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Red-tailed hawk is making a remarkable recovery

The red-tailed hawk is our most common bird of prey. (It is no longer our most common raptor: the turkey vulture has taken over that title.) Usually seen circling on set wings over country meadows, this hawk is one of the defining characteristics of summer in our region. It belongs in that summer pantheon together with ice cream, swimming, suntans and fields of grain.

The red-tail is a large bird, with adults weighing in at almost 2.5 pounds. For comparison, a crow weighs 1 pound, a robin less than 3 ounces. It is puny, however, in comparison with an eagle at 9.5 pounds.

Seen from below, as it usually is, that rich rufous tail is not evident. Instead, in most plumages it is distinguished by streaks on its belly that remind me of those wide award belts given to boxing and wrestling champions. Only when it tilts in flight to show off the upper side of that tail do you see the red.

Years ago, the red-tailed hawk and the less common red-shouldered hawk were known as chicken hawks. They were considered the bane in the lives of country housewives because of their poultry depredations and were shot on sight, a practice continuing well after the 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act made this a federal crime.

But even in those days it could be argued that the red-tail was as much a benefit to the farmer as a problem. One analysis of 562 of their stomachs found less than a tenth containing poultry or game birds but more than half containing rodents. Of course today we have few free-range chickens, so this is rarely a problem.

Which brings me to the episode that led to this column.

Two months ago, Joel Beato of Lancaster witnessed a horrendous battle on the ground between two adult male red-tailed hawks. One was clearly winning and seemed about to kill its opponent when Joel rushed out to fend it off, leaving the seriously injured bird near death. Joel's brother Josh provided a pan of water for the hawk, but the Beatos did not otherwise interfere with it. Instead Joel called Messenger Woods Wildlife Care and Education Center in Holland, reaching rehabilitator Karen Stejbach. She retrieved and delivered the bird to federally licensed rehabilitator Judy Seiler, who admitted it for care.

Seiler points out that these two young men did exactly the right thing and in doing so they probably saved the life of this hawk. She showed me photos of the injuries and it is a wonder that it survived in any case; together with other wounds, its scalp was torn open.

Over the following weeks, Clarence veterinarians Dr. Laura Wade and Dr. Evan Reed, specialists in the care of avian and exotic pets, performed a series of three successive operations on the hawk, one involving a skin graft.

To recuperate it was then turned over to rehabilitator Marianne Hites, who maintains a flight cage in her dad's Orchard Park back yard. I visited Hites and Seiler there a few days ago to see the progress of the injured hawk.

We entered the building where the bird was caged. To capture it, Hites had first to flush it because it was too high to reach. When she did so, the hawk, secure in the knowledge that I was the most easily intimidated of those present, flew directly at me. Before I could even duck or get an arm up in defense, however, it pulled up to perch on the wall behind me.

There Hites quickly gathered it in her arms, where it relaxed, those fierce eyes still focused on me.

The progress of this bird from those horrific injuries was striking. By now soft feathers had grown in on its head, and it is already able to capture live prey. In another week or two it will be ready for release.