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hand-feeding hawks

December 30, 2009

It’s a surreal experience working so closely with hawks. Some of them are in our critical care room in small cages so they don’t move around much. I put on the kevlar-reinforced thick suede leather gloves that not only cover my hands but my forearms. I unlock the little cage door and reach in and grab the bird’s legs just above its feet so as not to get taloned. They mostly don’t try to squeeze hard enough to get through the gloves, but I’m told they are able to.

I bring the hawk (red tail hawks – big ones) into the treatment room, where I’ve laid a towel on the examination table. I put the hawk on its back with wings tucked in on the towel. The proper way to wrap the bird is to hold its legs gently but firmly straight down and wrap the towel snugly around it. I’m then able to hold it with one hand without a glove and put arm around it with it facing away from me.

I sit down and begin feeding. Today, one red tail ate chopped up mouse, and another I fed bits of raw chicken breast.

I feed the hawks by trying my best to get my fingers into their mouths on the sides of their beaks. They bite hardest at the tip of the beak where it is sharp. That hurts more, but even on the side of the mouth they can squeeze pretty hard. Hawks have an airhole in their tongues. I forget the scientific term for it, but it’s important not to keep food over that hole, because they need to breathe. It is especially important not to let any bits of food go down that hole.

I hand-feed these hawks because they are not able to do it for themselves. Most of the red tail hawks and other raptors brought in these days have been hit by cars, and are suffering from head trauma. They can recover from this if the impact wasn’t too bad, but are not as fully conscious and alert as they’d otherwise be so need to be hand-fed.

With my left hand, I am holding the bird, and have to do all the feeding with my right hand. With one finger and thumb I open the beak, and hold the bits of meat with the other fingers. Then, once I have the beak open, I have to maneuver the food into the bird’s mouth, then stick a finger down its throat somewhat to make sure it swallows.

Some are able to swallow more than others. The first red tail I fed today is a full-grown female. She would hardly swallow at all, but I didn’t have much trouble getting her beak open. The other one I do not know the gender of, but it was not quite full-grown and had a shorter beak. This one swallowed well, but I had more difficulty getting it to open its beak. I didn’t have to cram the chicken breast pieces too far down its throat.

One of these days, I’ll bring a camera. It will certainly make a strange picture. Me, sitting on a stool, and holding in one are a bundled towel with a hawk’s head sticking out. It is an unusual experience feeding these birds! Not many people can say they’ve had their fingers down the throat of a hawk or owl.

I haven’t hand fed an owl in several months. We have been getting less owls brought into the center lately. My supervisor says right now it is red tail hawk season. I expect to see more of these birds, and the occasional owl.

In the critical care room, besides the hawks, there is a barn owl with head trauma, and a screech owl with an injury that I do not know of. It is not for me to know all the details. That is up to my supervisors. I know what I need to know.

Also, there is a raccoon, a domestic duck (called a peking duck) and an oppossum. It is usually interesting being in that room. There was a red shoulder hawk in there, but that one got better enough to be moved to a larger outside cage, so it can fly some.

Next Tuesday, I am scheduled to release our largest wild red tail. I have to catch it with a big net, which should be interesting. Lots of room in our flight cage for the bird to evade me, and I hope I snag it before it really gets pissed off and swoops at me. I should be ok. I’ll be taking it out of the net and putting it on its back in a cardboard pet carrier box, secured (hopefully!) with clothes pins. I’ll then drive it out to the country outside a small town at least a half hour’s drive away.

Once, a hawk I had loaded into my car tried to break out of its box. It almost got out too. I am glad it did this before I drove off! A big red tail hawk loose in a small car – I drive a mustang – that would be a terrible thing! I was able to cram some towels in the hole and use more clothes pins, and secured the box enough to be safe to drive. I had two other hawks in boxes on the tiny back seat of the car. That was interesting! I wish someone was there to video my releasing the birds. Tuesday should be an interesting day. The opportunity to release the birds is rare, so even though I’ll be burning a lot of gas, it will be worth it. I just hope I will not have any difficulties with the bird. It is one of the largest hawks I have ever seen!

I’m not sure when I will do more hand-feeding – probably this Sunday, which is the day of my next shift. Maybe I’ll remember to bring a camera on Sunday. I hope these birds I fed today, and all the others without permanent injuries will heal up nicely and be returned to nature. That is our goal.

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