Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010
Photo by R.E. Berg-Andersson

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Hawk-Watching Season, Up Close and Personal

Of all the suburban front yards this Red-tail hawk had to fall on, it had to choose mine.

This morning - cool, foggy, humid - I was doing my usual chores around the house and beyond. Around 7:30, as I was bringing brush to the pile at the curb, I saw this creature watching me.
Red-tail Hawk, Sept. 20, 2016 (Margo D. Beller)

I have found Red-tails on the property, but usually up in the trees. This one should not have been on the ground.

We looked at each other, warily. I walked close  enough to see its tail was brownish red, so this was likely a juvenile. (I also took this picture, which MH cropped.) I could also see one of its legs in front of it, its sharp, killer talons gleaming in the dew.

This was now a very interesting problem for me.

One does not expect to see a wild animal on the lawn, much less an injured one. As suburbs build farther and deeper into the woods and former farms of my congested little New Jersey, animals and birds are going to get displaced, often with tragic consequences. We're going to see them, and they us. Sometimes what we see are big bears or deer. Other times it's an injured bird. Humans can do stupid things when confronted with a situation like this.

I don't know what higher power guided this raptor to the one house on the block that knew what to do next, but I do know that somehow this bird was injured in such a way that it was alive, alert, able to stand and flap its wings but not fly. And a raptor that can't fly is a raptor that starves, becomes dehydrated or is harassed (or worse) by a larger predator.

This is not the first time I've found an injured Red-tail either. Long ago, working in coastal Jersey City, a place where skyscrapers went up like weeds and weedy fields disappeared under the umbrella of "progress," I was walking near my office and found a Red-tail hunkered down in plantings next to one of the new, "luxury" apartment buildings that sprang up with the view of Manhattan across the Hudson River.
One of the times it attempted to fly. (RE Berg-Andersson)

My first call was to get the number of The Raptor Trust, one of the state's best-known bird rehabilitation centers. However, the Trust is located in Millington, in Somerset County, and could not send anyone out to where I was in Hudson County. Call the police, they said.

So I went inside the building. When you have a "luxury" tower, you have a concierge and this man didn't bat an eye - he called the local animal control people from a number in his files. Reassured, I left.

I have no concierge at my house, but I also knew that while closer to the Trust's office, it would not be open before 9am. The Trust is a private organization that depends on donations to continue doing its good work. Many birds of all types have been mended and released into the wild. Many have died. Some stay at the Trust to be used to show we humans what happens when we tear up trees, put up big buildings or drive too fast without see (or caring) about what is walking or flying in front of us.

Birds have so many ways to die in the wild. Nature is cruel. This bird could've been clipped by a speeding car while chasing prey, injuring its wing. It could've been attacked by a two- or four-legged creature bigger and perhaps armed. It could've gotten confused in the fog and banged into a tree or a house. To me there is nothing sadder than seeing a bird of prey dead on the side of the road after hitting one of the many high-profile vehicles on one of the many major highways that bisect one of the most crowded states in the U.S.

I called The Raptor Trust and, as expected, left a message. The Trust accepts birds 24 hours a day but we'd have had to find a large box, throw a blanket on the bird, put it in, tape it shut, drive to the Trust office and then pull the bird out and put it into a heated carrier for when the staff arrived.

No way MH and I would pick up a scared bird whose talons or beak are designed to rip through skin and which weighs several pounds and has a 54-inch wingspan.

So this time I called our local police. All they could do would be monitor the situation and call the Trust. What about Animal Control? I asked.

Connie from Animal Control cages the hawk. (Margo D. Beller)
Turns out they called that number, too, according to the detective who showed up to do that monitoring and keep any people (or their dogs) away from the hawk. I later learned that thanks to the many budget cuts, our town does not have its own animal control office but contracts with a service that handles two counties and is based many miles from us although is close to the Raptor Trust.

So we waited. The detective left, Connie from Animal Control called to say she was on the way. We stood and watched the hawk like a hawk, making sure it wasn't bothered. At one point a murder of American crows started squawking and this Red-tail surely knew crows will mob a hawk to get it away from its family group. The hawk became extremely agitated, got up and flapped furiously. But all it could do was hop off the lawn and to the shaded walkway where it was less noticeable.

Ninety minutes after I found the bird, Connie arrived. She let the bird see her and watch her fold a fitted sheet in such a way that she could throw it over the bird. Her first attempt failed but her second was successful. Once in the dark, the hawk calmed down. Connie put it in a cage that was big enough to keep it comfortable in its sheet but not so big where the bird would flap and possibly do more damage.

By 9:30am, she was gone, on the way to the Trust - which had called me back while Connie was putting the hawk into the cage.

I tried to imagine what the bird was "thinking" while it sat there, watching me and others hover around it. Do birds feel fear? Yes. That's why it was warily watching me and then trying to get away from what it perceived as danger.
How I prefer to see Red-tails. (Margo D. Beller)

Are they able to tell the difference between a helpful me and someone with a gun trying to shoot it out of the sky for sport, as locals used to do on what is now Hawk Mountain Sanctuary at this time of year, when the raptors used the warm winds to save energy flying south along ridge lines? No, it does not. Which is why you should go to The Raptor Trust's website and read the section on how to handle injured or orphaned birds of all sizes if you should find one.

Better yet, call your police or animal control people.

This is hawk-watching season, ironically, and I got a chance to see a Red-tail up close and personal. I can only hope this one can be mended, avoids future hazards and makes its way back into the wild, to be seen aloft and admired by those of us below.