by Frank DeLoache
HUNTERSVILLE – My wife gave me a hawk for my birthday. No, not with the savings from switching car insurance companies that many of you have seen on a TV commercial.
I never got to hold the hawk either, but my wife, Kathy; my daughter, Alyssa; our granddaughter, Riley; and I got to see its first moments of freedom under a clear Carolina blue sky in a rolling field at the Rural Hill Scottish heritage preserve.
After 33 years of marriage, Kathy has gotten very creative with gifts. Me? Not so much. But we both love hawks, and she discovered the Release-A-Raptor program on the website at Carolina Raptor Center. She donated $100, and her company, south Charlotte’s SPX, matched the gift, qualifying us to accompany a raptor center staff member to release a rehabilitated bird.
What a sight! Watching that fierce creature lunge from his box the moment it opened and soar untethered across the field may have been the best birthday present I’ve ever gotten.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
We arrived at the raptor center’s rehab hospital last Thursday, Oct. 6, about 4:30 p.m., and we were pleased to learn Dr. Dave Scott, the center’s only full-time veterinarian, had decided he wanted to release this young hawk.
So we got an education even as we drove with Scott to the Rural Hill preserve about 5 miles away. “This is the best job in the world,” he told us, and releasing raptors back to the wild “is the best part of my job.”
Scott has a veterinary degree from the University of Illinois, and he discovered early on in med school that he loves working with raptors. But in the entire country, only a few raptor centers have jobs for full-time vets. So for a number of years, he made a living as a software programmer, using his other degree in information-technology.
But he volunteered with wildlife rehabilitation groups and bided his time, and 3 1/2 years ago, when the raptor center decided to hire its first full-time vet, he got the job. By the way, his wife, Olivia, is a horse veterinarian. Olivia Scott has the much harder job, her husband explained, having been kicked hard a number of times.
As of Friday, Oct. 7, Carolina Raptor Center had accepted 642 birds this year for treatment, and Scott thinks the center may approach the record of 813, set in 2007.
The red-tailed hawk Scott released last week came to the center in March or early April as a very young bird found in someone’s backyard in Waxhaw, in Union County. Rehabilitators call this and other birds found during the spring “hatch-year birds.” A storm may have blown them out of their nests, or someone might have cut the tree down.
But frequently, they’re on the ground as their parents teach them to fly, Scott said. Young hawks frequently spend a lot of time on the ground, Scott said, and the parents bring them food and watch over them.
But if they happen to fall in someone’s backyard, even if they’re not harmed, the homeowners don’t know that. Plus, cats and dogs often come with backyards, so homeowners call the Raptor Center.
The spring is the busiest time of the year for the center, getting as many as 20 or 30 calls a day. The center appreciates homeowners bringing the young raptors to the center, but it has a corps of volunteers willing to drive as much as 1 1/2 hours to pick up birds, Scott said.
The hatch-year birds grow quickly at the center – “you can practically see their bones growing,” Scott said – but besides making sure they’re healthy, the center staff also tries to prepare them to survive in the wild.
The staff often puts young raptors in cages with older birds of the same species to serve as mentors. The center’s most revered mentor is a great horned owl named Betbait – Scott doesn’t know how she got her name – who has mentored 18 generations of baby great horned owls at the center. Scott thinks Betbait likes the job partly because she and the babies get more food. She always puts on a lot of weight while watching over young birds, and the staff puts her back on a diet.
The hatch-year birds also spend weeks in cages where they must kill live rodents to eat. Closer to the time when they’re ready to go, they spend time in the center’s large flight cage, building their strength.
Then, they’re ready to go, and the center releases many hatch-year birds in the fall. The day we visited, our hawk was the sixth released that day.
We were surprised to see Scott walk out with a relatively small cardboard box like the ones we use to take our cats to the vet. The hawk bumped against the box several times, and Scott cautioned us to talk softly because the bird was anxious to get out.
I thought I was prepared to get a picture of the hawk in the box when Scott opened it. No sir, that bird was gone in a split second. I got a picture of brown wings and white body and legs flashing past me.
Then, came the interesting part. Our hawk flew a short distance and landed in the field just over a rise in the land. Scott explained that the birds are obviously a little dazzled when they finally are free and have to figure out what to do next.
Two crows weren’t so amazed. Within a minute, we saw two of the black birds cawing noisily and circling over the hawk’s sitting spot. Crows have no love of hawks, and enough of them could kill a young hawk.
So Scott headed toward the hawk to get him to fly into the woods beyond the field, where he would be safe in the trees. The hawk landed a second time in the field and then we followed him to the edge of the trees, where he was sitting on a fallen limb on the ground. Regally, he sat there, looking at us and suffering my picture-taking.
Finally, Scott climbed a fence to shoo his young charge once again, and this time the hawk flew up into the trees.
The raptors need your help
Carolina Raptor Center can always use more volunteers to help Scott and the rest of the small paid staff. If you’d like to volunteer, email Rehabilitation Coordinator Carly Orlando at firstname.lastname@example.org.
You also can learn more about the raptors the center is treating online at raptormed.carolinaraptorcenter.org. I was surprised to learn that barred owls come to the center most often, followed, in recent years, by red-shouldered hawks, which are more common in urban areas.
Of course, the center depends on donations and support from you, me and all Carolinians to continue operating. If you want the thrill of seeing a raptor fly free, a $150 donation enables you to take part in the Release-A-Raptor program. Believe me, it’s a wonderful present you and a friend will not ever forget.
Learn more about how you can help the raptor center at its website, www.carolinaraptorcenter.org.