Weekly News: December 21st, 2011

The size difference between female and male red shouldered hawks is plainly visible as Soldier-girl and Rufus perch next to each other. Photograph by Suzanne Shoemaker.

A third red-shouldered hawk was added the mix at Owl Moon this week. “Rufus,” an adult male named for the vibrant red coloring of his breast plumage, joined Squeak-toy and Soldier-girl in the outdoor mews last Wednesday. Rufus came to Owl Moon from Second Chance Wildlife Center, where he had received treatment for severe head trauma and damage to the right eye sustained in a collision with a car on November 13. Rufus lost vision in the eye, and is still showing symptoms of brain injury (circling to the right), but, after four weeks, he no longer needs intensive care. Though brain injuries can require a long recovery, there is some hope for Rufus. If he can navigate in flight and catch live prey using his single eye, Rufus may yet be capable of survival in the wild.

Thus, on Sunday, December 11, Second Chance transferred Rufus to Owl Moon Raptor Center, where we can house him in an outdoor mews and monitor his progress. Over the next several weeks we will observe and assess his flight and hunting skills. For now, Rufus’s damaged eye is sewn shut. If we determine that he is a release candidate, Dr. Pat Klein at Second Chance may decide to surgically remove his damaged eye beforehand to prevent future infections. If we find that Rufus is not a candidate for release, our choices become more difficult. We will need to evaluate whether his condition and temperament are suited to life as an education bird, and if so can we find him a suitable home. If the answer to any of these questions is no, euthanasia is the only humane choice. The reality of being a wildlife rehabber is often that of making tough ethical decisions. Rufus can’t tell me what he would want. As his caregiver, I am put in the uncomfortable position of having to choose for him.

Rufus’ future hangs in the balance, but for now the jury is still out. We will take things one day at a time and hope for the best. Back in the mews the three roommates seem to be getting along well. Rufus is navigating in the mews pretty well. He occasionally miscalculates and bumps into walls, but mostly is able to fly to perches, and he is learning that he needs to turn his head to see well on both sides. Twice a day I instill drops in the damaged eye to prevent infection. I offer him food by hand once a day to make sure he is getting enough to eat. Thus far I have been unable to observe him eating on his own. He eats from my hand willingly, and I only feed him what he takes. Soldier-girl has maintained her “Alpha” status with both of her male companions. I will be watching her weight as well to be sure she is not taking more than her share of the group meal.

I am pleased to report that Shredder the great-horned owl is making good progress in flight reconditioning. He is now flying the full length of the creance line, and his flight is nearly symmetrical and balanced. I am feeling confident that after a few more weeks of these workouts Shredder will recover the skills, strength, and stamina he needs for life in the wild. In our physical therapy sessions we can see that he has full range of motion in his mended left wing as well. I don’t expect anything will hold him back at this point, but I have learned from experience it is better not to count your owls before they hatch.

I have noticed that with creance flying we see behavioral as well as physical improvements., The birds become increasingly cantankerous as time goes on. I think flying “free” outside the confines of the mews brings out their wildness. They become increasingly frustrated when they come to the end of their line. Fortunately, it seems to work out such that by the time they get truly exasperated and petulant they are physically ready for release. In fact, I have begun to use behavioral cues, along with physical observations, to determine when a bird is ready for release. Some wildlife rehabilitators worry that creance flying may lead raptors to become more habituated, but I have found that the opposite is true, unless it is done in concert with training to the glove.

We at Owl Moon Raptor Center wish each of you a joyous holiday season! May 2012 be a happy, healthy, peaceful year for all of us, and for our wild and domestic animal friends!

-Suzanne Shoemaker

P.S. Thank you to The Christmas Owl for getting the word out about this years’ calendar! You can see the post and check out other adorable owl themed gift ideas here: http://thechristmasowl.com/2011/12/19/owl-moon-raptor-center/

Patient Profile: Sir Galahad

Sir Galahad. Photograph by Suzanne Shoemaker.

Today it is my pleasure to introduce to you a bird who is a true gentleman among raptors. In the three years he has been with Owl Moon he has served as both a host and a role model. Sir Galahad, as we have come to call him, is an adult red-tailed hawk. I think he is male, but in truth I can’t know for sure. His weight is in the range of gender overlap, being high for a male and low for a female. I call him “he” because his behavior is more like that I see in males; less aggressive and less inclined to raise those crown feathers than females. Sir Galahad left Owl Moon last Friday to begin a new life at Meadowside Nature Center in Rockville, MD.
Today, I would like to take a moment to remember our time together.

I first met Sir Galahad on March 19, 2009. Ian had been walking a footpath along the Monocacy River in Frederick, MD when he came upon a hawk on the ground. The hawk didn’t fly off when he approached. Concerned for its well-being, Ian called me.  Ian and a friend walked me back to where they had seen the bird earlier. The hawk wasn’t there, but after searching in widening circles for half an hour, I spotted him on a low branch. He didn’t budge when I reached up and grabbed both legs. So began our long “friendship.”

Sir Galahad was severely emaciated and dehydrated, so I began his treatment as soon as I got him home. There was no immediately visible wound, but there had to be a reason why he had gone hungry. I noticed a slight droop in his left wing, but I couldn’t feel a fracture. After he was re-hydrated and eating again, I brought him to Opossum Pike Vet Clinic where Dr. Barb Stastny took x-rays. No injuries were visible on the radiographs, so I kept him on cage rest for another two weeks and then moved him to an outdoor mews. Outside I noticed he could not fly to the higher perches. Rather, he worked his way up sequentially from lower perches.  After another week, we tested his flight on a creance line. We found that while he could fly on the level, he was unable to gain much altitude.

Sir Galahad. Photograph by Suzanne Shoemaker.

I knew there must be something I was not seeing so I took him to Tri-State Bird Rescue and Research in Newark, DE, where avian specialists took further x-rays and evaluated him. Dr. Erica Miller discovered an inflammation in his left wrist joint. She prescribed an anti-inflammatory drug and suggested I give him physical therapy along with the flight exercise. Erica said if his flight did not improve in two weeks, it probably never would. After the allotted time expired his condition remained unchanged. Sir Galahad needed a permanent home.

Since Sir Galahad is able to fly (though not well), I wanted his home to meet certain criteria for a good quality of life. I wanted his mew to be large enough for him to spread his wings and fly. Additionally, I wanted him to be trained to fly to the glove so he could exercise his wings outside of the mew. Training to the glove would make him more comfortable with people, improving his life and also make him more useful for education programs. There are typically restrictions on how long a rehabilitator can keep a bird if it cannot be returned to the wild. Fortunately, Maryland Department of Natural Resources Wildlife & Heritage Service allowed me some extra time to find such a home.

During that time, Sir Galahad hosted numerous red-tails, who out of necessity shared his home. Every newcomer was treated politely and with respect. Sir Galahad’s quiet dignity gained him the respect of his guests in return. They always behaved congenially towards each other, and with some companions I even saw mutual grooming and other signs of bonding. At times I found it emotionally difficult to separate them when it came time to release the roommate, but each time, Sir Galahad adjusted well and was just as hospitable to his next guest.

Sir Galahad (left) with his companion Hunchie (right). Photograph by Suzanne Shoemaker.

Over the three nesting seasons Sir Galahad spent at Owl Moon, he also became a foster parent to three juvenile red-tailed hawks that, for various reasons, could not be returned to their real parents. Each time, Sir Galahad came through. He treated them well and showed them how to be a red-tail. Two of the juveniles were released here at Owl Moon, and both made visits to the mews from time to time. I like to imagine they were paying a visit to their old mentor, but the handouts I left for them to help them get by while they were learning to hunt on their own probably enticed them as well.

Saying goodbye to Sir Galahad is a mixed blessing for me. I am happy to have the mew open for newcomers, but I will sorely miss seeing him every day. I am thrilled however, that Meadowside Nature Center will be his new home! Meadowside’s large mew and caring staff will provide him an excellent home. The staff is excited at the prospect of training him and providing regular exercise outside the mew. Lisa will be his handler, and I will be helping her learn the techniques of training a hawk to fly to the glove. Best of all, Meadowside is only 20 minutes from my house, so I can visit him often!

If you would like to meet Sir Galahad you can visit him at Meadowside Nature Center.  He will be used in their education programs, and when he has completed training you may even be able to see him fly to Lisa’s glove. Be sure to send us a message or a picture if you do. We would love to hear how he is doing!

Here I (left) am introducing Sir Galahad to his new handler, Lisa (right). Photograph by Maura Wade.

Weekly News: December 15th, 2011

Squeak-toy eyes the camera warily from his new outdoor digs. Photograph by Suzanne Shoemaker

Squeak-toy and Soldier-girl moved into spacious new outdoor quarters this week. Needless to say, these two are thrilled to be in a large enclosure where they can easily keep a “safe” distance from me and other potential intruders. When I go in to care for them Squeak-toy starts up with his signature squeaking and Soldier-girl makes several fly-bys before settling on a high perch to keep an eye on me (and the food). Soldier-girl has asserted dominance, which is no surprise given her larger size and superior flying prowess. Squeak-toy learned fast that if he minds his own business and lets her eat first, all is well.

We continue to work with Squeak-toy as before, but have not been able to begin training him yet. I learned from Dr. Barb that Soldier-girl arrived at OPVC on November 7 with a comminuted (fragmented) fracture of the tibia and fibula of the left leg. Because it was comminuted, the bone was splinted rather than pinned. Raptors who have incurred leg injuries should not be exercised on a creance line, which attaches to jesses on the legs, so exercise in a flight cage will have to provide enough pre-release reconditioning for Soldier-girl. Given her inclination to fly in circles at my approach, I think she will do fine.

Shredder has been flown on a creance two times since the pin was removed from his wing. While his flight and his inclination to fly have improved, his flights are shorter than we expected. His skill and stamina will need to improve before we can release him. We plan to fly Shredder every other day (weather permitting) until his endurance improves, and then every day, to build his flight muscles. We began physical therapy this week to increase range of motion in his left wing, which we hope will speed up his progress.  Until next week!

-Suzanne Shoemaker

Weekly News: December 7st, 2011

Soldier-girl puffs up, ready to strike at any hands that venture too near. Photograph by Suzanne Shoemaker.

A feisty new lady joined the ranks of Owl Moon patients this week. She is, like Squeak-toy, a juvenile red-shouldered hawk. However, “Soldier-girl,” being female, is considerably larger than Squeak-toy, a male. In raptors, unlike most bird species, females are typically larger than males*. Whereas Squeak-toy weighs in plump at 620 grams, Soldier-girl is lean at 880 grams. Both birds have similar personalities and I am curious to see how they get along when placed together in an outdoors mews, which is due to happen this weekend.

They are alike because both are brave and quick to take the offensive when approached. For example, DO NOT make the mistake of reaching into either crate to place a water dish or food down without donning heavy gloves first. Before you know what hit you, you will be cradling your hand and an angry red-shouldered hawk will be glaring at you from its perch daring you to try again. Squeak-toy, being a veteran, can get the message across with a look in his eyes alone now, but Soldier-girl puffs up and raises her wings to send the point home.

Both birds will let you know, in no uncertain terms, if/when you are offending them.  Red-shouldered hawks are known to be vocal raptors, but these two take the prize. Squeak- toy starts up with some short squeaks (hence the name) as soon as he hears someone approaching and the calls increase in duration and volume with handling. Soldier-girl, on the other hand, gives little warning, but blares with great volume once in hand. They give a repeated series of loud, long kee-aahs that can be quite alarming. It is easy to imagine how their calls might cause a predator to drop them!

As to how Soldier-girl wound up in rehab, I’ll have to fill you in on that when I get more history from my vet, Barb Stastny. For now I only know that she had a fracture in her left leg which Barb repaired with a pin. Soldier-girl recovered from surgery at Opossum Pike Vet Clinic for two weeks before being transferred to Owl Moon Raptor Center last Friday, for continued care and reconditioning.

Squeak-toy gives me the look that says "back off!" Photograph by Suzanne Shoemaker.

Squeak-toy continues to receive physical therapy and flying time, but his recovery is not going as well as I’d hoped. He has not regained enough extension in his right wing to fly well, and despite our daily routines, his progress has slowed. I’ve decided that the next step is to train him to fly to the glove. This will serve two purposes: first, it will allow me to work with him and fly him more frequently without assistance (creance flying requires two people); and second, it will make him easier to place as an education bird (both for and his handler should we find that he is not a candidate for release. In my experience as a falconer, the training will not make him less capable of surviving in the wild if Squeak-toy does recover enough to release.  Trained birds that were reared in the wild by their parents will revert back to the wild state rapidly upon release.

Shredder after a satisfying, if somewhat messy, dinner. Photograph by Suzanne Shoemaker.

Meanwhile good ‘ole Shredder, the great horned owl, has been outside for close to two weeks now. After the first week we attempted to fly him on a creance line to assess his flight, and begin to recondition him for possible release. What we discovered was, though his wings had the mechanics for flight, he was very reluctant to use them. A feint grinding I heard and felt when I rotated his wing through the motions of flight was cause for further anxiety. I called Dr. Barb to schedule him for a follow-up exam and x-ray.

Barb saw him the next morning. She found that the pin, which was still in the mended humerus (upper wing bone), had slid upward, and protruded enough to rub on his shoulder blade when he lifted his wing (hence the grinding sound). It had not broken the skin nor caused any damage, but it was painful and a problem. Fortunately, the pin was no longer needed so Barb removed it. Otherwise, Barb was pleased with the way the bone had healed and gave him a good prognosis for release. What a relief!

Shredder needed another round of antibiotics and another week in the mews to recuperate, but the important news is that no new harm was done to wing. Already he is more active in the mews, and I look forward to seeing him fly on a creance this weekend. Until next week!

-Suzanne Shoemaker

* There are several hypotheses for why there is so-called “reverse sexual size dimorphism” in raptors. One is that the difference in size allows mates to hunt different size prey, so there is less competition and more complete use of resources on a nesting territory. It makes sense that the female would be the larger, because she needs greater reserves for developing eggs and for the long period of incubating eggs and brooding young.

Weekly News: December 1st, 2011

Two bald eagles with locked talons. Photograph by Fellipe Gonzales Pianheri.

Imagine you are living in a nice wooded suburban neighborhood in Gaithersburg, MD. You are puttering around in your garage on an unseasonably warm Saturday afternoon in late November. Suddenly, you hear loud peeping noises coming from your back yard. You look out the window to investigate, and behold two enormous brown birds with white-feathered heads and curved yellow beaks huddled against each other on the ground. With surprise you realize that you are looking at two bald eagles!

This strange story is exactly what happened to Jim last week. The two eagles remained on the ground, half buried in a thick bed of pine needles and leaf litter, for over an hour. Neither was standing, and one had its wings splayed out. Jim was worried they might be injured, so he called Second Chance Wildlife Center to report the situation. The staff at Second Chance were not able to leave to do a field investigation, but my friend Lee, a licensed rehabber who volunteers there, overheard the phone conversation and offered to call me.

I was out of town myself when Lee called, but after hearing Jim’s story, I shared his concern. It sounded to me like the two eagles might have locked talons in aerial combat (rival males) or during one of their spectacular “cartwheeling” courtship rituals (male and female). Injury is not an unlikely result from either a battle or a crash landing, and with the onset of eagle nesting season both are possible.  November is earlier than normal for nesting behavior to begin, so this was more likely a case of male rivalry over nesting territory, which comes before courtship.

Lee offered to stop by and assess the situation. She found the two adult bald eagles apparently joined by their talons, screaming and awkwardly repositioning themselves. As she was formulating a strategy for getting two large, strong, well-armed birds in hand, they suddenly unlocked talons and one after the other took flight. The first caused onlookers a moment of panic as it flew low over the road, right in the path of a passing car. It veered up just in time to clear the hood.  The second eagle chose a safer path. The story ended happily, because both birds appeared to be uninjured.

The eagle event was one peak in a roller coaster week at OMRC,  but I have some sad news to report about Wet Coops, the juvenile female Cooper’s hawk that was pulled from the Potomac River by Merchant Marines.  Though she was doing well otherwise, her right wing was not improving. I took her to Second Chance Wildlife Center to have it X-rayed and examined by Dr. Pat Klein. The injury was more severe than I thought. The upper wing bone (humerus), was dislocated from the shoulder, and had dropped down. When this happens in humans, it can be a simple matter of popping it back into the socket. In birds, the structure of the shoulder joint is different, and there is no such repair. Cooper’s hawks need precision flying to hunt their primary prey, smaller birds. They must be extremely quick and agile to succeed. Wet Coops, would never again fly well enough to hunt. Some birds in her situation might be placed as education birds in zoos and nature centers. Unfortunately, the flighty temperament of Cooper’s hawks makes them ill-suited for captive life. Their lightning-fast reflexes cause them to injure themselves in confined spaces, and they rarely become comfortable around humans, even after extended periods in captivity. For these reasons I made the difficult decision to have her euthanized.

That same afternoon a call came to rescue an injured hawk that Steve discovered on the ground in his back yard in Gaithersburg, MD. Steve had seen the bird the previous week, but it had disappeared during the interim. When he saw it again it was picking up sticks and appeared to be arranging them and then sitting on them, as if building a nest. The hawk allowed Steve and his partner to walk within a few feet of its “nest” without being disturbed. When I arrived a couple hours later, with Lee and Joseph, my volunteer assistant, we found the bird, a juvenile female red-tailed hawk, indeed standing on a mound of sticks and other forest litter. However, we were not permitted to approach. She took off at a full run. Joseph swung around in front, and Lee and I moved in from the sides, but it wasn’t us that stopped her. She had discovered something else that grabbed her attention underneath the forest litter. She pulled away some sticks and leaves and suddenly it was in her talons; a garter snake! We took advantage of her distraction to make the capture.

With the hawk in hand it was immediately obvious why she could not fly. Her right wing was badly broken along the radius and ulna, or (forearm). It was an open fracture with the bone exposed to the air, the worst kind, especially since it was over a week old. I knew it was serious and prepared myself for more bad news. We brought her to Second Chance, and Dr. Klein examined her. She determined that the fracture could not be repaired. It was too old, and the bone was likely dead from exposure to air. The young red-tail had bravely suffered and survived admirably by foraging on the ground for over a week with her injury. The injury had taken its toll though. She was very thin and likely in severe pain. With great sadness we accepted for the second time that day that euthanasia was the only humane course of action.

Days like this can weigh heavily on a rehabber. We know we can’t save them all but there is always the lingering question; could I have done more? Fortunately the sad days are more than offset on the happy days when we get to release a patient. Spooky, the juvenile female Cooper’s hawk that flew into glass at Chevy Chase Club’s ice rink, was returned to her home on Friday. Ken met me there to band her. It was a picture perfect day, and there was lots of outdoor activity at the club. Mike, the Grounds Superintendent and a raptor enthusiast, kindly offered to drive us in a golf cart to a secluded and wooded natural area. Spooky was raring to go, and when Ken released her, she raced to a distant treetop before even pausing to scout her surroundings. We happily left her looking down at us from her high perch.

Ken releasing Spooky. Photograph by Suzanne Shoemaker.

And finally, yippee! The first annual Owl Moon Raptor Center Calendars have arrived at OMRC, hot off the press. Thank you to my daughter Natasha Lewandrowski for helping me with the layout and design, and to TCC Printing Company in Seattle, WA, for doing a beautiful job with printing and production. If you have ordered your calendar already I will be shipping it to you this week. If you would like a calendar but have not yet sent us your donation, please do so soon. Our first run calendars are spoken for, but we just placed an order for an additional 25. There is still time to order them for the holidays so get ‘em while they’re hot!

-Suzanne Shoemaker

The Owl Moon Raptor Center calendar is here!