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Bird Poop: Red-tailed hawk succumbs to its wounds

December 28, 2010

With a four-foot wingspan, the red-tailed hawk soars over open land. Often it is seen atop utility poles as it watches for available prey. Beneficial to man, its diet includes ground squirrels, rabbits, snakes and carrion. (Courtesy photo)

On call during the first weekend of December, the officer had gone to pick up a large hawk during the afternoon. After securing the raptor in his truck, he drove back to the shelter. The opportunity to handle such a bird reminded him of his days at the San Antonio zoo and other facilities.

After notifying the game warden, the officer was given our number to call. Since Odessa’s animal control was officially closed, we arranged to meet on Sunday morning.

Having quickly examined the bird, the officer related seeing no wounds. Since the raptor held its wings equally to its body, he was unsure of what could be wrong. Aware of the hawk’s diet, the man said he planned to offer it chunks of beef while it was confined.

Turning into the parking lot, we did not see his vehicle. He had warned us that if he was not there, he had gone out on a call. If that was the case, we told him we would wait. Soon another vehicle arrived.

Finally, the officer’s truck entered the lot. Apparently, he had anticipated both vehicles.

After removing the remains of a pet from the other car, he gestured for us to enter the building.

Inside the glassed enclosure of a former office, we saw a cage. Stoically standing on a perch at the back was a mature, male red-tailed hawk. Smaller than a female, the bird was majestic in its composure and presence. 

“It’s eaten half of the meat I gave him,” said the officer as Art opened the cage door. Slowly reaching inside, I was able to approach the hawk.
My gloved hand nearing it produced no reaction. Quickly inserting my index finger through its legs and closing my grip with thumb and middle finger, I had control. With no protest, resistance, nor flapping of wings, I brought the red-tail through the gate.

As I held its back against my chest, Art helped me extend each wing. Letting my fingers feel the bones from shoulder to wrist found no calcification of an injury. With the tips of its tail feathers badly worn, we knew it had been grounded for some time.

Once home, we would give it a more thorough examination. Knowing something was wrong because the raptor was so passive, we promised to call with the results.

Laying the red-tail on its back and covering its head, Art spread its left wing. Every feather was in place. The barring and markings were typical.

After looking at its right wing, I asked Art to extend both wings. Finally I noticed what I had missed previously. An almost miniscule amount of a dried substance was noticeable on the tip of a feather on the upper chest. With the wing closed, it would have been hidden. Even with the wing open, I nearly overlooked it.

Parting the feathers in this area, I finally made my way to the flesh beneath. Parted in a semi-diamond opening, the skin’s edges and the flesh inside were dried. Fortunately, little bleeding had occurred on this old wound. What had caused such an injury to tear the skin bothered us. “Could have been shot,” thought Art.

Two days later the winds calmed enough for us to take the red-tail to Gail Barnes in Lubbock.  “It’s beautiful! Except for the worn tail, there’s not a feather out of place,” she said. Feeling the length of its wings, she could find no breaks. Wondering if the tear in the chest could have been caused by a rabbit’s toenail seemed plausible.

Placing it in a mew where it could exercise and choose either a lower or higher perch, Gail felt we would know more after a few days. That the hawk was eagerly eating on its own was a good sign.

During the next week, the raptor only used the lower perch. After veterinarian Jeanette Lubenau felt of the wings and found no breaks, she called for a full body-scan.

“Your hawk is full of lead pellets, even in its legs,” said Gail. Noting that it also had suffered a broken shoulder, possibly from having fallen from the sky or a telephone pole, she said the break had calcified. Even though the raptor could extend its wings and hold them normally, it would never fly again.

All of us knew that it is difficult to feel the shot once it has penetrated the skin and imbedded in the flesh. Through technology we had found the unwanted answer.

According to federal law, when a migratory bird is non-releasable and cannot be placed in an educational situation, it has to be euthanized. Unfortunately, this specie is abundant and requests for specimens infrequent.

Notifying both the animal control officer and the game warden of the outcome, I learned that the western area of that city is notorious for the shooting of birds. Catching the culprits is difficult, and education seems fruitless with the mind-set of individuals.

As Christmas approached the news proved difficult to accept. Some years we had numerous red-tails needing help. Other years, they mastered their migratory struggles to further their specie’s survival. 

Each had been unique. Coming to mind was a favorite quote I have posted inside a cabinet door in my kitchen. “I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and self-contained,” wrote Walt Whitman. In spite of having the inhumanity of man thrust upon it, this raptor had retained its stately elegance.

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

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