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Bird Poop: The spirit of a survivor

March 1, 2011

With its slender body and long tail, the Northern harrier is often seen during the winter as its glides three to 30 feet over the ground. With the ability to hover, it may suddenly plummet to the ground in order to seize its prey. Sexes are readily determined by color. The male is gray, while the female is brown. (Courtesy photo)

Turning off the highway, his truck crossed a cattle guard, then headed west. Billowing clouds of caliche dust from the surface of the ranch road followed his vehicle as he headed toward a distant house, barn, and other structures.
Soon he slowed and drove down into a wash area. As he came out of the dry streambed, the dust that had overcome his truck started to settle on the road ahead. As he waited for it to clear, he noticed a large grayish bird standing near an old mesquite.

“It’s an owl,” he offered, as he continued telling me how he had discovered a raptor. Wondering why it was on the ground, he left his truck. When it didn’t fly, he felt it might be hurt.

Borrowing his dog’s old blanket, he threw it over the owl. As he carried what he described as a “papoose” back to the vehicle, the bird offered little resistance. After describing its owl-like facial discs, the man offered to bring it to us.

Slowly unwrapping our latest delivery was primary. Not knowing where the owl’s feet and talons were prompted extreme caution. Too often injured raptors would quickly strike at the nearest movement or sound.

Fortunately, its feet were revealed first. Peeling the rest of the blanket from around the bird revealed a Northern harrier, a hawk that has facial discs resembling those of owls. The contours created by the feathers channel sound to its ears, and often enable the bird to hear its prey before seeing it.

Another identifying feature of this specie was its white rump. While this male was a pale gray above, this coloration only extended to his upper chest on the underside. His belly and beneath were white with flecks of cinnamon. With its long, narrow wings extended, the man could appreciate how the gray above, and white below, were accented with black tips.

Also seen was the obvious injury that had caused the harrier to be earthbound. It had been shot.

Disgusted, the man told of the constant problem with poachers and roadside shooters. Slaughtered deer with only the choicest parts missing were occasionally found on the ranch throughout the year. Any raptor that perched on a fence post or utility pole appeared to be fair game, as were wild turkeys.

Long before the highway to the south had been widened and wind towers stood like silent sentries on the mesas, ancestors of this specie had hunted the open fields. In the midst of seemingly endless, gray wintry days, the birds of prey had tilted from side to side in graceful glides as they followed miles of fence lines.

For motorists traveling to San Angelo, the raptors were momentary flashes of gray or brown, if they saw them at all. Hiding in the dried grasses along the boundary markers, small animals were usually seized by these birds before they sensed any presence of danger.

To assess the extent of the damage to its wing, we took the harrier to Eos Wildlife Sanctuary in Midland. Although we had not felt any broken bones, an x-ray would reveal the extent of the wound. Also having to be considered was nerve damage.

A call the next day was encouraging. While the bones were intact, only time, healing, and rehab would determine the bird’s ultimate destiny. At least it had a chance.

Threatened by starvation, and having suffered agonizing pain, the harrier was courageous in its determination to recover. In its eyes when we first met had been the intrepid spirit of a survivor.

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