The final time we handled him, we needed gloves. That was a good sign; that was a very good sign.
As coincidence would have it, I was “in town” when I got a message from Curt, a friend who runs RISE Raptor Project, a small non-profit I work with here in North Alabama.
Someone found what they thought was a red-tailed hawk. It was on the ground alive, but not moving. Would we come and get it?
RISE provides conservation education as we teach about our birds in public presentations, oftentimes in schools and libraries in the area, but also at a variety of other events. We’re not a rehab organization, but we occasionally get calls when folks find large birds in distress. “Don’t try this at home,” definitely applies when you’re working with the talons and beaks found on a bird of prey.
Those talons and beak were at the forefront of my mind when I was contacted. Normally, birds on the ground are approached with heavy leather gloves and something like a large towel. I had neither, and was dressed in shorts, a t-shirt, and sandals. I did, however, have two small towels which happened to be in the car. The bird was two miles south of where I was, and my gloves were 10 miles north, definitely out of town. I headed south.
The good and bad news, I learned during a call as I was driving, was that the bird was apparently already in a cardboard box. It was good the capture wouldn’t even have to take place, but that the bird was put into a cardboard box by an untrained and inexperienced person indicated it had to be in pretty bad shape.
And it was.
This story gets better, but when I found the bird, it was in a box that wasn’t even closed. It was on its side, and the finder had placed a table cloth over it to keep the flies out. The hawk–indeed, it was a juvenile red-tailed hawk–had its eyes closed, its wings tucked back, and its feet tucked up. There was some apparent respiration, though, so I closed the box, returned the table cloth, and put the box into the back of my car.
Okay, here’s the deal: When a bird, especially a bird of prey, is in need of “rescue,” it’s usually bad. As often as not, in my experience (albeit only a few years), the bird simply isn’t going to make it. I hate that, but it’s the truth. Now, that doesn’t mean they won’t make it–they sometimes do–but that didn’t look to be the case at the time.
Before I left the neighborhood where I picked him up, I wanted to make sure the bird was upright, so I reached in the box to rearrange the towels and prop him (probably a him, based on the size) up.
Though I didn’t know at the time, the bird was experiencing paralysis caused by something unknown, probably an ingested poison. He couldn’t move, his wings and those formidable talons remained tucked, but imagine my thrill as his eye suddenly opened at my touch. Cloud grey with streaks of black, the iris shrunk as the pupil quickly expanded to bring my face into focus from two feet away. His body didn’t move, but I did, and it was a good few seconds before I knew I could get him settled.
After getting him into what I thought was a good position, I headed back to see what we could do for him. Our treatment capability is limited, so we simply gave him fluids (pedialyte with a nutrient powder mixed in) a few times, and kept him in a safe place until we could transport him the next day. As with all animals, hydration is more important than feeding, and his mutes (excrement) showed that he’d been eating well.
The first time we handled him, he was unable to move his legs or wings. His situation didn’t require much in the way of protective equipment to handle him. But by the next day he was starting to gain some mobility, and when I got him on his way to the Southeastern Raptor Center at Auburn University he could move enough to warrant gloves–a positive sign.
The story isn’t over, but our part is finished. With a lot of luck, that hawk will once again take its place in the skies of Alabama.
Coda: The situation doesn’t warrant testing to determine what specifically caused this bird’s poisoning. As of now, the diagnosis is, “suspected toxin exposure.” Most likely, in my opinion, he ate a small mammal (mouse or rat) that had ingested poisoned bait. No one likes unwanted rodents, but if you find yourself with that problem, please consider using traps instead of poison. Secondary exposure to rodent poison kills many birds of prey each year.