Someone grabbed my ankles. Someone wearing thick, heavy leather gloves was holding my feet so I couldn’t move, so my talons couldn’t cut away the hands. Someone was holding my wings so I couldn’t fly.
Well, this wasn’t going to fly! I am a royal bird, king of my lagoon, master of the air. How did I ever get this close to a person? What was that 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 barked. “We don’t want them to get accustomed to urban sounds.”
But I’d heard those sounds before. My lagoon is near the western shore of the San Francisco Bay. People run along the edge of the water with their dogs, holding something near their ears. I would often hear that tinny sound. “Like a very small ship’s bell,” Salty Sam had explained. The seagull had seen many of them down on the Santa Cruz piers.
I felt one of my left toes dangling. I could flex three talons on my left foot, but the fourth one wouldn’t work. What had happened? How did I get here? I tried to move the toe, but I had no control. All my other toes were fine.
Everything was dark, but I was sure it wasn’t night. I felt something warm come from one direction, like the sun shining on the outside of a nest. When the nest walls are lined with fresh bark and pine needles that block the light, you can still feel the sun’s heat coming through.
“Have you got him?” I heard a person say.
“Bring him out onto the table. There’s blood on his toes and sludge on his feathers. Let’s get this bird cleaned up.”
It was coming back to me now. I’d been talking with Salty Sam about guns. He had a habit of digging around in the garbage, looking for food scraps. He often pulled out old newspapers and read them to me. While most of the articles had more of an appeal for shorebirds, I always listened politely. On this occasion he’d found a news item about BB guns. We all knew guns weren’t allowed at my lagoon. “But some people still use them,” the seagull had said. “Anyone can buy them.” Maybe that was it. I don’t remember.
The last thing do I remember was an easy breakfast outing. I’d seen a particularly fat mouse scuttling along the side of the sewage ponds. He had a black coat and looked like he’d had waaaay too much to eat lately. The better for me.
My favorite is the salt marsh harvest mouse with fur the color of cinnamon. Going back as many hawk generations as I have talons on my feet, these tasty mice have lived on the edge of the San Francisco Bay. You rarely find them these days, but a few still scamper through pickleweed.
I remember swooping down to snag the meal. My sharp eyes had seen him long before he realized I was coming. I take a steep dive when I want to signal that my territory is occupied. I used that maneuver to fly straight downward and surprise the mouse. Knowing it would be such an easy treat, scooping up the little fellow, I only half paid attention.
The next thing I knew, I was flopping around in the muck in the sewage pond. How could I have fallen in? I was stunned. Even the fat mouse stopped in his tracks, looking back at me in horror. He was so surprised to see a raptor downed like this, he forgot to run.
I was covered by something that smelled awful. It was hard for me to fly. My feathers were sticking together. I felt like I was wearing an additional layer of something heavy, bogging me down. It was sloshy, squishy, smelly. Every time I tried to catch an air current with my wings, I pulled out of the water just enough to keep breathing, but I couldn’t clear the pond and become airborne again. This was incredible. Never in my life had I experienced this. This couldn’t be happening to me.
Somehow, every time I tried to fly up, I moved a little closer to the shore. I remember flopping about in the slime and muck. But I still couldn’t get any lift, no matter how much I opened my wings.
I must have blacked out. Later I heard people saying that something called a Good Samaritan had found me. A net had been used to lift me out of the pond.
Now I half remembered. Salty Sam had told me about such places. A couple of great horned owls had told him. As owlets, they were taken to one of these centers when they fell out of their nest. He said the owls reported being treated well. When they were old enough to survive on their own, they were returned to their wild home. The people at these places loved wildlife, the seagull had said. I’d been brought to a wildlife rescue center. So that’s where I was.
But I, Royal Red, am a mighty red-tailed hawk: It was not 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 tallest tree and let Salty Sam fly up and share such news. The owls had been returned to the place where they had been rescued, back to where they used to live. Would I be returned, too?
“The wildlife center also helps baby woodpeckers and house sparrows and other birds,” Salty Sam had told me. Red-tailed hawks share their nests with house sparrows. I felt encouraged.
People were cleaning me now. The indignity of being a royal bird, captured like this, was intolerable. However, at least I suspected they meant me no harm. My head was covered with something soft. It was completely dark. They were washing my wings and feathers.
I hated having my feet held 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 kept my legs straight.
“Look at his toe,” someone was saying. “Call the avian veterinarian.”
Someone carried me into another room and laid me on a table, my head still covered. By the sounds I heard, I could tell that several people were nearby. “We’ll need to amputate a section of his toe,” someone was explaining. “One digit is dislocated and fractured. The injured digit is not critical for perching or catching prey. We believe the hawk will be able to manage without the use of this toe. On the other hand, leaving it as is would cause the bird pain.”
They kept me lying flat on the table. I had never laid on my back in my life. Again I tried to curl my feet and talons in front of me, but the person with those heavy leather gloves would have none of it. He continued to hold my legs flat while someone else held down my right wing.
Then they took the cover off of my head. The light was as bright as the sun. There were four people looking down on me, and 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 as white as the feathers of a white pelican.
One person moved something towards my beak and over my head. I started to shake. I tried to remain calm. I looked at each face. I didn’t see any attack expressions.
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 have. We put a plastic glove over the end of the mask and cut a tiny hole in it. This is just big enough to fit around the hawk’s beak and make an air-tight enclosure. This way, we can provide anesthesia and oxygen for the bird and monitor his life signs.”
The mask was over my head now. Through it, I could still see all the people. Someone was swabbing my left foot and applying something wet and cold to my injured toe. I didn’t know what they were going to do. I was trapped.
I heard a voice say, “The perfect photograph would be of the veterinarian and the bird, where one can see the bird with his toe being amputated as well as those who are performing the surgery.”
Another voice said, “We didn’t bring the media in. If he doesn’t survive the surgery, it would be difficult to control the story.”
Someone said, “I’ll stand on the ladder. Does anyone mind if I bounce the flash off the ceiling?” Then the room went very white, as though lightening had struck.
I drifted off to sleep. Maybe it was that mask they put over my head. I took a long time to wake up and didn’t feel well at all. I could hardly move. Someone was saying, “How’s he doing?” Someone answered, “His vitals are good.”
I was moved to a small space, very dark. I could hear other raptors from time to time, but I couldn’t see any. I didn’t call out to them; I felt too weak.
Eventually, the person with the heavy leather gloves came, held onto my feet again, pulled me out of the darkness, and carried me into a large wire enclosure. I was outside. At the top was more wire that would prevent me from flying out. But I could breathe fresh, sea air. I felt a little better.
Since my wings were fine, I flew up as high as I could go. I landed on a long, thick branch extending out into the middle of the enclosure, near the top. It was perfect for perching, and there I established my station. I could look down and survey my surroundings. I could remind all around me that I was still ruler of my domain.
And you know . . . my foot began working well. I have a habit of perching on just one leg. So I tried standing on the branch with only my left foot, even with the toe missing. They had been right. Removing that toe wasn’t going to be a problem.
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 open spaces, overseeing my lagoon. I remembered the song we learned as fledglings:
All your kingdom is in sight
You belong in the sky
Catch the thermal
Just relax for the ride
Near the ground
But never make a sound
Resume your perch
Always yours, the royal view
All your kingdom is in sight
I felt a pang inside.
Days passed. I ate well.
Like owls, I usually don’t drink water, getting all the fluids I need from my food. But someone came in every day to fill a container with fresh water, anyway. Each time, after they left, I noticed fresh mice sneaking along the ground. Maybe the people left them for me. The mice were always fat and tasty. The people in the wildlife center did care about us.
There were other raptors in the enclosure next to mine. I couldn’t see them, but I could hear them. They said the key to freedom was something called a “carrier,” a kind of box with holes in the sides. If the people brought in a carrier, it meant they were going to take you home and release you. Every day I looked for the carrier. And one day it arrived. Two people brought it into my enclosure.
The second person was a photographer. For a moment, I felt a good memory wash over me. Just for a moment, I forgot where I was. The camera reminded me.
I know all about photographers. They are always coming out to my lagoon. They bring cameras with metal branches sticking out that glint in the sun. They point the metal branches at us. We’ve learned they aren’t guns.
At the lagoon, when we needed entertainment, we gave the bird photographers a hard time. We would wait until they set up their equipment. The photographers would crouch down and lean their heads against their cameras. They would steady the metal branch coming out of the camera with their left hand and put their right hand on top of the camera.
“That’s when they take the photo,” Salty Sam would explain, since he thinks he knows everything. (That seagull never lets us forget that he knows how to read.)
“Get ready,” he would say. “They’re about to click.”
Appearing to pay no attention, every bird in the lagoon would tense its wings. When the seagull gave the word, they would fly.
Even I, a majestic and highborn bird, participated in this game. It was too much fun to pass up. We would all wait for that moment. Just as the photographers crouched and leaned and reached, Salty Sam would shriek, “Now!”
All of us birds would take flight at once, exploding into the air in every direction. “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!” Salty Sam would scream, with a joyful glint in his eye. Each bird would make a lazy circle in the sky, re-alight on high branches, and wait to do it all again. Could it be that I would soon return to tease those photographers at my beloved lagoon?
The moment the carrier was brought in, 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 person to approach. He had a long pole with a net on the end. I braced myself and tried to remain calm. I shifted my weight from side to side, foot to foot, as I eyed his approach. 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 hold of both of my legs with those thick leather gloves.
How I hated someone holding my legs. I never got used to it. I gave him my fiercest hawk glare. I didn’t try to bite him. I glared, but I didn’t struggle. In fact, I even tolerated being held for a few extra moments.
“They want a photo of the toe where the amputation occurred,” the photographer was saying.
“Can you see his toe OK?” the handler was asking. As always, he held me firmly so I couldn’t move, but he never hurt me.
“They want to tell the success story of the rescued hawk, how he underwent experimental surgery to remove one of his toes and then was released back into the wild.”
I was right. I was going home. I could hardly hold still now. I forgot to conduct myself in a kingly manner. I opened my beak and screamed with joy. I think they thought I was upset or angry. But I wasn’t – I just couldn’t wait to get home.
The person placed me in the carrier. “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, which helped. I was no longer distracted by streams of light coming through holes in the sides.
This time I stayed awake during the journey. The box jostled me as it was moved. They set the box down somewhere, and I heard loud sounds.
After the sounds stopped, once more I felt the box being moved and set down. Light again streamed through the holes. Whatever was covering it had been removed.
“Look at all the birds,” someone was saying. It sounded like the photographer. “I’ve never seen so many shore birds! I’ll get a shot of the white pelicans floating on the water.”
Although I couldn’t yet move my wings, I felt my spirit soaring as though I were already high in the sky. This had to be my lagoon. I was home. WHAT was taking so long? I couldn’t wait.
“Give me a count before you release the hawk,” the photographer said. “Which way do you think he’ll fly? I hope he doesn’t fly in front of the apartment buildings.”
“Judging by the way the breeze is blowing,” the handler said, “I think he’ll fly over the water. I’ll count down: 3, 2, 1.” And he opened the box.
One last time, the person grabbed ahold of my legs with those heavy thick gloves. Since I wasn’t free yet, I kept my wings close to my sides. I hoped no birds were watching. I knew Salty Sam would have something to say about this if he were around.
Still holding my feet, he tilted me upright and raised me above his head.
“Wave your arms,” he was saying to the photographer. “Give the hawk something to look at besides me, so he knows where he is.”
But I didn’t need any help. When that joyous moment occurred, as I felt the hold on my feet release, the handler gave me a quick thrust upward to help me get aloft.
My wings were ready. I spread them open, four feet wide, caught a wind current, and flew . . . over the water, the blue, blue water of my lagoon.
I was back. The red-tailed hawk, royal ruler of the lagoon. Immediately, half the shorebirds took flight. I had never been in the habit of bothering them, but they took off, anyway. They gave me room.
I picked up another 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!”
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 watched the shorebirds settle down on the small islands again. I looked left. I looked right. All my kingdom was in sight.
~ ~ ~
It almost seemed like everything had been a very bad dream. Had all of this really happened? Had I really been in that strange place? But one of my left toes was still missing. It had been no dream.
The next day I saw Salty Sam. Even before he said hello or welcome back, he was squawking with news. He had found a discarded copy of that day’s “Daily Journal.” It had an article with pictures of ME in it. He already knew my story: I had been rescued, underwent experimental surgery, and was released back to the wild.
There was an embarrassing photo showing me lying on a table with the clear mask over my head and beak. Someone was holding down my right wing; someone else was removing my left toe. Later I asked the seagull to shred the photo and tell no one.
But I didn’t mind his sharing the second, more dignified photo of me flying upward from the handler’s outstretched arms as I returned to the sky. Good for Salty Sam. That news-hound of a seagull had finally dug up something interesting.
For many generations to come – for as many as I have remaining toes on both feet – red-tailed hawks will be telling this story. A caring person rescued me. Good people at a wildlife center saved my life and returned me to my home again.
Nowadays I feel more tolerant of the people talking on cell phones who run with their dogs around my lagoon. But Salty Sam and I still launch into flight the moment the bird photographers click their cameras. It may not be regal, but it’s so much fun!
Wonderful! A story for all ages
Thank you so much!!
Enjoyed the story. Did you write it on your trip down the Mississippi River ? Nice photos also, I looked back on your Gallery page, lots of great photos . It must have been differcult to choose what pictures to use.
Thanks, Michael! Actually, I wrote this back in 2013 and have gotten delayed making some updates to the story. Someone asked about the hawk-release photo recently, so I finally got it done.