The Wild Truth
By Winslow Umberger
Rescuing a wild animal in need rarely comes at the perfect time. Typically, the emergency comes from “out of the blue.” It did, quite literally, for local wildlife photographer Steve Atkins. Atkins was preparing a surprise party for his daughter when he got an urgent call from some friends. An injured Red-tailed Hawk was discovered in a horse pasture and they needed help catching him. Atkins dropped everything. In minutes he was on site, witnessing the raptor elude capture. “The plan was to herd the bird towards the split rail fence bordering the property where I was waiting,” says Atkins. “It worked! He landed on the bottom rail, just 15 feet from me. I slowly approached, speaking to it in soothing tones. His eyes locked on mine, but, incredibly, he didn’t budge as I scooped him up with a towel and held him firmly against my chest. He just collapsed into me out of exhaustion. It was a very emotional moment.”
Few rescuers have experiences like this, but plenty of raptors will be rescued this year. “We take in about 800–1,000 raptor patients each year,” says Mathias Engelmann, senior rehabilitation coordinator at the Carolina Raptor Center. In his 36 years as a raptor rehabilitator, he has seen it all and emphasizes the importance of reaching out to a wildlife professional before attempting a rescue.
“It is important to contact a rehabber before rescuing,” says Engelmann, “because many baby/juvenile raptors encountered during the spring do not need to be rescued. They may just need a boost up into a tree if they are healthy. Young raptors often leave the nest before they can fly and many end up on the ground where they are vulnerable to predation. The parent birds will continue to feed and care for them, but cannot physically move them to a safer location up on tree branches.”
All wild animals, if able, will fight off rescuers, so “it is important to protect yourself by wearing leather gloves and a long-sleeved shirt or jacket,” says Engelmann. “Having a large towel to throw over them will provide another layer of protection and will help calm the bird. Place it in a cardboard box with air holes, keep it quiet and get them to care immediately.”
This summer, three species of hawks will be commonly seen in our area: the Cooper’s Hawk, the Red-tailed Hawk and the Red-shouldered Hawk. “Most hawks nest from April to June. When the eggs hatch, the young demand large quantities of food, which will keep the parents busy for several weeks to come,” says Engelmann.
Atkins knew right away his rescue was a Red-tailed Hawk, but it is often difficult to differentiate the three aforementioned species. “Observe how the bird is flying,” advises Engelmann. “If it is soaring in lazy circles overhead for a prolonged period of time, it is probably a Red-tailed or Red-shouldered Hawk. If it is flying fast, it is likely a Cooper’s Hawk.” Noting the colors and patterns is also key. The Cooper’s has a uniformly colored chest, with a long, thickly striped tail the same length as its body. The Red-tailed has a light chest with a dark belly band, and the Red-shouldered Hawk has narrow stripes on a brown tail in juveniles and black-and-white stripes in the adults.”
Getting an injured raptor to the Carolina Raptor Center, which is two hours away, is not always possible. Appalachian Wild (AppalachianWild.org) and Wild for Life (WildforLife.org) are excellent local non-profit resources that can help. “Wild for Life helped me with the hawk,” says Atkins. “He had lost a toe and the other toes were badly wounded. I kept checking on the bird throughout the fall and, by Christmas time, he was healed. Since our property was an ideal release site, the rehabber permitted us the honor of releasing him there. He flew to the closest tree and watched me for an hour.”
The hawk decided to hang around for a while. “The last time I saw him was three weeks after release,” Atkins says. “He grabbed a rodent and flew off as if to say, ‘Look! I’ve got this!’ He was going to be all right.”
Winslow Umberger is head of outreach for Appalachian Wild, a nonprofit whose mission is to support wildlife rehabilitators and help save injured and orphaned wildlife. Learn more at AppalachianWild.org.