Lisa Acton, a wild bird rehabilitator with Animal Kingdom USA Wildlife Rehabilitation in Brewster, New York, (www.akusawr.org ) recalls a female Red-tailed hawk she could have lived without.
“Right from the beginning,” she says, “she wanted to kill us.”
The call came on an early spring afternoon, from a caller with a pronounced French accent.
“In my cair, I have zee eagle!” he exclaimed.
Several minutes of verbal give-and-take revealed that Henri had been driving down a small highway, and had seen the bird fly out of the woods and straight into a passing car. Certain raptors like to hang out along highways, not only so they can scoop up the occasional roadkill, but so they can spot rodents running along the grassy, cleared area between lanes. If they do see a likely meal, they jump off their branch and head for it, not taking into consideration that a car might be about to bisect their route. This was obviously what had happened to this bird, who had then bounced off the car and onto the shoulder of the road.
Eagles don’t normally hang around highways in Lisa’s area of New York State, however. Further questioning revealed that the bird was not an eagle, but a large red-tailed hawk. The compassionate Frenchman had immediately pulled over, picked up the semi-conscious hawk, and put it on the passenger seat of his Mini-Cooper. He had then driven home, done some research, and called Lisa.
“She’s still in your car?” Lisa had asked, alarmed.
“Yes,” said Henri. “I go now, I walk outside to look in zee cair …ah! She is feeling bettair! She ees standing on zee brake … how you say …”
“The emergency brake?” asked Lisa.
“Oui! Mais, zut alors, perhaps she is not so bettair … now she is fallen over, and lies on zee seat once again. Here, I will open zee cair and pick ‘air up.”
“No!” Lisa cried. “Don’t do that! Listen, Henri – hawks are very dangerous – they have great big talons … you know, uh, claws, big nails on their feet … and they can really hurt you. I can’t leave my house right now … let me see if I can get someone to come over and get her.”
“No, no!” said Henri. “Ees fine, I ‘ave big gloves, I will get zem, I will bring ‘air to you. I inseest.”
Lisa spent several minutes trying to persuade the redtail’s rescuer to let her send someone over, to no avail. “All right,” she said finally. “You have to get a box and a towel, and get the gloves. Put the gloves on, tip the box toward her, and push her in the box with the towel. Then shut the top of the box – fast. Ok? Really, these are dangerous birds, and I don’t want you to get hurt.”
“Ees no problem,” said Henri. “Tell me ‘ow to get to your ‘ouse.”
Henri arrived an hour later. “I am zo glad zair are people like you to take care of zees beautiful bairds,” he said, smiling.
Lisa smiled back at the charming, kindhearted man, then looked into the car; the hawk glared woozily at her from the passenger seat, where she stood in a cardboard box with no top. Lisa had a horrible vision of the hawk launching herself out of the box and attaching herself to Henri’s head as he drove his Mini Cooper down the highway; it dissolved as she took in the interior of the car, which was covered in, shall we say, hawk excreta. Hawks perform high-velocity defecation: they raise their tails, give a single convulsive push, and shoot their poop far away from themselves, which comes in handy when you want to avoid fouling your own nest (hence the expression). This hawk, evidently, had had to go, and more than once. Dried hawk poop is like Plaster of Paris; Lisa had no idea how this poor man was going to clean his car.
“Zank you,” said Henri, obviously nonplussed by his vehicle’s condition. “I will call you again tomorrow to see ‘ow she is feeling.”
It seemed that before her encounter with the car, the hawk had been in a fierce territorial battle with another hawk, as her swollen feet and legs were riddled with puncture wounds. There are few injuries quite like a hawk talon piercing your muscle; not only does it hurt like hell at the time, but during the following several days it is impossible to move the muscle without pain. Lisa put her on antibiotics for the puncture wounds, an anti-inflammatory for her head injury, and was going to simply feed her and let her rest. The Battle Goddess, however, had no intention of making life that easy.
First she refused to eat, no matter how enticingly her defrosted rats were sliced; then she tried to grab Lisa with her talons every time she opened the crate. “She’s probably mad that we named her ‘French Fry,’” said Lisa’s husband Joe. “French Fry for the French Guy.” She punctured Lisa’s hand twice, each time slipping a talon perfectly through the seam of a supposedly impenetrable raptor glove, and delivering a small, painful wound.
Eventually she started to eat, although she never gave up lunging at whoever opened her crate, or glaring in fury whenever anyone walked into the room. Five weeks later she was catching mice in a flight cage, and ready to go. Lisa was also ready for her to go.
“I am zo ‘appy,” said Henri. “I wish I could see ‘air fly away, but I am leaving for Europe zis afternoon. Zank you so much for all you did for ‘air.”
Lisa and Joe decided, for obvious reasons, not to return her to where she came from; instead they would release her behind a local nursery, where there were lots of woods and fields but few hawks. They carried her crate into one of the fields, pointed it toward the trees, and opened the door; there was a rush of brown and white feathers, she flew out, across the field, and landed on a high branch. Lisa pulled out her camera and focused.
“I don’t like the way she’s looking at us,” said Joe.
Just as Lisa was about to snap the picture, the hawk launched herself off the branch. Lisa had a quick moment of clarity, when, through the lens, she saw a large raptor hurtling toward her.
“Run!” she screamed. “Run!”
They turned and bolted across the field, racing through an area filled with thorn bushes instead of around it, feeling tiny daggers imbedding themselves in their limbs, imagining large talons imbedding themselves in the back of their heads. The hawk shot by, banked upward and veered off; Joe and Lisa slowed down when they reached the safety of the parking lot and looked back at the field, where she was flying leisurely toward the woods. Bent over and gasping for air, they regarded each other.
“So much for Franco-American relations,” said Joe.
“Why do we do this, again?” said Lisa.
First photo by Marvin Collins; last by Philip Lee Harvey.