The SPCA Monterey County Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Center gave hawks new tail feathers from donor birds. (Courtesy Monterey County SPCA)

 The SPCA Monterey County Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Center gave hawks new tail feathers from donor birds.  (Courtesy Monterey County SPCA)

SALINAS — You’ve seen them, soaring over the open valley fields or through the woods, and often perched on roadside poles. The most common and familiar large hawk throughout North America, the red-tailed hawk is both bold and majestic, with its trademark reddish-brown tail feathers and broad wings, designed for effortless flying. Until they can’t.

Since December, the SPCA Monterey County Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Center has rescued 45 emaciated red-tailed hawks, some of them too sick to survive.

“Almost every single hawk was starving, and each had a smattering of superficial issues, wounds indicating that maybe another hawk or other animal had attacked it,” said Wildlife Center Manager Ciera Duits-Cavanaugh. “Since nearly all of them have been first-year birds, we assume they either are not finding enough prey or are not very successful with hunting.”

If multiple species of hawks were being rescued, Duits-Cavanaugh might presume a widespread disease. But, since just the red-tails are coming in, she credits a combination of circumstances, including a really good breeding year in the spring of 2021, resulting in a shortage of prey to satisfy need. In addition, with so many young birds in the wild, she speculates they may have separated from their parents before they had enough time to develop their hunting and survival skills.

Many of the birds, too weak to fly and thus grounded, she says, likely have been running around, trying to stay away from predators, which caused their tail feathers to wear down and break.

“Sadly, most of the hawks we’ve received have passed away within the first 24 hours in care,” Duits-Cavanaugh said. “We get them at some point in the day, try to stabilize them, and then return in the morning to find them deceased. We like to believe we made them as comfortable as possible, but it’s just been too late for some of them.”

The SPCA Monterey County Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Center gave hawks new tail feathers from donor birds. (Courtesy Monterey County SPCA)

Yet the tale of two young hawks has a happy ending, thanks to intervention by the wildlife team, which gave them new tail feathers from donor birds and released them back to the skies.

“The first hawk was found in Tres Pinos, on the ground and unable to fly, with a wound in her mouth and near her eye,” said Beth Brookhouser, SPCA vice president of marketing and communications. “She had broken tail feathers and was suffering from parasites. The second hawk was found on the ground in King City, also unable to fly. She also had broken tail feathers, wounds on her keel, and was suffering from parasites.”

The intervention, called “imping,” required skilled wildlife technicians to insert, into each broken feather shaft, a small dowel rod bearing a donor feather, cut to size, and secured with epoxy.

“Hawks require a fully functioning tail in order to perform the dynamic maneuvers to take off, fly and hunt to sustain themselves,” said Duits-Cavanaugh. “The donated tail feathers enabled us to create fully feathered tails, which should last until the birds naturally molt new tail feathers, usually June through August.”

The two hawks were released safely into the wild on Jan. 28 and 30, near the locations where they were found.

The Wildlife Center continued to care for two other red-tailed hawks; an adult who came in with a large wound two months ago, and a youngster, who arrived this week, emaciated and weak.

“We put the young hawk into an incubator to warm up, and she did survive the night,” Duits-Cavanaugh said. “She was not out of the woods, so to speak, but the first 24 hours are crucial. Because they come in so debilitated, we really watch the first three to five days to see if they’ll pull out of it.”

Despite a heroic effort by the bird and the Wildlife Rescue team, the young hawk did succumb to her injuries before she reached her fifth day in care.

The Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Center continues to care for 20 patients, including small songbirds, two hawks and an egret, as well as a pond turtle and a mother opossum with eight babies in her pouch.

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