharp-shinned Hawks are small and highly maneuverable. They are able to fly at top speed through dense tree cover while pursing the smaller songbirds that comprise the bulk of their prey. Although they are extremely impressive on the wing, their flying abilities do come with limitations. Sharp-shinned Hawk 03-4284 was not even aware that he was pushing his limits until it was too late. I'm sure he knew that he was incapable of flying through a solid object, but his eyes didn't tell him that the object was there. Unfortunately, his head did, and in the instant of collision he felt a pane, immediately followed by pain. Upon finding the stunned hawk, the windowpane's owner scooped him up and drove him to the PAWS Wildlife Center.
Once at PAWS, hawk 03-4284 received a full examination. He was given fluids and medications to help stabilize him, and to decrease any swelling of the brain that he may have been experiencing. He responded well, and was able to perch in his cage soon after he arrived. The hawk was X-rayed, once he was stable enough to tolerate being anesthetized, and the resulting films showed that he had suffered no broken bones. His ophthalmic exam was not so promising. An abnormality was discovered in his left eye by one of the PAWS Wildlife Center veterinarians. Unimpaired vision is extremely important for a hunting bird, especially one that flies rapidly through dense foliage and catches its prey on the wing. If the hawk's eye was irreparably damaged, his chances for release were slim.
In order to more thoroughly assess the condition of the hawk's left eye, PAWS called upon the help of Dr. Tom Sullivan, a local veterinary ophthalmologist. Dr. Sullivan donates his services on a regular basis to help asses and treat eye injuries in PAWS' wild patients.
This Common Merganser arrived at PAWS with gunshot wounds. His treatment went well and he was released on November 29th.
Release day arrived on November 29th, and if Sharp-shinned Hawk 03-4284 had any lingering visual impairment I certainly couldn't detect it when I captured him to place him in his release carrier. He was quite adept at avoiding the net, and he managed to turn me in circles in his cage more than once. By the time I had him contained, I probably felt about as dizzy as he did when he first arrived at the center. Completely satisfied with the hawk's abilities, I secured his carrier in the back of my vehicle and headed to the Seattle neighborhood in which he had been found.
I decided against releasing the hawk at his exact point of origin. I had an image in my head of opening the carrier only to watch the hawk fly directly into the same window that he had originally struck. There was a park about three blocks south of the property on which he had been injured, and it looked great, except for one small problem... it was surrounded by a ten foot tall wrought iron fence. The fence contained a locked door that held a sign displaying the words, "Dues paying members only!" in bold letters. Although the hawk had been found only three blocks away, I had no way of asking him whether or not he had paid dues for this particular park. He certainly had the key that would allow him to pass the gate (fences are no real barrier to a creature that can fly). But after a quick glance around at all of the beautiful homes with large, shiny picture windows surrounding the cul-de-sac, I decided to drive the hawk about 10 blocks north to a large park on Lake Washington. As I would soon find out, if the park's residents had been given any say in the matter, they would have preferred that the hawk had taken his chances with the picture windows.
This Porcupine was found walking in circles on a highway near Olympia. He is currently being cared for at PAWS.
As I opened the transport carrier I shared brief eye contact with Sharp-shinned Hawk 03-4284. His left eye fixed on me, and the pupil rapidly dilated and constricted exhibiting both the hawk's fear and his ability to voluntarily control how much light enters his eye. He then looked up, and he immediately launched himself skyward. The instant that his head popped out of the box, the two brave robins in the nearby alders exploded both vocally and physically. They shot like bullets out of the tree top and fled while sounding the alarm. Other small birds, previously hidden from my eyes, flew out of the wooded patch in all directions, and even the bramble-protected towhee abandoned ship. As the birds fled, the alarm was picked up by others nearby, and calls spread outward until every songbird within a 100-yard radius was screaming in protest at the return of their familiar, but unwelcome neighbor. I felt some sympathy, but I made no apologies. The songbirds need hawks to help keep their flocks strong as much as the hawks need songbirds to help keep their bodies strong.
The hawk paid no attention to the noisy protestors. As the terrified songbirds abandoned the small stand of trees, the hawk made straight for it. He flew at full speed through the thick tangle of branches and did not so much as brush a wingtip on a limb. The performance nearly convinced me that he could in fact fly through solid objects. He found a perch to his liking in the middle of the stand and alighted with a perfect two-point landing. As soon as he landed, he quickly turned around and looked at me as if to make sure that I hadn't followed him. When he saw that I hadn't, his body relaxed and he did a quick shake to realign his feathers. I collected the carrier and left the hawk to sort out his differences with his neighbors on his own.
In the short time it took me to walk back to the truck, the alarm calls subsided and then ceased. As I looked back at the field I had just crossed, I could see three distinct clumps of trees set about 50 yards apart. Two of them were alive with sound and motion, as small feathered beings fluttered about in search of food. The third was still and silent...
Wildlife Release tally: November 12th to November 25th, 2003
Wildlife Release tally: 2003
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