The Rescued Red-Tailed Hawk — a Wildlife Success Story

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Someone grabbed both of my ankles so that I couldn’t move. Someone wearing very thick, heavy leather gloves was holding me so that my talons couldn’t push out of the grip, so that my talons couldn’t cut away the hands. Someone was holding my legs still so that I couldn’t fly.

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Well, this wasn’t going to fly (no pun intended)! How did I ever get this close to a Person? What was that uncomfortable, throbbing pain in my left toe? Why did I smell so bad? And what were those strange sounds?

“No cell phones allowed in Wildlife!” someone was barking. “We don’t want the wildlife to get accustomed to that sound.”

But I’d heard those sounds before. I often observed People near my Lagoon, running along the edge of the water with their dogs, holding something next to their ears — and I would hear that tinny sound. “Like a very small ship’s bell,” one of the seagulls had explained. “They have a ton of those down on the Santa Cruz piers.”

I could feel one of my left toes dangling. I could flex three of my talons on my left foot, but the fourth wouldn’t work. What had happened? How did I get here? I tried to move the toe, but there was no control. The talon on that toe kept bouncing against and then piercing into the pad of my foot. It was annoying and, at times, distractingly painful. I tried to shake the toe out to straighten it, but it wouldn’t stay. All my other toes were fine. Everything was dark, but I was sure it wasn’t night yet.

“Have you got him?” I heard a person say. “Yes, I’ve got him.” “OK, bring him out. Let’s get this bird cleaned up.”

It was starting to come back to me know. I’d been talking to the Seagull about guns. We all knew guns weren’t allowed at my Lagoon. “But some people use BB guns,” said the Seagull. “People don’t have to register those.” Maybe that was it. I don’t remember. The last thing I remember was an easy breakfast outing: I’d seen a particularly fat mouse scuttling along the side of the sewage ponds. My favorite is the salt marsh harvest mouse, but one doesn’t find those often anymore. Going back a few red-tailed hawk generations, the salt marsh harvest mouse was plentiful. Back as many generations as I have talons on my feet, there were salt marsh harvest mice. But hardly any these days. There were more down by the Don Edwards Wildlife Refuge restored salt ponds near Alviso; not so many around my Lagoon. But I’d still spotted a fat, ripe mouse. It would be an easy treat to scoop up the little fellow. He had a greyish black coat and looked like he’d had waaaay too much to eat lately! The better for me! I remember swooping down to snag the mouse. I was only half paying attention because this was so easy. And the next thing I knew, I was flopping around in the muck in the sewage pond. How did I get there? How could I have fallen in? What had happened to me? I was stunned. Even the fat mouse I was after had stopped in his tracks, looking back at me in horror. He was so surprised to see a mighty red-tailed hawk downed like this, he forgot to run.

I was covered with something that smelled awful in that water; it was hard for me to immediately fly up again. My feathers seemed to stick together; I felt like I was wearing an additional layer of something heavy, bogging me down. Every time I tried to fly up, I pulled up out of the water just enough to keep breathing, but I couldn’t clear the water and become airborne again. This was incredible. Never in my life had I experienced this. I am a mighty red-tailed hawk – this couldn’t be happening.

Somehow, every time I tried to fly up, I must have moved myself closer to the shore. I remember crawling out of the slime and muck onto dry ground. But I still couldn’t get any lift, no matter how much I flapped my wings.

I must have blacked out. Much later I heard people saying that something called a Good Samaritan had found me and brought me in to a wildlife rescue center. So that’s where I was.

The Seagull had told me about these wildlife rescue places. He knew a couple of great horned owls who had ended up at one of them. He said the owls reported being very well taken care of before being released to the wild again. The people at these places loved wildlife, the Seagull had said.

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I’m a red-tailed hawk: It wasn’t for me to fly low and talk to other birds about such things. It was for me to perch atop the highest branch of the highest tree and have the Seagull fly up and report to me. That is how I knew. The owls had been taken back to where they were originally rescued, back to where they used to live. “They take in baby woodpeckers and house sparrows and other birds at the wildlife center, too,” he had told me. I don’t remember if he had mentioned hawks.

People were cleaning me now. The indignation of being a red-tailed hawk and being captured like this was unbearable. However, at least I knew they meant me no harm. My head was still covered, but I could tell they were washing my wings and feathers. I hated being held by my feet like this. I couldn’t move; I couldn’t get away; I couldn’t attack. I tried to curl my feet up in front of me as my defensive posture, but whoever was holding me held my legs straight.

“Look at his toe,” someone was saying. “We’d better call the vet.”

The handler carried me into another room and laid me on a table. My head was still covered. By the sounds, I could tell that several people were standing nearby. “We’ll need to amputate a section of his toe,” someone was explaining. Others were responding. “One digit is dislocated and fractured. The particular digit is not critical for perching or catching prey. We believe the hawk will be able to manage without the use of this digit. We believe leaving it as is will cause the bird painful annoyance.”

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They had laid me flat on a table now. I had never laid on my back in my life. I tried to lift up my feet and talons again, in defensive position, but the hander was still wearing those heavy, thick, leather gloves. He would have none of it. He held my feet straight down. Someone was holding my right wing down as well.

Then they took the cover off of my head. There were four people looking down on me. I tried to move, but they held me tight. They didn’t hurt me, but I couldn’t move. One had a strange green cap on her head. Their hands were pure white. The Seagull told me later they were probably wearing surgical gloves. The Seagull could read. He knew about these things.

One person started moving something towards my beak and over my head. I started to shake. The only thing that kept my nervous system from seizing up was remembering the assurance from the Seagull that people in wildlife centers wanted to help us. I tried to remain calm. I looked around at everyone. I didn’t see any attack expressions. Their faces seemed calm.

But they kept coming at me with this clear thing. “We had to use a dog mask,” someone was saying. “It’s the smallest mask we can use to apply anesthesia. Then we put a plastic glove over the end of the mask and cut a tiny hole. This is just big enough to fit around the hawk’s beak and make an air- tight enclosure, so that we can provide anesthesia and oxygen as needed for the bird and monitor his life signs.”

The mask was over my head now. I could see through it; I could still see all the people. Someone was swabbing my left foot now and applying something wet and cool to my injured toe. I didn’t know what they were going to do. I was
trapped.

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I heard a voice say, “The perfect photograph would be of the veterinarian AND the bird, where one can see the bird and his toe being amputated but also those performing the surgery.”

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Someone else was saying, “OK; I’ll stand on the ladder. Does anyone mind if I bounce flash off the ceiling?” Then I saw some flashes of bright light. The ceiling went very white. Everyone seemed lit up, as though lightening had struck. All of this was incomprehensible!

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Somehow, I began to drift off to sleep. Maybe it was that mask they put over my head.

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When I started to wake up, it took a long time. I didn’t feel well at all. I could hardly move. Someone was saying, “How’s he doing?” Someone answered, “His vitals are good. He’s going to be OK.”

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Days passed. I ate well, and I started feeling better. Eventually, the handler with the thick, heavy leather gloves came, held onto my feet again, and carried me into a very large enclosure. It was outside. There was a wire fence and a wire roof, so I couldn’t get out. But it was open air. I could breathe the fresh, sea air again. I began to feel a little better.

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Since my wings were fine, I flew up as high as I could go. There was a long, thick branch extending out into the middle of the enclosure, just below the roof. It was perfect for perching, and there I established my station. At last I could once again look down and survey my surroundings. At last I could remind all around me that I was a red-tailed hawk!

And, you know . . . my foot was working well. I like to perch on one leg sometimes, and I could still hold onto a branch fine with just my left foot, even with one toe missing. They had been right; removing part of that toe wasn’t going to be a problem.

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While I stayed in the enclosure, I rarely saw people, which suited me fine. I’m a wild bird. I didn’t want to be around those people. I belonged back home, out in the wild, overseeing my Lagoon. Someone would come in once in a while to fill a container with fresh water and then leave. Right after, I would notice fresh mice sneaking along the ground. I guess the people brought those in for me. The mice were always fat and tasty. They DID care about us!

There were other raptors in the enclosure next to mine. I couldn’t see them, but I could hear them talking. I learned that the key to escape was to look for something called a “carrier.” If they brought the carrier in, it meant they were going to take you home and release you. Every day I looked for the carrier.

And then one day the carrier arrived. A raptor handler and another person came into my Enclosure. The second person was a photographer. I know all about photographers. They are always coming out to my Lagoon, usually with really long things they point at us. We’d learned that they aren’t guns. And, anyway, as I’ve said, we knew no hunters were allowed in my Lagoon.

For a moment, I felt a good memory wash over me. For a moment I forgot where I was. That camera had reminded me: at the Lagoon, when we felt like having fun, we used to wait until the photographers set up all kinds of things that they put the cameras and long things on. The last thing they do is crouch down a little and push their head against each camera. “That’s when they click the photo,” the Seagull would explain, since he thinks he knows everything. Did I mention that the Seagull can read? He never lets us forget it. So we would all wait for that moment. Then, just as they reached one hand up to the place where the Seagull said they would click the camera, all of us birds in my Lagoon would take off. “Darn birds!” (and other words I didn’t understand) all the photographers would say. “It’s like they’re WAITING for us to get all set up before they take off!” “Darn those birds!”

“Toldja,” the Seagull would scream, with a glint in his eye!! We would all make one lazy circle in the sky and re-alight on a high branch, and wait to do it all over again! Could it be that I would be back at my beloved Lagoon again soon?

I’m a red-tailed hawk; I’m a very smart bird. I saw that carrier and I knew! I flew down from my perch and landed on the green, grass-like ground. It wasn’t real grass, I could tell, but it looked like it. I stood in front of a barrel with a tree growing out of it and waited for the raptor handler to approach. He had a long pole with a net on the end. He tossed the net over my head. It still startled me, so I stretched out my wings. He brought the net down to the ground and reached under to take both of my legs with those heavy, thick, leather gloves.

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Boy, did I hate having someone hold my legs! I never got used to it. I never want to go through that again as long as I live! I felt mad, and I glared at him. I gave him my fiercest red-tailed hawk glare. I’m the king of my Lagoon; this was too humiliating. But I did know he was trying to help me. I didn’t try to bite him. I glared, but I didn’t struggle.

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In fact, I even tolerated being held for a few minutes extra.

“They want a photo of the amputated digit,” the photographer was saying.

“Can you see his toe OK?” the handler was asking. He held me firmly so I couldn’t move.

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“They want to tell the success story of the rescued hawk: about successfully amputating one of his toes and his release back into the wild!” I was right! I was going home again! I could hardly hold still now. I opened my beak and almost started to scream with joy. I think they thought I was upset or angry. But I wasn’t – I just wanted to go home!

The handler laid me in a box. “He’s putting his feet up in the defensive position,” he was telling the photographer. They closed the lid and covered the box with something so that I couldn’t see. That was better. Then I didn’t have to be distracted by all the changing light that was coming through the holes in the box.

This time I was awake the whole time. I felt the box jostling as we moved along. They put the box and me down somewhere, and then I heard some really loud sounds. It sounded like the sounds the cars make when they drive in and park near my Lagoon, when the people take their dogs out of the cars and then run along the shores.

Then I felt the box being moved again and set down again. Light was now streaming through the holes. Whatever was covering it had been removed.

“Give me a count when you release the hawk,” someone was saying. It sounded like that same photographer. “Which way do you think he’ll fly?”

The handler was saying, “Judging the way the wind is, I think he’ll fly over the water.”

“Look at all the birds!” the photographer was saying. “I’ve never seen so many shore birds! Look at all those white pelicans!”

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Although I couldn’t yet move my wings or stand, I could feel my spirit soaring as though I were already high in the sky! I WAS home! This had to be my Lagoon! WHAT was taking so long? I couldn’t wait !!

“OK, I’ll count down, 3, 2, 1,” the raptor handling was saying. And he opened the box. One last time, he reached in with those thick, heavy, leather gloves, and grabbed ahold of my legs. I hoped no birds were looking. I knew the Seagull would have something to say if he were around.

The handler lifted me upright, and held me up.

“Wave your arms,” he was saying to the photographer. “Help the hawk look at something other than me, so he knows where he is.”

But I didn’t need any help. When that joyous moment occurred when I could feel the hold on my legs release, the handler also give me a quick lift up to help me get aloft.

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My wings were ready. I raised them up, caught a wind current, and flew . . . over the water, the blue, blue water of my Lagoon.

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And I was back! The red-tailed hawk, the king of the Lagoon, was back! Half the shorebirds immediately took flight. I had never been in the habit of chasing them, but they took off, anyway. They gave me room.

I picked up another low air current and made my first easy turn over the water. I could hear the photographer saying, “I got the shot! Look! I got the shot!” Those people weren’t so bad. They had helped me.

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I flew across the lagoon, to my highest tree, and lighted there. It felt so good and so normal to be back in my home. I surveyed the length and breadth of my Lagoon and observed as the shorebirds settled down on the small lagoon islands again. I looked to the left. I looked to the right. All was well. It almost seemed like everything had been a very bad dream. Had all of that really happened? Had I been in that strange place?

But part of one toe was still missing. So, yes, it had been no dream.

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I saw the Seagull the next day. He was squawking about news! He always had news. He liked to dig around in the garbage and pull out old newspapers while he was looking for food scraps. Some of the birds and squirrels used the newspapers to build nests. Since the Seagull could read, he would tell me stories. But this time he was squawking for a reason: he had found a newspaper with pictures of ME! The story said I had been operated on. There was a photo showing me lying on a table with a clear mask over my head and beak, someone holding down my right wing, and part of my left toe about to be amputated. So THAT’s what had happened! That news-hound of a Seagull had finally come up with something interesting !!!

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For many generations that come after me — as many as I have toes on my feet — red-tailed hawks will be telling this story. Good people had helped me. Someone had rescued me, and people at a wildlife center had helped me. They had saved my life and returned me home again.

Nowadays I do look a little differently at the people who run around my Lagoon with their dogs. But the Seagull and I still take off with all the other birds just as the photographers get ready to click their cameras. It’s just too much fun!

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