SALINAS — You’ve seen them floating over the open valley fields or through the woods, and often perched on stilts along the way. The most common and well-known large hawk in North America, the red-tailed hawk is both bold and majestic, with its distinctive russet tail feathers and broad wings designed for effortless flight. Until they can’t anymore.
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 hawk was starving, and each had a few superficial problems, wounds that indicated that another hawk or animal may have attacked it,” Wildlife Center Manager Ciera German-Cavanaugh said. “Since they’re almost all freshmen, we’re assuming they either don’t find enough prey or aren’t very successful at hunting.”
If multiple species of hawks were rescued, German-Cavanaugh could presume widespread disease. But since only the redstarts come in, she attributes a combination of circumstances, including a really good breeding year in the spring of 2021, resulting in a shortage of prey to meet the need. In addition, with so many young birds in the wild, she speculates that they may have been separated from their parents before they had enough time to develop their hunting and survival skills.
Many of the birds, which were too weak to fly and thus grounded, she says, likely walked around to steer clear of predators, causing their tail feathers to wear out and break.
“Unfortunately, most of the hawks we received in care died within the first 24 hours,” said German-Cavanaugh. “We get them at a certain time of day, try to stabilize them and then come back in the morning to find them dead. We like to believe that we have made it as comfortable as possible for them, but for some it is just too late.”
Still, the story of two young hawks has a happy ending, thanks to the intervention of the wildlife team, who gave them new tail feathers from donor birds and released them back into the air.
“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 had parasites. The second hawk was found on the ground in King City, also unable to fly. She also had broken tail feathers, wounds to her keel and was infested with parasites.”
The intervention, called “imping,” required skilled wildlife technicians to insert a small donor spring dowel rod into each broken spring shaft, cut to size and secured with epoxy.
“Hawks need a fully functioning tail to perform the dynamic maneuvers to take off, fly and hunt to sustain themselves,” German-Cavanaugh said. “The donated tail feathers allowed us to create fully feathered tails, which should last until the birds naturally shed new tail feathers, usually from June to August.”
The two hawks were released safely into the wild on January 28 and 30, near the sites where they were found.
The Wildlife Center continued to care for two other red-tailed hawks; an adult who came in two months ago with a major wound, and a boy, who arrived this week, emaciated and weak.
“We put the young hawk in an incubator to warm up, and she survived the night,” Cavanaugh said. “She wasn’t out of the woods, so to speak, but the first 24 hours are crucial. Because they come in so weakened, we really watch for the first three to five days to see if they will come out.”
Despite a heroic effort by the bird and the Wildlife Rescue team, the young hawk succumbed to her injuries before reaching her fifth day in care.
The Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Center is still caring for 20 patients, including small songbirds, two hawks and an egret, as well as a pond turtle and a mother possum with eight babies in her pouch.
“In a month or two in the spring, we’ll be closer to 100 patients,” said German-Cavanaugh. “Baby season is upon us, so wildlife is full of very vulnerable creatures. We care for every animal found on land, as well as seabirds and shorebirds, but sea otters are cared for by the Monterey Bay Aquarium.”
Each year, the SPCA Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Center admits more than 3,000 animals for treatment and care. Species range from large animals such as bobcats, fawns, opossums, hawks, owls, and pelicans, to small animals such as squirrels, skunks, turtles, hummingbirds, bats, and swallows. To report sick, injured, or orphaned wildlife, call (831) 264-5427.
For mountain lion and bear concerns, call the California Department of Fish & Wildlife at (916) 653-6420.