Raptors are birds of prey, the beautiful, lethal apex of the bird kingdom, who hunt and eat other birds and small animals. Here in NYC, the most abundant raptors are red-tailed hawks and kestrels; other local raptors include peregrine falcons, Cooper’s hawks, and saw-whet owls. They all show up repeatedly at the Wild Bird Fund.
It can be an emotional tug-of-war to see them in action: the raptors have to eat, and the prey wants to live. One heartbreaking example: the WBF released a woodcock, after three weeks of recovery from a concussion and torn scalp, in the North Woods of Central Park. We saw it fly off beautifully, only to be spotted by a Cooper’s hawk, which swooped down, caught it, and carried it away.
The most common injuries for raptors in NYC are collisions with buildings, and the most common victims are the young ones. The first-years haven’t yet got the hang of maneuvering through the maze of skyscrapers we’ve erected along their ancient flyways.
One week this January saw red-tail hawks (above) arrive five days in a row. They were first-year birds, still with brown tails, who had collided with buildings or cars. One had smashed his head and broken the orbital bone around his left eye, which was hugely swollen and nearly out of the socket. After successful nursing at the WBF Center, he is recuperating in an outdoor cage at the Raptor Trust. It looks as if he will regain his sight completely and has excellent prospects for release back into the wild.
Another young red-tail with a head bang was found recently at 65th and Amsterdam. She was knocked out, dehydrated, and dangerously chilled. At the Center she was warmed up, given fluids, and gradually fed. In three days’ time she was feisty again and released in Central Park, much to the joy of second graders from P.S. 87 who joined the WBF to witness her release.
So far this new year, three Cooper’s hawks (1st image) have come to the WBF for emergency care, one per week in January. The Cooper’s hawk is the cheetah of raptors. They are smaller than red-tails but gram for gram more muscular—on x-rays, they look like body builders. They are difficult challenges for rehabilitation because they are the most aggressive patients. Even sedated and with eyes closed, a Cooper will pull a leg out of restraints lightning-fast and grab the rehabber with its talons. (By contrast, a red-tail’s reflexes are slower and more compatible with human reaction time.) A recent Cooper’s hawk who grabbed the rehabber while being x-rayed had been shot with a pellet gun. The pellet smashed through the carpal bones and lodged in the bird’s shoulder. It was determined that he would never fly again. Most often after initial treatment, we send the Coopers to Raptor Trust for outdoor recuperation. (Another reason we send them to Raptor Trust as soon as possible is that unlike other raptor patients which eat frozen dead mice, they will only eat live birds.)
Another exciting, yet charming raptor patient is the saw-whet owl (above). Happily, most of these cute little guys make it. Saw-whets are so light and tiny that collisions do less damage than those of larger raptors. We had three recently, two with eye injuries and one with a fractured wing—all released back to the wild.
Our most recent kestrel (right) was found on Hunts Point Avenue in the Bronx. Also the victim of collision, she came in with a concussion, a blood-filled eye, and limited vision. She soon ruled the Center, zooming around as though we weren’t there, and perching brazenly on the delighted, albeit wary staff and volunteers. Even with her tail-guard, which is applied so they don’t injure their tails while caged, this young female had excellent flight. After two weeks of rehabilitation and feeding (she loved her mealworms, in addition to frozen mice), she was released to the wild at a park near where she was found. New York City is home to one of the largest urban peregrine falcon (right) populations in the world (NYTimes, Feb. 12, 2009). Our bridges and skyscrapers, which resemble the cliffs of their natural habitat, are perfect nesting sites. Every spring the DEC tags all nestlings in known roosts. Although no longer listed as an endangered species, peregrines are still closely monitored. Two young birds whose maiden flights landed them on corporate terraces at lunchtime were brought in by Animal Care & Control of NYC. The Department of Environmental Conservation was called. Using the birds’ band ID numbers, they were returned to their home nests to try again. One of the lady fledglings, AX 36, came back to the WBF a month later after suffering a wing fracture. It is big news when an untagged peregrine fledgling arrives at the WBF, because this means it came from a nest unknown to the DEC, a new nest for New Yorkers to be proud of.