The Second Life of Zorro
Part 1 – Can this Red-tailed hawk be saved?
In May 2016, Zorro hatched somewhere in the agricultural fields south and east of Sacramento, California. While still a nestling, he was struck down by West Nile Virus (WNV), in birds, a dire disease spread largely by mosquitoes. Zorro and one sibling were found, weak and sick, by a Good Samaritan, who took them to Dr. Vicky Joseph at the California Foundation for Birds of Prey.
Dr. Joseph, who founded CFBP, is a highly valued avian veterinarian in Northern California. She takes in many injured or orphaned raptors every year, with the intent of restoring them, healthy and vigorous, back to their wild lives. Problems vary: they are hit by cars; attacked by predators (even other raptors); they starve though bad luck or inexperience; they crash into windows or wind turbines; they are electrocuted or poisoned. Raptors also suffer from diseases that range from aspergillosis (a fungal disease), to tuberculosis and malaria, to parasitic invasions. Recently cases of WNV have increased, and the virus itself is rapidly changing, out-maneuvering other species’ evolving immunology. In individual cases, it often seems to be on a loop – apparent recovery, relapse, another recovery, and so on, the final outcome depending not only on the excellence of medical care, but on the genetic background, strength, and determination of the bird. The disease in Zorro attacked his feather follicles. All his primary wing feathers and his tail feathers fell out. Luckily they grew back, apparently normally. He survived Round One.
With new-grown feathers, Zorro was put into a flight cage with several other young Red-tails, where he stayed for some months. In autumn, Dr. Joseph decided he was ready for close assessment and for flight and hunt training. Falconers can supply a great deal of experience in a relatively safe environment, supporting naïve hunters with food and hunting opportunities. I fetched Zorro home with me on October 9 to start this process. He was spectacularly beautiful, with a dramatic salmon wash on his new tail feathers and a startling chiaroscuro of deep brown and sparkling white on chest and belly.
Young raptors raised by people, even when not mal-imprinted in the first weeks of life, do not fit all the behavior patterns of normal wild birds. (See the post on “imprinting.”) They are generally not afraid of people (though this changes after release), and even when they have not been hand-fed, they know the source of all meals: the human! In wild-caught raptors, on the other hand, there is a learning curve in which the bird comes to associate the falconer with food and to trust that he or she is not dangerous. Soon these birds are performing for “treats” – jumping several feet for tidbits, for example, to get exercise before they are ready for flying outside. Throughout, though, there is that deep wild caution around all people that makes a wild raptor a bit shy and not food-aggressive. He will slash at you if you move a bare hand too close, out of self-preservation. But he is less likely to tear you up to get goodies out of your fingers, which can be a danger with hand-reared youngsters if the falconer is not careful.
Zorro was an especially laid-back acclimated youngster. He trusted me quickly, never attempted to hurt me as I put on jesses, cleaned his mews, weighed him, and so on. But the danger was that he might begin to scream and snatch food if I fed him directly – young birds do this with their parents, too. I had to be careful not to encourage this.
The first ten days with Zorro were difficult. He hated the hood. He hated the scale. He hated his perch. He was in the house and he was so powerful that he dragged his heavy (15 lbs +) perch, to which he was leashed, clear across the floor. When I put it on a rough rubber pad, he dragged pad and all. He bated and dangled from my glove not just the hour or so one expects as a new bird gets used to you, but without stop. So I consulted an experienced falconer, who suggested I drop hood training and set up a new mews with a high perch and a whole different routine. “Make him happy about something!”
A week later, on a 4′ high corner perch in a small shed with good light and air, Zorro was a different bird. He had become calm, content, even tempered. The bating to get away was gone – replaced soon by bating to get out into the hunt. I’d had him for less than three weeks.
Part II – Flying and hunting
Training a Rehab Juvenile Red-tail
Falconry is a “sport” – in the Middle Ages and in other cultures it was a vocation – in which the hunter uses the bird to kill prey. (Unlike hunting dogs, birds never bring dinner back to the falconer, who has to approach the bird and try to convince her that she’s getting a good deal to let go of her prize!) For our native species, this means that usually the falconer is required to capture only a juvenile – say in about September – tame her down a bit, use food as a reward, and quickly get her returning to him at a signal. This bird will fly, untethered, to a falconer’s gloved fist for a tidbit. He then takes the bird into the field and hunts with her by flushing rabbits or gamebirds for her to kill. Most of these are young birds who are not thriving well on their own. So many young raptors die the first year, many from not having figured out the refinements of hunting. They starve. (Zorro, as we know, had come in ill.)
The falconer is, in this case, NOT imprinting the bird on humans; it’s too late for a classic malimprintation. And he usually releases such a bird at the end of hunting season, February or March, or for rehab birds, even earlier, in November or December, and lets it go on about its hawkish business. Such a bird may be “acclimated” to humans, but really will not approach unknown people unless it is starving, and sometimes not even then. (It would be a pretty poor falconer to work with a bird that then starved!) You might be surprised what these birds will eat when the larder is bare.
When falconers work with rehab groups, they will be given a young bird that is already acclimated to humans, owing to having been caged, fed, and medicated. This young bird needs “wilding up.” Yet it is important to retain its non-fear responses with the falconer. And that combination is tricky. Again, the falconer uses food, but cautiously. A young bird who knows a person has food in his hand or pocket will scream and sometimes get aggressive. What I have done is tether that young bird to a perch and toss food when she isn’t watching – usually in the dark! Later I will attach a long leash called a creance to her jesses and take her out in the yard where I have cached food. Or I’ll attach food to a line and move the item in the grass and let the bird “catch” her dinner. Next, I will release, say, live rats or mice (sad, but much what the parent does. Some falconers use rabbits.). After a couple of weeks of this, the bird associates the falconer, if all has worked according to Hoyle, whoever that was, with successful hunting, and you can release the bird, jessed but not attached to you or a perch, in the yard or a field, and try to scare up some prey. Or continue to release rats and mice. So it went with Zorro.
Zorro caught a wild rabbit on his first hunting day. This was unusually good work!
Now, if the falconer can hunt with the bird every other day for a few weeks, and she is successful, then she is probably ready to be released. The drawback here is that this bird has not had parents to teach her caution, and many of these young birds fall prey to Great Horned Owls quickly. They seem to escape diurnal predators more easily. Some youngsters are more naturally cautious than others.
Zorro was almost ready for release in December 2016 but the weather was dreadful, and Dr. Joseph asked me to keep him until spring. I wanted to watch out for his feather development during the molt, and monitor him for eye problems (WNV often scars the retina of infected birds) and neurological problems (also a danger with WNV). Zorro has shown some very mild odd neuro responses, occasional small repetitive motions someone who didn’t know him might not notice. They seem not to interfere with his thinking and actions.
I couldn’t hunt him in the Valley during December and January, owing to weather and to a vision problem I had, so whenever we had a day or half day of no rain, I flew him in a field belonging to my neighbor. A huge lovely meadow, maybe 1/2 mile long. We didn’t catch anything during the rains, but that area is normally, in spring and summer, alive with mice and gophers. So in March, when Zorro was getting really anxious and wanting to go free, I removed all the restraints so he wouldn’t get caught up on something, and let him go in the meadow. He was awkward at first, not having really flown vigorously owing to the rain. I went down daily with a commercially grown, formerly frozen quail, whistled, and fed him. I didn’t get him to come to the hand – I didn’t want that. So I’d toss his dinner and watch him fly for it. His flight improved enormously very quickly.
Today (mid-July 2017), I go to his field maybe three times a week. More if he seems hungry. He’s feeding himself and learning about life. There’s an older, large female who claims that field as part of her territory, and she was tolerant of him for awhile. But I think that may be changing.
When my car pulls into the dirt road near the meadow gate, Zorro is often on one of the power poles waiting for me. He undoubtedly hears and recognizes the car. He greets me with a long look and a tail shake, and a poop! Then he flies down, grabs the half-quail I toss him, and flies off. Sometimes he isn’t hungry enough to fly for the food. Just sits and looks around.
In early July he began to seem bit nervous. Looking around constantly, not too interested in food. And I often heard the female nearby. She gives a long falling cry “keeeyrrrrr” every minute or so when I’m around. After July 4, I hadn’t seen Zorro at all for five days, though I saw and heard the lady, whom I call Sky Queen. I began to think Zorro’d taken off to search for a territory of his own. But on July 9, at about 7:30 in the evening, I went down to the meadow, chased the female off a big dead pine, and then explored the thick oak woods up on the ridge. I was looking for Zorro feathers. His molt seemed to be going normally (and I’d kill for one of those gorgeous juvie tail feathers!). I explored for about an hour, and then rested under a large oak to catch my breath.
And suddenly there Zorro was! He’d found me in the woods. Had he been following me? Had he waited till I got into the deep shadows, so he’d avoid the ferocious Queen? I have no idea. I tossed him half a quail and away he went, keeping close to the edge of the meadow.
You may be thinking: this bird is going to approach people! But no. If anyone is with me, Zorro doesn’t show a feather. He knows me, probably better in ways than I know myself. But, with two exceptions, he is not going to get anywhere near another human being. The two exceptions are Gregg Montilier whose field Zorro now treats as home, and Stephanie Golden, an old friend who visited me for a week. Gregg he has known for some time. Steffi he just – accepted! People often ask: Can these birds tell the difference between one person and another? Yes, indeed they can. Some hawks like some people and dislike others. Their eyesight is many many times more acute than yours and mine! But there is also an element of individual assessment and decision at work.
I hope Zorro sorts things out with the Sky Queen. If not, he will leave the meadow and find his own territory. I’d be happy if he stayed. With Dr. Joseph’s encouragement, I’d love to watch Zorro develop – be privy to his private hawk life. Clearly he doesn’t need the food I give him – he’s plump and sassy on his own, and while I wet down the food in this hot weather, there’s a spring in the meadow, so he won’t dehydrate. I’d like to see him with a mate and youngsters of his own. It’s happened!
I became a falconer so I could help youngsters like Zorro who have been in rehab and missed the mom-and-pop lessons. I can only say that I have given the birds I work with a second chance. How good? I have no idea. I have released three now. I was able to monitor only Zorro for any length of time. There are good and bad points to this process. But it is a chance. Just a chance. A better chance, in my opinion, than simply releasing young birds who’ve had no parental lessons to fall or fly on their own.
What I have learned, mostly from falconer/hawk-listener Mark Moore and Dr. Joseph, is what strong family ties some raptor species have. Red-tails and Kestrels in particular. Adults look out for their children, siblings connect with each other, stay together, vocalize and socialize and share food, even with squabbles. This, I’m sure, provides a good base for survival. That is the best chance the youngsters have for a full, rich, hawk life! But we humans do what we can.
Go with the wind, Zorro.