Rough Going: Winter isn’t the only challenge for urban birds of prey

Injured immature red-tailed hawk in Washington, D.C.

It has been more than a month since I first spotted him looking so vulnerable. And I knew something was awry when I was able to stare directly into the pale yellow eyes of a hawk — even an urban-dwelling one whose hunting grounds are in my Northeast Washington, D.C. neighborhood about three miles north of the U.S. Capitol.

I was some 20 feet away when I spied him perched on a metal pipe jutting from the side of an elementary school, just five feet off the ground.

I stopped. We stared.

Within seconds, I realized why he hadn’t taken refuge in the high branches of a nearby black oak tree. Repeatedly, he tried to tuck his right wing in close to his body, but it stuck out at an odd angle. He was injured.

My heartbeat suddenly seemed very loud in my ears. The sun was bright on that brisk day in late December, but the wind was gusting up to 35 miles per hour. I spoke to him softly in a lilting tone, as I would talk to my cat, wanting to think it would offer reassurance to this brown-and-white feathered beauty.

The bird peered up at the school’s roof, seemingly desperate for an escape hatch.

Ever-so-slowly, I set down my belongings. I had been taking a shortcut on my walk home from the commuter train, delicately balancing my work bag and three somewhat unwieldy poinsettias I wanted to deliver to neighbors as a colorful welcome to the new year.

I took shelter on the other side of the school wall, fishing out my phone to track down a number for City Wildlife, the local rescue organization. I relayed the bird’s predicament to the kind-hearted woman who answered. They were on it, she said, because they had fielded several calls. Somebody would swing by as soon as an animal care officer was free.

I waited with the raptor. Not only did I feel responsible for him, but I also feared he was an easy mark for heartless neighborhood kids.

Also, as I explained to the woman on the phone, I knew he was the same bird I had seen around Thanksgiving just a few blocks away from the same school. That sighting came as I walked to the recreation center near the school for my early-morning swimming laps.

Again, he was close, resting on the low roof of a bungalow, trying to figure out how to cart off a freshly killed grey squirrel. I was entertained for minutes as he persisted for his breakfast. First he tried his beak, then one tan talon, then the other, before finally spreading his wings, scooping up the prey with both talons and dodging deep into the foliage of a giant magnolia tree a few feet away.

Back at the school, the wind became fiercer. “My” bird – yes, I was feeling possessive by then – jumped off the pipe and like a poorly folded paper airplane, landed a few feet away in the midst of spare patches of wheat-colored grasses, part of the school’s garden of native species. He didn’t camouflage well.

My phone vibrated. A text announced that an officer would be arriving within a minute or two in a white van.

My spirits lifted. But so did “my” hawk. Remarkably, he launched himself – looking more like an aloft chicken than a raptor – across four lanes of traffic, barely clearing the city bus that barreled by as my stomach clenched. I sprinted across the asphalt in time to spot him land in a stubby, gnarly side-yard tree with branches sticking out every which way.

The young woman driving the rescue van had pulled onto a side street and emerged with a net. I pointed to the bird, which we guessed was an immature red-tailed hawk. She noted his injured wing and ventured valiantly into the thicket. It was an unfair contest. He just hopped higher. She persisted, but even with an extension, her net handle was several feet short.

She left, promising to patrol the area for the next few days, and I mulled my next move. The temperature was supposed to drop near freezing that night. How would a bird with a bad wing find enough to eat?

Once again, the hawk was ahead of me. Remarkably, as if on cue, he hurled himself out of the thicket and upward some 20 feet or so to the lowest branch of a tree adjacent to the four-lane road he had crossed earlier. He began pecking away at something lodged in the “V” of two branches. I made out the profile of a small bird he had evidently killed and stashed earlier. He dined diligently as rush-hour traffic zipped by below.

Guessing he would be fine for at least that night, I walked home.

The next day, I patrolled the area on foot several times. The only evidence of him was some tiny pieces of bloody bird bone that had fallen to the sidewalk from his secret pantry.

A day later, I caught my breath when I saw him, well part of him, in a yard near his pantry. I spotted him only because I was looking. Just his head was visible because he had tucked his body deep into an evergreen shrub that was only about eight feet high. He must have known those homeowners didn’t use their front door because they could have tapped his head from their stoop.

Once again, I called City Wildlife. A different woman answered the phone this time, but she was familiar with the bird’s story. Young male red-tailed hawks venturing out to find their own territory, she said, often bumble into unintended scrapes because they are inexperienced, bold and curious — often a lethal combination, especially in an urban setting.

I waited at the scene for 30 minutes or so but left because nobody could tell me when an officer might arrive. An hour or so, my phone rang. “My” bird had once again eluded capture. But the animal care officer emphasized that it was an encouraging sign that the hawk hobbled by a wing injury was able fly for at least short distances.

I agreed and thanked his organization for being so vigilant.

Dan Rauch, D.C.’s wildlife biologist, positively identified “my” bird as a juvenile red-tailed hawk, via a photo I’d snapped cautiously on that first day.

“It looks like this is its first winter, which can be very hard on birds,” he told me. “Many don’t survive.”

Their challenges are daunting. As if stresses associated with climate change aren’t enough, these critters have to contend with cars, poisons used to bait rats, windows on tall buildings, electrical wiring, trains and disease.

Still, he said, red-tailed hawks, red-shouldered hawks, Cooper’s hawks, barred owls, and even bald eagles are adapting to breeding and hunting in less-natural landscapes.

It’s harder to measure, he added, how some of our more “cryptic” raptors, such as great-horned owls and eastern screech owls are doing.

His words were sobering but not crushing.

On my continued walks to and from the train I scoured the skies and trees, hoping for a sighting of a healed hawk. I was almost afraid to gaze down, fearful I would find his damaged body under a tree, behind a shrub or worse yet, squashed in the road.

Two weeks or so into this new year, the blood pounded in my ears yet again. There he was, sitting in a very high branch of that black oak, so I couldn’t get a good look at his wing. He stared down at me in that incomparably imperious way of raptors. I was too big for a meal, after all, so what use was I to him?

In this eat-or-be-eaten world, maybe this one will make it to adulthood after all. When I walk in my, er, his neighborhood, I continue to look up.


Elizabeth McGowan

Elizabeth H. McGowan is a Washington, D.C.-based, award-winning energy and environment reporter. As a staff writer for InsideClimate News, her groundbreaking dispatches from Kalamazoo, Mich., “The Dilbit Disaster: Inside the Biggest Oil Spill You Never Heard Of” won a Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting. An e-book version of the narrative won the Rachel Carson Book Award from the Society of Environmental Journalists. Elizabeth, who started her career at daily newspapers in Vermont and Wisconsin, has served as a Washington correspondent for Crain Communications, Penton Media, and most recently, Energy Intelligence. Her freelance news reports and features have also appeared in E/The Environmental Magazine; Washingtonian magazine; Intelligent Utility magazine; Outdoor America (magazine of the Izaak Walton League); the journal Appalachia; Capital Community News; the Gulf of Maine Times; Mizzou, the alumni magazine for the University of Missouri; Lore, the magazine of the Milwaukee Public Museum; and Nature Conservancy magazine Elizabeth’s latest reporting venture is Renewal News, a start-up that explores the intersection of nature, labor and energy. The idea is to tell stories about how U.S. communities are evolving as climate change forces all sectors to re-examine their relationship with a fossil-fuel dominant economy.

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