I had a poisoned wild Red-tailed hawk in my care for three months, and we came to know each other well. If we hadn’t, this story might have ended differently. I’m a licensed, trained wildlife rehabilitator, one of those nutty people who (legally) treat injured, ill, or orphaned wild animals. About 50 percent of the animals in our care grow strong, cured of whatever brought them in. The other 50 percent die. For the nature lover, these are heartbreaking odds.
My Red-tailed came from a golf course. That season, our group had taken in a number of poisoned raptors from that area where the greens had been sprayed with pesticides. The raptors would eat a poisoned ground squirrels, and slowly lose control of their bodies. The feet go first. Then the wings. Then the head. Golfers saw my hawk tumble to the ground, unable to take wing again. They called a near-by rehabber, who picked up the bird and took her to a veterinarian. From there she called me – I suspect because she couldn’t stand watching another beautiful bird die.
My bird was large. Her great size and her coloring indicated a mature female. She was bone thin, and appeared paralyzed. Hawks cannot move their eyes much under the best circumstances, but hers, unmoving as they were, were still fiercely alight. As I watched, her beak opened. Normally, she would have screamed her fury, but not a sound emerged.
Her neck was golden, almost like a Golden Eagle's, her crest high, and that open jaw was mighty. How beautiful! And so unlike the blur of a bird you see flying overhead. Here every detail was exquisite, each breast feather perfectly marked, as if someone had taken a little paintbrush, dipped it into a sunset, and applied it to her bib.
At my little “clinic,” a shed converted into a bird hospital, I injected Lactated Ringers, a hydrating fluid, under the skin between the top of her leg and her body. This bird was so dehydrated, the skin stood up in a peak when I pinched it. Afterward, I put her in a box, covered it with a towel, and went in the house to do some research.
I had notes from several groups on how to treat poison cases. None very hopeful. After I'd read awhile, I called a woman who works with eagles. She had released 38 that year, among them a few she'd pulled through a poisoning.
“Expect the worst,” she said. "The bird might not live the night. But if it does, there's a chance of recovery." She had a protocol that might help. It would be a long haul.
The next morning, my hawk was alive.
More fluids, more rest, more dark. The next day, she tolerated yet more fluids and a thorough exam. She was still unable to move, and a matted vent indicated an intestinal disturbance. A flaring of feathers over one eye suggested neurological involvement. I cleaned her up and fed her watered-down baby-food meat with a gavage tube (gavage = delivering a liquid via tube directly into the crop.) I did this five times a day.
Throughout, she was calm. For four days, I kept up the routine, flushing and re-flushing her system. On the fifth morning, she'd lost so much weight, it was frightening. And she refused to open her beak. I was losing her after all.
I looked at my notes: “She will tell you when she's ready for the next stage.”
Maybe, just maybe. I offered fileted bits of mouse. And oh how she ate – polishing off nine small mice in 20 minutes!
Three days later she was eating chopped mice, laced with vitamins, taking the bits from my glove. In a week, she'd put on weight and could stand on her own. I let her free in the room, and while I cleaned, she staggered around, using her wings as crutches (not the time to worry about feather damage!).
In another week, she was eating voraciously and hopping onto her crate. Twice a day, I held her by her upper legs, and let her exercise her wings. A few days later, she flew from one side of the room to the other, landing imperfectly.
“Wobbly is good!” I told her.
Sure enough, she soon had her feet under her.
Then one day she wouldn’t come out of her crate. Poison cases can break your heart this way; they can do so well, and suddenly crash.
But I hadn't forgotten my list: “She will tell you. . .” So I decided to risk her in a flight cage. When I set her on the ground, she walked two steps – and flew!
Another month of flight exercise and good food, and my hawk was ready to fly free. We wanted to release her into her old habitat, which would be familiar and where she probably had a mate. The golf course manager had stopped using the poisons, so we took her home.
I lifted her our of her box and opened my hands; she sat very still, looked at me, then with a cry, she flew into a tree. Suddenly another Red-tail appeared overhead. My hawk cried again – and he answered. A moment later, the two joined in a spiraling dance, up and up, until they vanished into the sky.
Note the errant feather on the top of the bird's head.
That was part of the syndrome, nerve involvement in a poisoning.
The Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) is a bird of prey, one of three species colloquially known in the United States as the "chickenhawk," though it rarely preys on standard sized chickens. It breeds throughout most of North America, from western Alaska and northern Canada to as far south as Panama and the West Indies, and is one of the most common buteos in North America. Red-tailed Hawks can acclimate to all the biomes within its range. There are fourteen recognized subspecies, which vary in appearance and range. It is one of the largest members of the genus Buteo in North America, typically weighing from 690 to 1600 grams (1.5 to 3.5 pounds) and measuring 45–65 cm (18 to 26 in) in length, with a wingspan from 110 to 145 cm (43 to 57 in). The Red-tailed Hawk displays sexual dimorphism in size, with females averaging about 25% heavier than males. (From Wikipedia)
I am often asked about the Audubon International stamp of approval on golf courses. Audubon is not a copy-rightable name, so in 2004, the PGA form an alliance with Audubon International, created specifically give the impression that a specific golf course has gone through a rigorous reveiw by environmental specialists. Audubon International is in no way associated with the National Audubon Society, and it's stamp of approval on any golf course in no way guarantees that they do not use pesticides, or excessive amounts of fertilizers. It also doesn't mean that they aren't doing the best they can for their business, and the environment.
When I wrote Sallie about this, she added this addendum:
Today many organizations that used to use organophosphates improperly - too often and too strong - may well monitor their usage more closely. Otherwise, we'd see more poison cases. When it's freshly sprayed on the trees, or the greens, raptors (and other predators) can get poisoned not only by eating poisoned rodents and insects, but from perching on the fresh, too-strong solution.