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Canadian Projects

Canadian Blog

by Barry Kent MacKay,
Senior Program Associate

Born Free USA's Canadian Representative

Barry is an artist, both with words and with paint. He has been associated with our organization for nearly three decades and is our go-to guy for any wildlife question. He knows his animals — especially birds — and the issues that affect them. His blogs will give you just the tip of his wildlife-knowledge iceberg, so be sure to stay and delve deeper into his Canadian Project articles. If you like wildlife and reading, Barry's your man. (And we're happy to have him as part of our team, too!)

Death, Life and a Hawk Named Eve

Saving a Predatory Life

Published 04/20/12

When I first saw Eve, in mid-March, I thought I should probably kill her. It would be easier than having to do it later on, after I had come to know her. Twenty minutes earlier a gentleman had called to say he had just picked up a “peregrine falcon” lying on its back on the 9th Line, the rather heavily travelled north-south road just a short distance from my home. Since I walk or drive the 9th Line almost daily, I knew there were red-tailed hawks in the neighborhood. He had heard of my work with birds and asked if I would take the bird. I told him to bring it over.

When I opened the box, there was a year-old red-tailed hawk, on her feet, but with her head grotesquely twisted down under her belly. I picked her up. She tried and failed to focus on what was happening, but couldn’t manage to control her head movements. There were drops of blood on her ear covets, but I could find no broken bones. Her neurological symptoms were consistent with a concussion derived from a collision with a car. Red-tailed hawks fly down from high perches, entirely concentrated on their prey, and too often swoop low across roads and are struck by vehicles. Brain damage can be permanent, and if so, euthanasia would become the most humane option. It’s harder to do, though, once one has gotten to know the bird. On the other hand, didn’t she deserve a chance?

I took the large hawk downstairs and put her in a dog-kennel in the furnace room. Eve, as a friend soon named her, had firm muscles and good fat content, proving she had been a good hunter. Being a vegan myself, I had to purchase stewing beef to start out with, and that was an alien food for her, so I had to reach into the cage, pick her up, hold her, and put thin strips of meat into her mouth when she opened it, defensively. I noticed her tongue was twisted to the side, another sign of brain damage. Even with the meat in her beak, she didn’t know enough to swallow it. Being careful of her displaced tongue, I gently pushed the meat down into her mouth with an eyedropper, until it passed a point where she automatically swallowed it. Squirting a bit of water would also encourage the swallowing. On the third day she suddenly reached out and took the meat on her own, making things easier for us both.

But hawks require the organ meats, bones and fur that come with their natural prey, mostly mice and voles, and so the word went out: I needed fresh road-kills and birds that had hit windows or been caught by cats or other more natural prey. I had a few mice in the freezer saved for just such a need and thawed them out. Since Eve still was uncoordinated she could not rend prey by herself. On the other hand, by thrashing about in the cage she was damaging the tips of her wing feathers. When, by the fourth day, she could stand upright, I simply let her have the freedom of the furnace room. She could fly, if wobbly, and for another day or two I caught her up each night to feed her, cutting the mice into bite-size portions, and feeding her thin strips of stewing beef.

Some friends in the city had found a freshly dead pigeon, also hit by a car. I waited until my rescue was hungry, then put the pigeon on the floor in front of Eve as she perched on a clothing rack. I returned a few hours later to find the pigeon entirely gone except for the plucked feathers, now in a pile. She could feed on her own, and could fly, and I could see that her tongue was now straightening, all signs of steady progress, although she still tilted her head a great deal, always to the right.

My next plan was to drive her to a wildlife rehabilitation facility. I should explain that here in Ontario the Ministry of Natural Resources licenses wildlife rehabilitation. I am not licensed, nor do I want to be. The ministry’s regulations are so onerous and heavy-handed as to discourage humane and effective wildlife rehabilitation, another story to tell some day, but the results are that there are relatively few places I could take her. By keeping the bird I was breaking the law, so only trusted friends knew.

My late mother, Phyllis E. MacKay, was a pioneer in wild bird rehabilitation back when the ministry was not interested in such things (she had the federal permit required for most other bird species) and I grew up taking care of wild birds and other wildlife. I know what to do. However, the best of a small number of facilities was several hours’ drive away, and such a drive would put a lot of stress on Eve. I borrowed a container to put her in, and she might be OK, if kept covered. Once at the facility she could live in a large flight cage until the summer, when she would moult those slightly damaged feathers. My concern was that the damaged feather tips, while not impeding her flight in the furnace room, might interfere with her ability to maneuver in tight quarters, as would be necessary in catching prey, so perhaps having her at a rehab facility until then was best.

By coincidence the subject of rehabilitating predatory animals had come up on an animal rights list I’m on. The problem I’ve always had with some aspects of “animal rights” philosophy is that it deems all individual animals equal in their self-interests, so what do you do when caring for an animal who eats other animals? I was shocked when the deeply religious list moderator wrote, “If we cannot convert a carnivore to veganism, which can be done, then it is best to humanely euthanize the carnivore in order to save many other animals. Isn’t the life of a sheep worth as much as the life of a lion?” Ecologically the answer is no. And of course, no, you can’t convert a red-tailed hawk into a vegan, nor release it back to the wild if you could! Hawks are designed, by nature, by God if you will, to fly free in the sun and the rain or snow, in the wind and over fields and forests.

I still had a problem about how to get proper, natural food. Sadly there is no dearth of innocent wildlife killed by human agencies, and a friend provided me with freshly frozen dead birds that had struck windows, an all-too-common an occurrence. And the friend of a friend, working in a pet store, gave me “feeder mice,” knowing I did not want to buy them on my own. Feeder mice are mice raised and killed and frozen to be fed to predatory companion animals like some snakes. I felt awful, but those mice were essential to Eve’s well-being.

Bird rehabbers have a rather odd fixation about excrement. It’s a wonderful way to judge the health of a bird, and a healthy hawk’s is bright white, with a dark center, when dry, with a chalky texture. And so Eve’s was, all over my furnace room! We politely call it “whitewash”, and she indeed whitewashed a pile of old suitcases beneath one of her favorite perches, the walls, the floor. I covered the books on one side of the room, but I couldn’t cover everything, including my treadmill exercise machine, one of her favorite perches.

But there was improvement in her health. Once free to explore the furnace room she learned to take the strips of beef off the end of a bamboo. I could tell that she was fairly content by the way she held one foot up. The problem with the tongue went away, and she was tilting her head a lot less, although she still tilted it, an involuntary act that made it look like she was curious or puzzled.

I was pleased with her progress, but I was dithering, putting off the big decision: Could she fly well enough to hunt, or should I put her in a box, drive her for half a day, so she would be caged until her moult, and then released far, far from where she had been raised? There are two casement windows in the furnace room, and occasionally she would sit in one and look up at the tiny bit of sky and trees she could see, and try to get through the glass, making me feel bad.

It was Good Friday when I got my answer. I had brought her a dead, freshly thawed sparrow. Instead of placing it on a bare space of floor, as usual, I placed it on top of the cage where she had spent the first few days, until recovered enough to stand and to fly. I did this to get a different angle, to take photos. She was perched on a high shelf to my left, above head height. There was the cocked head, that curious look, obvious interest, but after several minutes she still had not moved.

OK. Thinking she would prefer the more usual routine I reached out, picked up the sparrow and turned to put it on the floor. Suddenly Eve launched herself from the shelf, swooped down, grabbed the bird dangling from my fingers in her powerful talons without touching my bare hand, and alighted on top of a small wooden lawn ornament on the floor. It was bravura display of aerial maneuvering in close quarters.

She was ready to go.

On Easter Sunday I fed her in the morning, then caught her up, using a butterfly net, much to her distress, and carried her upstairs and out on to the back porch. I held her for several minutes, stroking her, talking to her and to myself. I cared, deeply, about her.

I put her on the porch railing and backed up. She stayed facing me for about 30 seconds, and then turned around. She was free.

She flew up into a nearby tree in my yard, and looked back down at me, her head slightly tilted, and I can never know what thoughts she might have entertained in that last moment of eye contact before she turned around and flew away.

I look for her whenever I’m out. By next fall she’ll have changed, the damaged feathers shed for crisply new ones, her light-colored eyes becoming dark, the barred tail replaced by one that is rusty red, the adult plumage that would make her look like all the other adult red-tailed hawks and gives the species its name. Meanwhile I keep looking for a red-tailed hawk still in immature plumage, slightly frayed at the tips of the wings and tail. I haven’t seen her yet, but I keep looking.

Blogging off,

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