How often does a work day bring an event to be remembered for the rest of your life? How often does a day bring two such events?
When I took a job at Bird Watcher’s Digest, I wasn’t expecting perks like this.
It’s been weeks of deadlines. Too much to do, not enough time. It happens often. But yesterday, my boss, Bill Thompson, III, stuck his head into my office and said, “Wanna see if we can catch that injured red-tail?” Oh yeah!
The day before, we heard about an injured hawk at the wetlands just down the street from our office. It had apparently been there several days. Bill took off at lunchtime with some raw chicken, and found the bird right away. It was a juvenile red-tailed hawk with a bum left wing, unable to fly. He threw some chicken toward it, and it hopped right over and gobbled it down. Poor thing must have been starving, but it wasn’t dying. It was hungry but strong. It ate a lot of raw chicken. But Bill didn’t have a way of catching it then. So after work, he and his wife (Julie Zickefoose, who is a licensed wildlife rehabber) and kid (Liam) went back to try to catch it. But it was gone, and in the dark, in the dense brush, there was no chance of finding it.
So yesterday at lunch, he thought he’d give it one last shot. We would be its last chance for survival. If we didn’t get it a coyote, great horned owl, or starvation would.
It wasn’t there. We poked around the area for a while. Not a trace. We half expected to find a pile of feathers. After 15 minutes or so, we gave up, hiked back to his van and headed back to the office.
“There it is!” BT3 said, slamming on the brakes. It was standing next to the street on a lawn, left wing hanging low. We parked the van and Bill grabbed a big cardboard box.
It hopped—fast—towards a house. Bill approached from behind. I circled to the front. It hopped behind some shrubs next to the house, then towards the porch. I walked towards it slowly, gently, saying “We aren’t going to hurt you. We’re your best chance of survival.” I tried to telepath that sentiment, and the bird stood still. I approached closer. Closer. I squatted down just a few feet in front of it, as close as a comfortable conversation between two people. It was motionless. “I’m a bird whisperer, “ I claimed to the universe, the hawk, and myself. Wearing an old, thick suede jacket, I lowered my arm in front of it. “Hop on. That will be the easiest for all of us,” I telepathed. “I’m a bird whisperer,” I reinforced.
I was at its eye level. Its irises were tan, with piercing pupils. The cap and brow of juvie red-tails make them look fierce and angry even when they have no reason to be. This one had good reason to be both. It was armed with flesh-piercing talons and a bill that could take a finger off in an instant. I’d never been so close to a wild hawk.
I looked deeply in its eyes, hoping to see myself, or the universe. What I saw was a fierce, angry, frightened, injured young hawk. I am not a bird whisperer. The hawk hopped down into the shrubbery towards BT3 but evaded him and hopped across the yard and across the street. We were encouraged by its energy and determination and frustrated by its easy escape.
After a short, slow chase, it wedged itself between an inverted canoe and a chain-link fence, partially hiding itself under fallen leaves. Bill draped his jacket over it and gently picked it up, nervous both about further injuring it and losing a finger. I held the box, and Bill gently pushed it in. Mission accomplished. The whole ordeal took about 10 minutes, with advice and encouragement from JZ via cellphone and perhaps telepathy. We headed back to the office, I with a red-tailed hawk in a box on my lap.
I drove home to retrieve my big dog crate for transporting the hawk to a raptor rehabilitation center in Columbus today.
As I was unlocking my front door, I got a text from co-worker and pal Kyle Carlsen: “Merlin perched at Oak Grove Cemetery”— two blocks from my house. Merlin. Perched. Whoa. I’ve seen merlins a handful times, but always as flybys, birds I’d never have been able to ID had I been alone; never satisfying looks. My birding mentor, Don Whitehead, is a merlin magnet. I’d see a flash as he yelled “Merlin!” just about every time we’d birded together in the spring or fall for many years. But I had never seen a merlin perched until yesterday.
Kyle said he spotted this bird, but it soon flew. About 30 seconds later, he said, it came back to the same branch (like a flycatcher!) with a songbird, and started munching on it. Cool! And it just stayed there, even after it finished its lunch. I watched it for a good, long, satisfying time, the kind of look I want for every bird, especially rarities.
The merlin remained when Kyle, my dog crate, and I went back to the office. We put a big stick in the crate, and a small bowl of water, and transferred the hawk from the cardboard box. It was a little tense. We didn’t want to injure the hawk further, and we aimed to minimize its trauma. We really didn’t want it to escape, and we wanted to keep all our fingers. We succeeded in all regards, I think.
Bill had some raw stew beef, and threw a few strips into the cage. Once again, that hawk was on the meat instantly. It ate well.
So, after one heck of an eventful lunch break, I went back to editing. Deadlines. Work.
That hawk ought to be at the Ohio Wildlife Center by now. Good luck to it. I hope it flies wild again someday.
Have I mentioned that I love my job?
About the Author
Dawn Hewitt is the managing editor for Bird Watcher's Digest and Watching Backyard Birds. She has been watching birds since 1979, and wrote a weekly birding column for The Herald Times newspaper in Bloomington, Indiana, for 11 years.