Rescue of the Red Tail – What is it With Us and Injured Birds Anyway?

I picked the kids up from school yesterday afternoon and ran a few errands.  We were getting ready to attend the annual Harvest Festival at school, so we needed to get home and get chores done in order to leave on time for the 5:30 start time.

I turned down the long gravel driveway to our house.  The kids argued in the back seat over what they would wear and whose classroom we would visit first.  As I drove I automatically scanned the pastures and fields on each side of the path, a habit of most rural folks and one that seven-year old Annabelle and I share to an extreme degree.

We both saw the bird at the same time.

Well, we both saw this “thing” at the same time anyway. About fifty yards from the driveway, across one empty pasture and in the middle of the next, there was what initially looked like a very large plastic bag hanging from the fence post.

A closer look made it look like……a giant wing hanging down?  What?  I slowed way down, and by this time Batman was on the alert too. “MOM!  It’s a bird!” eerily shouted my five-year old, “It’s not a garbage bag!” (I say eerily because he shouted it at the precise instant that the thought went through my mind “Is that a bird or a big garbage bag flapping on that fence?”).

I stopped the truck and backed up a few feet to look.  From our distance it was hard to tell, but after watching for a minute or two it was sickeningly obvious what we saw.

A very large bird was hanging upside down from the electric wire on top of the fence, right at the post.  His wings were completely outstretched and hung motionless toward the ground.  For a few seconds.  About every thirty seconds or so when the electric current pulsed through the fence, the entire body of the bird would convulse rigidly and the wings would rise toward the heavens as if in prayer.  After a second or two the bird’s body would relax and go motionless again.

The three of us stared in fascination, my mind racing as to what to do.  I could tell from the size of the bird that it had to be a large bird of prey of one type or another, and there is something about that type of bird that instills awe in any circumstance.  In this instance, the vision of this great creature in such obvious distress was disturbing at a primal level.

Our initial conjecture about whether the poor creature was still alive was answered quite rapidly.  Very close scrutiny revealed the head, hanging limply on the outstretched neck, would pivot slowly around every few seconds.  The approach of a curious steer from the pasture next door caused a momentary weak flapping of both wings, which was almost instantly transitioned into the same motionless limpness as before.

There were two fences separating us from the bird, both which were reinforced with smooth electric wire around them.  I was not sure of the status of those wires, but watching the current surge through the hawk deterred me from grabbing on and trying to immediately climb through.  The kids were getting increasingly agitated and I felt more and more helpless as I watched the defenseless bird convulse on the fence.

I grabbed my phone and called the only person I could think of who would know immediately what to do and who might also be nearby:  Grandpa Vernon.

Vernon answered on the second ring. No, he said after I quickly explained the situation, he was not home but he was nearby and would be there in four minutes.  I hung up and stood with the kids in the chilly fall breeze, glancing anxiously back and forth between the end of the lane and the bird.  True enough, in about four minutes Vernon turned down the driveway and pulled up behind our pickup.  He jumped from his truck and went to the toolbox in back, coming around to our side carrying two large rubber handled plyer/wire cutter type of tools.

He walked right over to the fence we stood in front of and pushed the top wire down with his hand and climbed over. Obviously he already knew those fences were not hot.

I followed behind him, beckoned back after a few feet by the kids demanding to be included in the rescue.  I hurried back to the fence and lifted them quickly over, the three of us taking after Vernon at a run across the empty pasture.

The next fence was a bit more of an obstacle.  It was too tall for me to climb over, so the kids and I ran down to the end and climbed through the empty ditch, navigating a makeshift barrier that had been constructed with smooth wire to keep smaller animals like calves on the right side of the fence.

We walked quickly to Grandpa Vernon’s side, where he stood gazing at the trapped hawk solemnly.  He didn’t look long.  He took his  tools and moved to where the bird’s huge taloned feet gripped the electric wire in a literal death grip.  The bird had apparently landed on the wire facing away from us, and when his foot touched the metal post and grounded his body the force of the initial shock must have knocked him backward.  He hung facing us, wings outstretched, unable to remove his talons from the wire that sent pulses of electricity through his body in agonizing intervals.

Grandpa Vernon grabbed the wire next to the bird’s foot with one tool to stabilize it, then gently pried the scaly claw loose.  As soon as the electrical connection had broken the bird fell to the ground and lay limply but alertly, watching us with cautious eyes.  The magnificent creature breathed rapidly, lying with outstretched wings, head pivoting with every nearby motion.


Grandpa Vernon confirmed what watching the bird seemed to hint at:  that fence was HOT.  The whole thing had happened so fast that I had not taken a second to get even a cell phone photo until the bird had been dislodged (dammit).

Batman was completely fascinated by a bird with a wingspan nearly as wide as he was tall, and moved slowly toward the injured creature.  “Don’t go over there,” Grandpa Vernon said.  “He is not very happy right now and he could really hurt you.  We need to just let him sit there and see what happens.  He needs to rest.”

After a few minutes we reluctantly departed the pasture, doing the reverse lift of kids over fence to get back to the truck, and drove home.  I wanted to get my camera to take a couple of photos of the animal, and Grandpa Vernon planned to call the Fish and Game Department to see if they could help.  I changed my shoes and coat, and was walking back out to the truck when Vernon called.  “Fish and Game was no help, just as I expected,” he told me.  “They referred me to a couple of people in the area who rescue birds but I haven’t had any luck.”

The kids and I drove back down the lane and Batman and I crawled through the fences again to take a few photos of the bird.  Annabelle, still in her school uniform of khaki skirt and polo shirt, remained in the truck, craning her head out of the window to track our progress.  The hawk was just as still as before, but seemed a little more alert and wary this time.  After getting a couple of good shots, I drove back home and got on the computer to find resources and make a few calls myself.

I tried the animal control people, who gave me a number of a bird rescue guy in our area.  As I was about to call that number I saw Vernon driving back down the road to where we had left the bird. He crawled over the fences and walked slowly up and down the ditch bank.  From a distance I could not see if the bird was still there or not.

A phone call confirmed what we had all hoped for. The bird was gone.  With just a scant twenty minutes of rest after what had to have been a grueling ordeal, he had managed to fly away. It was a miracle.

I habitually scan the skies around our place whenever I am outside.  There are a wide variety of fowl to see, from Batman’s coveted pigeons to seagulls, doves and crows.  Quite often we do see large birds of prey on the wing, gliding the currents in search of a mouse or snake to swoop down and snatch up.

I’ll watch a little closer from now on.

Fly safe, big hawk.


Categories: Kids Are Funny Creatures, Life in the Country | Leave a comment

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