In June 2015, Louie, a baby Red-tailed Hawk, came to the California Raptor Center from the Stockton-Lodi area. A Good Samaritan who works at the Micke Grove Zoo found him in a park, covered in burrs. He looked dead. When she bent over him, however, he moved. She rushed him to the UC Davis Vet Med Hospital. He was severely dehydrated and emaciated, but to everyone’s surprise, he had no injuries. He was young and lively and recovered quickly. But without parents at a crucial age, he’d need a great deal of help getting ready to return to life in the wild.
So Louie was transferred to the Raptor Center, and from there, in late July, to me, in my role as falconer and volunteer with another rehabilitation group in northern California, for flight and hunt training.
Louie was unusually friendly, calling softly and readily eating from my hand. The calling was a bit of a worry – I wondered if he could he be imprinted on humans. It wasn’t likely that he was a classic imprint, because he was about a month old when found and most irreversible imprinting takes place within a few days of young hawks’ opening their eyes. Still, he’d been handled a great deal and probably hand-fed at the hospital.
Keenly aware that Louie was handicapped by not having a parent to teach him life’s important lessons, I set out training Louie via the standard falconer’s process: getting him to trust me and come to me for food. Then going on to encourage him to jump up to my fist for exercise and strength. Finally, letting him free fly while I would scare up his prey. Complex process!
In two days, Louie was flying to my glove with enthusiasm – and then some! Actually, he was grabbing at anything in my hand whenever I entered the mews. This isn’t good; a fearless raptor who thinks he’s starving and that a human is holding food is liable to snatch hotdogs right out of children’s hands. To understand how much of a problem this can be, look at Louie’s feet in the photo above! To offset this habit, I began to toss him his food tied to a lure, that is, a soft object on a cord to which food bits can be firmly attached. He learned what that was all about in one minute, and thereafter, while I couldn’t have him fly to the fist to exercise or eat his dinner, he’d go to the lure like a champ.
I worked with him daily. For a while every morning, I’d leave him leashed to a perch, wearing his hood, which prevents him from seeing and getting nervous. That allowed me to check him over, weigh him, and get him accustomed to my handling him. Then I would unhood him, reward him with tidbits on the lure, and take him out to fly him on a creance (falconry-speak for a long exercise leash). There are several ways of exercising birds of prey with flight training. The route I chose involved a parachute cord as a creance, tied to stakes set about 120 feet apart. A metal ring slides along on the cord, and to this you tie the leash. Louie could safely fly a nice distance and get exercise and a feel for the hunting experience, but he couldn’t veer away into the trees or take off for Canada.
He would sit on his perch at one end of the cord; I’d toss the lure with quail hunk somewhere in the middle and bobble it around on a string. He’d fly to “kill” his quarry, and when he’d footed it sufficiently (that’s how he kills prey – striking deep and hard with those razor talons) and had begun tearing at it with his beak, I’d approach slowly, low to the ground, talking softly, and offer him a piece of quail liver. He’d trade his “kill” for this raptor candy.
This was an important lesson, because to hunt with him, I had to be sure he’d come back to me. In this way, we could work together, getting better (both of us!) at finding and dispatching quarry, until he was ready for release. In creance training, he would do this routine a number of times and then I’d make sure he had a meal’s worth of the quail at the end, and let him, as we say, crop up – eat until he was satisfied. Then I’d wait a couple of days until he’d digested all that, meanwhile working on getting him more and more accustomed to me and to his hood and the carrying box. All necessities for any long-term work with a wild bird.
Next step, oh lordy! Let him fly free! What a moment: Would he take off for the horizon? Or stick around to see what I was doing? He circled me, a great relief! And I tossed him a small rabbit (dead). Well, he was on it in a flash, hitting it hard. After he plucked at it and ate some, he let me approach him and came dutifully to my fist for his liver.
Now – could he actually hunt – spot and attack live wild prey and kill it? I released a rat near him. He saw it immediately, and killed it with one blow. Good boy, Louie! Some young birds don’t really seem to know right off how to kill the animal they have captured.
Louie was now ready for a series of live hunts, with me guaranteeing that he got a meal, win or lose, until he was an adept. But by now, I was, perforce, being urged by a couple of organizations who had an interest in him to get him quickly back out in the wild. I wasn’t happy with not having completed his hunt training to my satisfaction, but I was not my own boss.
So with Mark, a falconer friend, I reluctantly took Louie to a field near where he was hatched. We took off the jesses, leash, cut the anklets and – let him go. We tossed him a small rabbit (again, dead). He locked on. And we waited. And waited. We were hoping he’d fly into a tree to eat. But nearly an hour later, Little Louie was still frozen on his rabbit, clearly not knowing what to do or where to go. He was just going to sit there until something came along and ate both of them. Mark and I agreed that I had to get him back.
As I was frantically searching the car for a towel to toss over him, or for the bal chatri hawk trap, muttering about how I never had a net when I needed one, I heard Mark laugh, and looked up. There was Louie, sitting on Mark’s glove, clutching his rabbit and looking pleased with himself. He went into his carrying box without a flutter. On the half-hour ride back to civilization, he ate the entire rabbit. His crop, that stretchy area near the top of the esophagus, was almost as big as the rest of him.
So Louie was, after all, in for more training. Every day was a challenge. I had injured my Achilles tendon and couldn’t walk well enough to take him into the field without help. Thanks to my gimpiness, Mark now had to play the part of the rabbit dog. But August isn’t the greatest time of year around these parts for lively wild rabbits, and though we rattled the bushes, Louie didn’t catch any. He was catching something, though, critters small enough that he’d gobbled them down by the time we got to him. And again he killed a number of rats and a couple of commercial quail.
We hacked him out, that is we released him and visited him every day or so with offerings of food. We chose a nice field with a stack of hay bales, Louie’s Castle. From this vantage point, Louie could fly against whatever he fancied, or wait for one of us to come along with meat to toss him. He could hide in the crevasses between the bales and keep watch. When he wasn’t there, he was usually hanging out in a grove of trees with another juvenile Red-tail.
I’d drive up in my car, which he recognized instantly, and he’d fly over me, on the way to his Castle. I’d hobble along, kicking the weeds with my boot-cast. If something flushed, he’d make a dive on it. One day, as Mark was kicking the brush and I was limping along, I carelessly lifted my gloved hand. In a flash, Louie was winging toward me at speed. I kept my hand high to see what he’d do – and whop! he smacked it with all his might – the Louie version of a High Five!
Shortly thereafter, my foot got worse and walking became impossible, so Mark took over the “hunt.” In mid-September, he reported that Louie had come to the lure, even though he’d clearly eaten just before. He had a bulging crop. He was killing significant prey now. Time to say good-bye.
So the great day. Mark swung his lure and Louie saw it, but didn’t come in. Mark tied the lure to a bush and stepped back. Louie couldn’t resist! Even though he certainly couldn’t have been hungry. Mark walked up to him on the lure, and he stepped up onto the glove.
Good boy, Louie! The next morning, we took him to the field where we’d released him prematurely the month before. We had checked it out – yes, there were some adult Red-tails nearby, but the area is a wildlife refuge and there are plenty of trees to shelter in at night, and lots of prey. I’d bought him a piece of organic duck breast (yes, I know!) as a good-bye treat, and we cut off his anklets – and tossed him his reward.
Once more he just sat, clutching his booty, looking about – and I wanted with all my heart to get him back. But . . . but . . .
“He’ll be fine,” Mark and I said to each other. “He’s a good boy.” “He’s a survivor, look at what he went though, how determined he was.” “He’s powerful.” “Keep safe in a tree, Louie, when night falls and the owl calls!” “He’ll be fine.” He’ll be fine. He’ll make it. Good-bye, Louie, good-bye.
So I left my boy near where he’d hatched, but not too close to the park and its hordes of kids with hotdogs. There was hawk food all around and, with luck, not too many creatures who would eat him. This is where falconry sometimes fails its wild charges. The birds learn to hunt with human help much as they might with their parents. But the parents keep constant vigilance. They fly with their young and drive off hungry predators for weeks, before they say good-bye. Alas, we don’t know how to tell our little birds, “Watch the skies. Hide when the owls and raccoons come out at night.” So we falconers lose many of our birds, not just rehab ones, to other hungry creatures. In the wild as well, parental care notwithstanding, 75 – 80 percent of young raptors do not make it through the tough learning-curve of their first year. But I do believe that the ones with savvy parents have an edge.
Still, a bird we’ve worked with goes from 0 to some chance at life.
Months later, in Louie’s hay bale field, 30 miles from where he was released (30 miles is nothing to a hawk!), I saw a Red-tail Louie’s size with what looked like the odd bleached tail-top he sported. I stopped the car and whistled and waved my glove. The bird kept going. Not Louie, then. Louie, I suspect, all his life, will check out a waving glove or a swinging lure.
It’s been a year since I met him. I miss him still.
July 1, a new year, in falconry time. I can get another orphan Red-tail who needs help figuring out the world. This time, I will make sure to keep my little one as long as I think he needs my support. Perhaps we’ll begin to sort out the hows and whys of caution.
The temptation, of course, as with all our younglings, is to keep them with us, safe forever. But the world, as you know in your heart, is not a safe place. And the lure of freedom is intoxicating. This balance, this measure between care and independence, hard though it is – isn’t it the best we can ask of life, after all?