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Bird Poop: Buteo regalis, up, up and away

February 8, 2011

Migrating from as far north as the state of Washington and southern Canada, the ferruginous hawk winters in the southwestern part of the United States and Mexico. Included in its diet are prairie dogs and rabbits. (Courtesy photo)

Soaring in the emptiness of a winter sky, it had been seen for weeks. Spotted atop a weathered telephone pole, the large bird had been watched by a game warden as it searched the ground for any movement. Having seen it lift its prey as it flew away one afternoon, the officer was grateful to have shared a brief moment with such a magnificent being.

“Robert Lee,” said the male voice when I asked again for a location through the static of his call. “Who?” I asked. “Not who, but where,” he jokingly replied.

“Coke County,” he added. Hearing me say southeast of Mitchell County, near Lake Spence, the game warden sounded grateful when I told him we’d meet him in the small community.

As Art loaded a large box in our vehicle, he was relieved to know that it was an officer who had called. Through the first years of our rescue work we had learned quickly that the words big, large, and huge were often exaggerated.

Agreeing to meet in front of the old jail afforded us the opportunity to see a part of the town’s past. Sitting in his vehicle in front of the structure, the game warden said he had been there only a few minutes.

Inside a large dog carrier was a bird of prey much bigger than our customarily handled red-tailed hawks. Everything about this raptor was large, including its head and bill.

As I brought it out of the enclosure, the bird spread its wings. At almost five feet, its wingspan was impressive.

Maintaining its composure after being placed in a box appropriate for its size, the hawk was regal in appearance. Looking at it from above, we estimated it was at least two feet long.

“Did you find it? Where was the bird? Did it try to fly?” were quickly answered by the officer telling us he had noticed the hawk by the side of the road. In a familiar area to both man and bird, the terrain offered an abundance of small mammals, as well as carrion.

Jackrabbits hit during the night might have provided an easy source of food and lured the predator toward the pavement. An effort to fly only allowed it to elevate one to two feet above the ground.

As the game warden started to leave, we said we’d let him know what we found, and the outcome. Heading north, we were excited about handling our first ferruginous hawk.

After preparing an enclosure and roosts appropriate for such a large raptor, we brought the bird out of our box. Flapping its wings repeatedly acquainted us with how much air could be moved by such an array of feathers. Created by its powerful movements were strong gusts of wind.

Positioning the back of the hawk against my chest, with its head well below my face, I extended one wing, then the other. With no obvious breaks, the bird could have sustained bruising or a hairline fracture. At least someone had seen it try to fly.

When placed inside its temporary home, the raptor readily grasped with its talons a low roost. Then it turned and stared at us.

First identifying species, ornithologists had been wise to choose the adjective, ferruginous. To describe this specie’s wing feathers and leggings as rusty, or the color of iron, was and is appropriate.
Seen in flight, Buteo regalis is often described as a Mexican eagle. While soaring, its white tail and head resemble in size and partial coloration our national emblem. Readily seen but often overlooked is the dark V formed by the hawk’s feathered legs as its feet come together underneath its tail.

From our freezer, a neighborhood squirrel that had met its demise by a speeding motorist, and large mice seemed satisfactory to our ravenous visitor. Fortunately, our stock of road kill did not include skunks that are known to tempt a ferruginous’ palate.

At a wildlife center, the raptor utilized varying tree limbs as it acquainted itself with new surroundings. Since x-rays revealed no breaks, the bird was allowed to mend on its own. Daily exercise and short flights ensued.

Having mastered the flight cage, the ferruginous was taken to a release site that offered open plains, hills, gullies, and canyons. As it took flight, it seemed sluggish, as if its wings were too heavy for its body. Compared to other raptors, the flapping of its wings was almost awkward.

Persistent in becoming airborne, it gained altitude and speed. Soon, the gracefulness of its species became evident.

A February thermal helped elevate it into ever widening circles. Reintroduced into its realm, the sky, the grandiose bird of prey soon was lost in the welcoming clouds.

Bebe McCasland is author of The Scoop from Bird Poop. She is federally and state licensed to rehabilitate wild birds. squirrels.

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