Bob’s Hawk

I love hawks and redtails are familiar to many of us, but my friend Bob Magnuson got to know one up close and personal and his story has a fascinating conclusion. Bob’s main interest these day’s is astronomy, but here’s his story from his youth growing up on a Massachusetts farm.

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The pictures of Bob's hawk are long lost, so here's a redtail over Wachusetts mountain snapped a few years ago, I'd like to think is a distant descendant of Bob's bird.

Back around 1962 or 1963, a Redtail hawk became part of my life, spending several months in my care. It started one afternoon in the fall, when my stepdad went partridge hunting on the hill behind our house along the northern edge of Milford, Massachusetts. Route 495 runs right through the old homestead, but back then, we were in the middle of a large area of woods. There was a large brush pile about half way up the hill, leftovers from a few days of cutting firewood for our greenhouse. We had seen partridge hiding in this brush pile on several occasions, and my stepdad decided to see if he could bag one or two of them for dinner. I was working in our garden next to the house, and had seen him heading up the hill with his .410 shotgun. Within a few minutes, I heard a single shot and wondered if he had been successful.

When I saw my stepdad coming back across the field at the foot of the hill, he had his shotgun slung over his shoulder, his jacket was off, and he was holding the jacket out in front of him, obviously wrapped around something that he did not want to close to his body. He called me to come and see what he had. I ran over to him, and he said to stand back a little while he unwrapped his bundle. As he flipped back one corner of his jacket, I beheld one seriously angry Redtail hawk hissing at me and immediately beginning to struggle to get away. Flipping the corner back over the hawk’s head caused him to stop struggling just as quickly. I was stunned. ‘Where did you get him?’ was all I could think to say. He explained that he was not the only one to be hunting partridge that day, that the hawk must have already caught one and was sitting on the ground on the far side of the brush pile having lunch when my stepdad came in sight. The hawk immediately launched into the air, and my stepdad, thinking it was a partridge, swung his shotgun around to fire. As he pulled the trigger, he realized the true identity of the bird, and deflected his shot at the last moment in hopes of missing him. That probably saved the bird’s life, but part of the blast hit his left wing at the elbow, and the hawk fell to the ground. It was hurt, but obviously not too badly, and it was trying to run and flap its wings to get away. But it could not fly. Throwing his jacket over the bird allowed him to calm it, and pick it up. Carefully examining the wound, he saw exposed bones, but no breaks, and he felt that the hawk would survive, but that it would need the care of our local veterinarian.

A quick call to the doctor revealed that he wanted nothing to do with a wild bird, but based on our description of the wound, he would give us some medications for the hawk and we could deal with it ourselves. Placing the hawk in an old rabbit hutch for what we thought would be a few days, we went to the vet’s office and got some antibiotic drops to clean the wound, and some topical cream to dress it. It was nightfall by the time we got back to the poor bird to see how he (or maybe she) was doing. We were greeted by a furious hissing from the very angry hawk, who tried very hard to break out of the cage. We had stuck a temporary perch through the wires of the hutch, and the hawk held onto it for dear life. Even with leather gloves on, it seemed awfully risky to attempt to pick him up, since that beak looked very dangerous and the hawk seemed to be thoroughly ticked off. Eventually we decided to try to ‘bomb’ him with the antibiotic drops by dripping them through the top wires. After several tries, we actually got some medicine onto the wound. We never figured out how to get the cream on his wounds, so we only used the drops. We also pushed some strips of raw liver through the wires, which the hawk immediately grabbed and ate.

Days turned into weeks, and the wound eventually healed, but a large bald spot remained on the wing of ‘our hawk’ and he was obviously still in some degree of pain, since he seldom moved that wing as compared to the healthy one. We gained an ally in the meat manager of the grocery store where my mom worked, and he gladly gave us scraps and old meat to feed to the hawk, so he got a steady diet of chicken, turkey and liver, which is probably much like his wild diet. At least he seemed to be healthy, even if he never seemed very grateful. Over the course of the fall and winter, we slowly nursed him back to health. And although he seemed to get more used to us, every time we touched his cage to push meat through the wires, he hissed or screamed at us and glared as if he would love to eat the hand that was feeding him. He never, ever, seemed to become a tame hawk. However, as his health returned, he certainly became a beautiful bird, with richly patterned feathers and a regal bearing that always indicated that he was only tolerating his imprisonment, not accepting it. His eyes were steady and piercing, and he never looked away from us, but stared right into our eyes. Sometimes I would catch him dozing on the perch, with his feathers all puffed up against the cold. He was a beautiful bird.

During this time, I found out how hawks make their piercing screams. In the back of their tongues is a small hole surrounded by cartilage. This was easy to see when he hissed at us. By blowing through this hole, he was able to make low screams or high screams as the spirit moved him, but always through a fully opened and ferocious-looking beak. Also, he spent hours each day grooming his feathers, carefully pulling each one through that same fierce beak, without seeming to damage any of them. As feathers slowly grew back over the wound area, he always spent extra time working on those. Soon, he was fully covered again, and seemed ready to fly. That particular winter was a tough one, though, and we did not want to release him back into the wild until it seemed that the weather would be more favorable. So we kept him all through the late winter into early spring. By this time, he was flapping his wings quite often while holding onto the perch, obviously trying to regain some muscle tone.

Eventually, in late April or early May, we felt it was time to release him. We opened the cage and backed off, but he refused to budge. So we left the barn, with the back door open to see if he would let himself out. Soon, the cries of blue jays and robins told us that he was out in the open and garnering plenty of attention from his natural enemies. Peering around the back of the barn, we spied him sitting in the old Macintosh apple tree, on a low branch and not moving. He sat there with calm dignity as every blue jay from miles around sat in the same tree squawking at him. During this time, he moved only to shift branches, but we never caught him in the act of moving, so we didn’t know if he could fly or was just hopping to the next branch. The squawks went on for several hours, until finally night fell.

In the morning, I rushed out to see how he was doing. The apple tree was empty, and not a blue jay in sight. I wandered around the area for a while, and saw no sign of him. When my stepdad came outside, he went directly to the apple tree and looked on the ground for feathers. Not seeing any, he said that at least the raccoons had not gotten him, so perhaps he had actually flown away. I felt relief, but sadness at the same time. It had been quite a privilege to care for such a magnificent animal, and I already missed him. But I also wondered if in fact he had survived the night and flown away, or just crawled off to die.

Months went by, and ‘my’ hawk was only a memory. Besides, we had so many hawks behind our house that we considered naming our farm ‘Hawk Ridge’ and I saw hawks flying nearly every day. But one afternoon, while I was working in the garden, a strange and wonderful thing happened, which may or may not have anything to do with this story. I’ll let you decide. I was leaning over a hoe, weeding, when a hawk’s piercing screech made me turn to look up. There, a large hawk kept twisting directly over me, screaming and turning in tight circles. I stood up to watch, and I asked myself ‘Could it be him?’ Then, to my utter amazement, he tucked in his wings and hurtled from the sky directly at me. I was too stunned to move, but suddenly he spread his wings and flew straight away from me no more than four or five feet off the ground, until he was about 100 feet away. Swooping up into the air, he hovered over me again, screaming, and repeated this action two more times. Then he climbed higher and went over the ridge and out of sight. I never saw him again, nor did any other hawk ever act that way toward me when I was out in that garden. Most soaring hawks, when they see a human in the open, gently tilt their wings and slide away.

Perhaps because I have been a pilot, raptors have always fascinated me. I’ll always stop to watch a Peregrine or Redtail, and my few views of eagles have always been a thrill. I think I know how they act much of the time, and how they fly, and how they stoop from the sky in pursuit of food. What happened to me that day in my garden will always stick in my mind. Never, not once, have any of the hundreds of raptors that I have watched done anything like that one hawk did. I can only believe that that was my hawk, and he was just stopping by to say hello, or maybe thanks, and then he was off to do what wild hawks do. It was just too weird, too intentional, to be some random act of a wild bird.

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Note: My older, now static blog, “Natural High,” contains many nature stories and pictures, mostly from my own experience.

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