When I was feeding the owls on Thursday of last week, someone from the raptor clinic brought two red-tailed hawks (RTHA) – one adult and one juvenile – to the flight cage.  After I finished with the owls, I poked my head in then to check on them but I didn’t spend any time with them.  I was impressed by the adult RTHA simply because she was a large and strong bird but both birds were too agitated by their new surroundings for me to really get a good impression.  

Today, though…today I got an impression.

The adult RTHA is one of the most impressive birds I’ve seen up close and had the pleasure (and honor) to work with.  She is magnificent.  She is in the flight cage due to an air sac injury.  The air sacs are separate from the lungs but are still an important part of the avian respiratory system.  Since she didn’t have a wing injury or anything that really inhibited her flying ability, what I had to keep an eye on was her breathing.  If her breathing became too labored, I had to stop flying her.  Thankfully, it never did, though I gave her lots of rest time between flights to make sure she wasn’t being overworked.

This is a strong, sturdy bird.  When I caught her, it was obvious that she wasn’t into being held.  I caught her in the usual manner (by the legs) after chasing her around her cage for a little while, and when I had her legs secured I tucked her wings and lifted her around so her back and wings were against my chest.  I could feel her trying to push with her wings as I brought her to an upright position (*when we catch the birds, we hold them upside down by their legs so we are able to tuck their wings).  The strength involved in her doing so was unbelievable.  I was impressed from the get-go.  Out in the flight hallway, I launched her into the air and she did a perch-to-perch-to-perch (P-P).  I don’t think I’ve had any birds do that before.  With some birds, getting one P-P flight is a trial.  It was clear that this hawk is all about the flying.  We continued with the P-P flights until she had exceeded her requisite five flights, and then I caught her again and put her back into her cage as to not overexert her. 

There was a moment when I realized the true power of not only this bird, but every bird like her that exists now or has ever existed.  When I brought her into the flight hallway from her cage, I dropped one of my gloves after latching the lock on her door.  Rather than stooping down to get it while holding the bird, I decided to just launch her sans glove.  Had my hand been in biting distance from her mouth, that would have been a stupid move on my part.  But, since that hand would have to hold her wings on her back as I got her into launch position, I decided to just put my bare skin to her feathers and hope for the best.  When I touched her wings, I was sold.  Feeling the amount of warmth and strength she had in just two wings took me to a place that few will probably ever have the privilege of going – it was a place of reverence for this bird and every other wild being on this planet.  It was a realization that I was holding in my hands the embodiment of everything wild and free.  I launched her into the air and watched her fly.

I made a video of one of her P-P-P flights.  I didn’t know she was going to fly right back after hitting the north perch, and it caught me slightly by surprise.  You can view the video on Flickr, but I will post it in another entry in just a minute.

The Cooper’s Hawk is still doing well.  He is at about the same level as he was last week as far as improvement goes, but like I said, I have high hopes for that little guy.  I think he’s going to make it after all.  The other RTHA, a juvenile, is nursing a dislocated toe and is under observation only for now.  He has some sutures in his foot, and until those are removed I will not be able to fly him.  I think the Cooper’s Hawk and the new and wonderful RTHA will keep me plenty busy for the foreseeable future.  

Already I can’t wait to work with the RTHA again.  It’s like making a cool new friend that you can’t wait to hang out with.  But in this case, instead of a friend, it’s a bird who would sooner see you run over by a truck than give you the time of day.  And that’s exactly what we want.


* – “when we catch the birds, we hold them upside down by their legs so we are able to tuck their wings”


Handling a red-tailed hawk: upside down by the legs, so tucking the wings is possible.

Handling a red-tailed hawk: upside down by the legs, so tucking the wings is possible.


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