Sunday, September 25, 2011

Forest Hawk

Juvenile Cooper's Hawk. Image by David Powell.

Just two days ago, two juvenile birds joined our avian ambassador team, a young Common Raven and a male Cooper’s Hawk (more about the raven in a later issue), courtesy of the Wildlife Center in Espanola, New Mexico. Both had wing injuries that rendered them non-flighted and permanently non-releasable. The good folks at the center had toiled long and hard to rehabilitate the two so they could be returned to the wild, but unless a bird is nearly 100% fit, it would not survive. In cases like these, the only choices are to place them with an educational organization like Hawks Aloft or toeuthanize them.

Coops, as we affectionately call them, are notoriously challenging to handle in captivity and have a well-deserved reputation for aggression. They belong to the Accipiter family, forest hawks that have short, rounded wings and long tails to help them maneuver through dense vegetation in search of prey, primarily other birds. The other two species of Accipiter in North America are the tiny, Sharp-shinned Hawk and the Northern Goshawk. Both of these species nest in coniferous forest where they can coexist because the size of their prey it significantly different.

Adult Cooper's Hawk. Image by David Powell.

This little fellow, who still wears the bright yellow eyes of a youngster, arrived thrashing around in a pet carrier, acting every bit like he could take me on and win. Patience and extreme calm are essential when training a bird that arrives from the wild, helping the education bird adjust to life in captivity, and ultimately being presented at public education programs.

You might wisely ask why we would want such a volatile species for our education program. Our most common urban nesting raptor -- the Cooper's Hawk – is reknowned for its aggressive nest defense behavior. Each year, during the month of June, we field numerous phone calls about aggressive hawks. During the courtship, egg-laying, and incubation stages the birds are unobtrusive and, in fact, are very difficult to detect.

We attached jesses almost immediately after he arrived, figuring that it already was a stressful day, and it might be better to get on with the final indignity of attaching the leather straps that would tether him throughout his training and also later during public programs. Then, we let him rest for a full 24 hours before bothering him again.

Adult Cooper's Hawk with prey. Image by David Powell.

All this changes; however, once the young have hatched, and the parents have a greater investment in this year's nest. They can become extremely defensive, and the unwary human who inadvertently crosses into their territory first hears the loud, scolding call, "Kek, Kek, Kek, KEk, KEk, KEK, KEK, KEK!" Then, when they turn to see the source of the insistent warning, they find themselves face-to-feather with a furious, rufous-breasted, gray-backed bullet with blood red eyes. The automatic response for most humans is to fall to the ground, cringing in terror, lest the bird actually strike them. Then, after escaping from the incident unharmed, they scramble to the telephone and begin calling anyone who might help with the situation. Enter the Hawks Aloft education program for homeowners.

This morning, when I lifted the cloth that covered the carrier, he looked ready for battle, all 2/3 pound of him. He flipped over on his back and presented his talons, ready to grab me. A quick flip of the towel and I had him in my hands, attaching the lead. We sat together in the sunny living room as I tried nonverbally to communicate that this really would be okay, that I would never hurt him.

Adult Cooper's Hawk. Image by David Powell.

Most of the callers appreciate 'their' hawks, and just need a little education and assistance to avoid arousing the defense mechanism of the feisty parent, doing their best to protect their young nestlings from the perceived human danger. It helps when we give them tips to avoid arousing the angst of the hawk, and reassure them that Cooper’s Hawk will only rarely actually strike a human. Generally, they pull up at the last minute. Biologically, it would not be wise for a bird weighing between ½ and 1 pound to take on a 100+ pound human. There have been no reports published of serious human damage incurred from the attack of a Cooper’s Hawk. We work with them through the 3-4 week period, and the result is usually a happy home or business owner once the young are out of the nest, and the aggression stops as suddenly as it began.

Now, several hours later, he is quietly sitting on a specially made perch atop a covered table in the shrouded extra room (Coops can eject their waste stream with considerable force over great distances). A de-feathered quail carcass sits by beside him, hopefully tempting him to dine. I only pause at the door to check on his well-being. It is enough for today and tomorrow, until this becomes normal to him. Only then will we move on to the next part of training. We have all the time in the world.

Then, as the young begin to disperse with their newly earned fledgling independence, the phone begins to ring again, with a call arriving almost every day. The young birds, in their early hunting attempts, chase anything feathered, often pigeons or sparrows. The juvenile Coop pursues them with great abandon right into the warehouse, building, or batting cage and, once inside, cannot figure out how to get back out. We have become adept at catching and releasing them. It makes for a busy summer.

One day, possibly months from now, he will make his debut, educating the public about an often misunderstood raptor, the Cooper’s Hawk. While all of our education birds do have names that we use to distinguish them from one another, they do not respond to being called by name. We rarely use their names in presentations. Only when the name is educational in some way, relative to the species, the injury, or the location where the bird was found, is it ever revealed. This little guy will have just such an educational name. We call him Forest – Forest Hawk.

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