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WEEK FOURTEEN - Hamilton the Hawk

April 11, 2017

     Everything interesting that happens on the island seems to happen when I'm not around (excluding the dolphin autopsy, of course). There was the time when I stepped away to find a screwdriver and returned to discover my coworkers hunting through the underbrush. Apparently, a raccoon had stumbled drunkenly into the road, flopped down, scampered back up again, and fled into the bushes. I'd only been gone five minutes! Then there was the day I excused myself to the ladies room and an otter ran down the road through the compound. I'd been trying to see the otters for weeks and one paraded right by my building when I was indisposed. Another time, I missed out on a rattlesnake surgery (although I got to help with one a week or so later). And about a month ago, during one of my trips into Athens, I received an email from our vet tech announcing two new arrivals to the island. One was an adult gopher tortoise who'd been run over (you can learn about him in two weeks) and needed a low-traffic zone in which to recuperate. The other was a mysterious raptor.


     Our new raptor's name is Hamilton. I say that Hamilton is mysterious for three reasons: Firstly, Hamilton's gender is unknown. This isn't a reflection of the competency of our veterinary staff, but rather of the fact that - unless they are seen together - male and female hawks are difficult to tell apart. Even experts must resort to DNA analysis to discover the sex of one. They can do this by drawing blood, since a hawk's blood cells contain nuclei (ours don't). But we don't have a lab on the island equipped to handle such a task. There also seems to be some question as to whether Hamilton is a red-tailed hawk or a red-shouldered hawk, although my money is on the former. I think this is due more to clerical error than a case of misidentification (Here's a useful guide to telling them apart). Third, Hamilton is here to be nursed back to health from an injury, but we don't know what happened. 


      When the hawk arrived, it's legs had been paralyzed. In the absence of lacerations or broken bones, we could only conclude that Hamilton had neurological damage.  The array of hazards a hawk faces in an urban environment is wide, but the most probable cause of Hamilton's injury was a head-on collision with a building. Although the bird looks pretty stable in the photo above, I often find it laying unnaturally on the ground. It scares me every time, because for a moment I think it's dead (I have persistent anxiety that one of the animals in my care will perish). When it's time to feed, instead of being able to grip the meal with talons and tear apart its prey as a healthy hawk would, Hamilton sort of flops around, using its wings as crutches, and swallows the little white mice whole. Because Hamilton is unable to use its feet well, the hawk has developed a secondary condition known as "bumblefoot." The technical name for this is ulcerative pododermatitis. It's a bacterial infection that's pretty common with captive birds. Our vet treats the soft tissues of Hamilton's feet with a thorough cleaning and an application of a special cream (silver sulfadiazine).  


     Sadly, our feathered friend is not a candidate for release back into the wild. Perhaps the hawk's biggest problem is that he or she has imprinted. This means that instead of identifying with other hawks at birth, it identified with a person, a condition which is irreversible. Hamilton won't be accepted by other hawks and has no fear of humans. So, when Hamilton's legs are doing better - which we still hope will happen - the staff will find a rescue organization to take the hawk in. Perhaps they'll be able to find one like the  Raptor Eduction Foundation in Colorado. They take magnificent birds like Hamilton and use them to teach kids about the value of raptors. When I was a kid, these folks came to my elementary school and gave a presentation. They did (and still do) a participatory bit wherein a child is chosen from the audience to stand on stage. One of the raptor folks then holds a piece of meat next to the kid's head and that volunteer child gets to see what the raptor's prey sees right before they die. It's a bit exhilarating, a fact that I can attest to first hand. While I was more terrified by the audience than I was by the bird, it was my first experience with a red-tailed hawk and one that I'll not soon forget. 


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