Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Shades of Cimarron

Rough-legged Hawk. Photograph by Douglas Brown

Flash back to two years ago, December 13, 2006. The day dawned cold and dreary, matching my trepidation about what was to come. The old red-tail had been limping for some time, and although the vet assured me that it was just arthritis, I doubted his judgement. Now, it appeared that her foot was rotating inward and she seemed to be in pain. I feared the worst, the big “C”, which is what my gut said. As I was getting ready to take her in for yet another set of X-rays, the phone rang.

I heard the deep voice of a man who said, “I found this hawk alongside the road. It’s been in my garage for two days and a garage is no place for a bird. If you won’t come and get it, then I’ll take care of it myself.” He sounded both kindly and crusty, like an old rancher who had seen much. I knew that he meant every word. I asked where he lived and he responded, “Roy”, a four-hour drive from Albuquerque. Fortunately, Ron, our raptor biologist, was available, and offered to drive up immediately to see what the bird might be. When we get these types of calls, speculation is rampant among the staff as to what we will actually find.

I once got a call from a couple that had an injured ‘eagle’ in their urban back yard. Sure enough, when I arrived, they had it locked in a tin shed, in an eagle-sized box. However, the box seemed lightweight for such a large bird. We brought the box out into the sunshine, and I opened it to reveal – a common nighthawk, a very small insect-eating bird that weighs about a quarter pound. But, that’s another story. On this day, Ron and I both agreed that he would be picking up a Ferruginous Hawk, common on the plains of northeastern New Mexico. Ron drove off to the north at the same time as I drove south to the vet.

Indeed, the news was not good. It would be the old gal’s final day as this set of X-rays clearly showed the deteriorating, twisting bones, eaten alive by cancer. I tried to put on a brave face, but oh, how this hurt! She had been my first bird, the one that inspired me to pursue this line of work. Tears streamed down my face as I sat, typing at my computer waiting for whatever Ron would bring back to the office.

He arrived an hour after the red-tail was gone, not the expected species, but instead a majestic arctic bird, a Rough-legged Hawk. He had an elbow injury, an old healed wound evident in the set of X-rays. He would not ever be able to fly well enough to be released and he joined our staff of educational ambassador as soon as the federal permits were processed.

Rough-legged Hawks nest in tundra or taiga in arctic and subarctic Alaska and Canada, and migrate over the boreal forest to winder in southern Canada and the northern United States. In New Mexico, they appear only occasionally and not at all in some winters. Only when frozen conditions to the north limit food availability, do ‘roughies’ move this far south. And, they generally are observed only from December-February.

How could it be that the bird had been in New Mexico long enough to have been injured, healed and fortuitously found alongside the road? He would have had to arrive by about October, much earlier than expected for this species. He was plenty fat, and showed no evidence of recent trauma. Who would have cared for him so well that every feather was absolutely perfect? He also was an adult, and knew that he belonged in the wild. Yet, he was relatively calm around his human captors. Many mysteries shrouded the majestic northern hawk stranded in the Southwest, never again to see his Arctic home.

We now have two years under our belt, and our relationship has grown. Training a wild bird to a public life in captivity always has its challenges and he was especially wary. He already was an adult bird, had known life in the wild, and possibly produced offspring. Being condemned to a cage, albeit large enough for flight, and forced to interact with a human on a daily basis was hard for him. For my part, I just wanted to gain his trust so that I might someday get close enough to pick him up.

The first year was spectacularly unsuccessful, with little evidence that he would one day be calm enough to display in public. Our Fish and Wildlife Service permit requires that each educational ambassador complete a minimum of twelve programs annually, and I began to wonder if he would ever reach that goal. Each morning, when I would deliver food, I would stay near and talk, sometimes about nothing, sometimes just sing-song words, but always in calm tones. As much as possible, I tried to reassure him that it would be okay, that I would never hurt him, and that we had to make this work as there were no other options.

Then, on one momentous day a few months ago, he trusted me enough to lower his head and eat in my presence, exposing his vulnerability. It was just one mouse, but it was a new threshold. Today, I can sometimes lay the mice at his feet, but not always. At other times, I only can approach within about three feet. He still retains his spirit and his wildness. I am thrilled and humbled to be a part of his life. He’s completed his 12 programs in 2008, and perhaps you will get to see him one day at a presentation. We call him Cimarron del Norte, refugee from the north.

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