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! 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 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 of my 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. The talon of that toe kept bouncing against the pad of my foot, piercing it. It was annoying and, at times, painful. I tried to extend the toe out to straighten it, but it kept flopping back into my foot. 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.
“Yes, I’ve got him.”
“OK, 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 starting to come 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. Have I mentioned the seagull can read? He often dug out old newspapers and read me stories. Most of them had more of an appeal for shorebirds, but I always listened politely. On this occasion he’d found an article 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 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 greyish 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, there have been salt marsh harvest mice. You rarely find them these days, but a few still scamper through pickleweed along the southern part of the Bay’s Don Edwards Wildlife Refuge.
I remember swooping down to snag the meal. My sharp eyes had seen him long before he realized I was coming. I will 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. It would be such an easy treat, scooping up the little fellow, that I was only half paying 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 with something in that water 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 water and become airborne again. This was incredible. Never in my life had I experienced this. I am a royal bird, king of my Lagoon, master of the air. 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. I’d been brought to a wildlife rescue center. So that’s where I was.
Salty Sam knew 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. The owls reported being well treated. 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, 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. That is how I knew. The owls had been taken back to the place where they had been rescued, back to where they used to live. Would I be taken back, 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. 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.”
The handler carried me into another room and laid me on a table. My head was still covered. By the sounds I heard, 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 injured 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.”
They kept me lying flat on the table. I had never laid on my back in my life. I tried to curl my feet and talons in front of me again, but the handler with those heavy leather gloves would have none of it. He continued to hold my legs flat. Someone else held my right wing down.
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. 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 the white pelican. Salty Sam told me later they were probably wearing surgical gloves. That would have come from his reading. He knew of 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 cared about wildlife and wanted to help us. I tried to remain calm. I looked at every 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 to apply anesthesia. 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 as needed 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 will be difficult to control the story.”
Someone said, “OK; 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. All of this was incomprehensible!
I began to drift 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. He’s going to be OK.”
I was moved to a small space, very dark. Some daylight entered one side. 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 raptor handler with the heavy leather gloves came, held onto my feet again, and carried me into a large wire enclosure. It was outside. At the top was more wire that prevented me from flying up and out. But I could breathe fresh, sea air. I began to feel 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, just below the top. It was perfect for perching, and there I established my station. I could once again 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. Sometimes I perch on just one leg. 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 felt a pang inside. I remembered the song we learned as fledglings:
Look left, Look right
All your kingdom is in sight
Soar up, Fly high
You belong in the sky
Catch the thermal, Circle wide
Just relax for the ride
Sweep low, Near the ground
But never make a sound
Resume your perch, Land anew
Always yours, the royal view
Look left, Look right
All your kingdom is in sight
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 talking. I heard them say the key to freedom was something called a “carrier.” 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 the carrier arrived. A raptor handler and another person 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. That camera had 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. Salty Sam calls them telephoto lenses.
At the Lagoon, when we needed entertainment, we gave the bird photographers a hard time. We would wait until they set up their cameras. The photographers would crouch down and lean their head against their camera. They would steady the metal branch 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 they 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 these photographers above my beloved Lagoon?
I’m a red-tailed hawk. I am raptor royalty, with the superior intelligence befitting my rank. 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 raptor handler 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.
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 gave him my fiercest hawk glare. But I did know he was trying to help me. 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 surgery to remove one of his toes and was then 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 tried to scream with joy. I think they thought I was upset or angry. But I wasn’t – I just couldn’t wait to get home.
The handler placed 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 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 we moved. They set the box down, and then I heard really loud sounds. The sounds were like cars driving by and parking near my Lagoon, when the people take their dogs out and run along the shores.
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. OK, I’ll count down: 3, 2, 1.” And he opened the box.
One last time, the raptor handler reached in with those thick, leather gloves and grabbed ahold of my legs. I hoped no birds were watching. I knew Salty Sam would have something to say about this if he were around.
He tilted me upright and raised me above his head.
“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, as I felt the hold on my legs 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, lofty ruler of the Lagoon, was back.
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!”
Those people weren’t so bad. They had helped me.
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 that really happened? Had I really been in that strange place? But part of one toe 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 San Mateo “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 not tell anyone.
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 out 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 good 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!