Some time last fall an unclear photo of a large hawk was posted on the MAINEBirds FaceBook Group’s website. The photo had been taken by an out-of-state visitor whose friend belonged to the closed website group made up of both expert and amateur birders. Charges of “fraud” rang out for a number of days followed by a stream of serious birders flocking to where the bird was seen. In fairly short order an apology was issued to the original poster as more photos emerged along with an official rare bird ID by a Maine Audubon expert. Then the bird disappeared.
The bird had been identified as a Great Black Hawk, a native of Central and South America. It had last been ID’d in Texas earlier in the year and photos taken there matched the precise wing feather pattern of the bird that showed up in Maine. It was the same bird, a juvenile, gender undetermined. No one had any idea how it had gotten itself to Maine. And then it had vanished.
Months later the bird reappeared, showing up in, of all places, Deering Oaks Park in beautiful downtown Portland. It was photographed almost daily feasting on plentiful gray squirrels and rats, the kinds of prey that any city has in abundance. Hundreds of photos were posted to the MAINEBird FB website and news of the bird spread bringing out-of-state birders wanting to add this rare bird to their lifetime list. Clumps of people lugging tripods with gigantic lenses could be seen when driving past the park. The photos were continually posted online and articles appeared in local and national media. There was much speculation, prescient as it turned out, about how such a bird, a tropical species with it’s incredibly long “chicken” legs, could make it through a Maine winter.
Eventually, a storm rolled in, sleet and freezing rain, with strong, icy winds. Two, separate, alert bird people made their way to the park to check on the bird and they found it on the ground in very bad shape. Quickly the bird network went into action and, despite treacherous interstate highway conditions, the volunteer chain of bird rescue transporters got the bird to the (more) northern bird rehab facility, where a diagnosis of frostbitten feet was made. The story continues as the bird recovers, the final outcome yet to be determined. Expressions of concern and love, along with donations, poured onto the rehab’s website, a flow of abundance, a lovely example of people deeply caring for this bird gone astray.
There are currently 20,000+ members of the MAINEBirds FB group, one of the finest moderated groups out there. (IMHO). Copious postings of this beautiful creature, this lone migrant from Central or South America, have appeared for months drawing all of us into a shared web of concern, yet I find myself wondering. Among the throngs of these deeply caring bird lovers, those expressing love and compassion, those sending checks to cover the health care costs, are there Border Wall supporters, Trump anti-immigration sympathizers? And if there are, what does that mean? Assistance is, appropriately, pouring in for the care of this bird and, lovely as this is, I find myself thinking about anyone who could care deeply about a single avian migrant yet remain hostile to human immigrants from that same geography living in this same city or in this same state.
There are, of course, many other examples of human compassion focused on other-than-human species and I have always been curious about the ability to make such distinctions. There are also documented histories, of lone “anyones” being embraced by a community while groups of the same are often perceived as a threat. Maine was one of the places in which such behaviors broke through into national news headlines a number of years ago. Ah, human behavior, capable of such odd twists and turns.
I’m wary of my own critical thinking, of my cynical observations, but the timing of this dramatic bird rescue is a bulls-eye precisely hit as the imploding Border Wall situation is tearing the country (further) apart and the welfare of innocents, both government employees and “detained” immigrant children are all at huge risk. This beautiful creature, this dark eyed bird with its long yellow legs and its lovely feathers, who landed in this compassionate place, is like a mirror held up before us. How can we fail to recognize what we are seeing? How can we draw lines of when to care, when to love, what species, individuals, children, families deserve assistance? At what point to we rise to intervene to save a life or lives? Why does this seem so complicated?
Update. January 31, 2019
(photo credit: Avian Haven /Maine Audubon)
This is the posting by Avian Haven on the death of the Great Black Hawk.
Great Black Hawk – 1/31
Yesterday, our senior staff met onsite with two additional veterinarians as well as two wildlife biologists from the Bird Group of Maine’s Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. Diagnostic tests that included infrared thermography and doppler ultrasound revealed no circulation at all in the feet or lower legs up to where leg feathers can be seen in the photo posted 1/28. Underneath the bandages, both feet were discolored and beginning to decompose. As of yesterday, the bird was lying down during the day, not just overnight, and was not eating as well as previously.
Frostbite is well known for its insidious progression. When the body’s cells freeze, they expand, burst, and then die. Cells that form skin, muscles, nerves, tendons, and blood vessels are all affected, and once those cells die, they cannot be brought back to life. The goal of frostbite treatment is to limit further tissue death, though the success or failure of those efforts may not be apparent for several weeks or even months. Based on how rapidly the hawk’s feet deteriorated, we suspect that the initial frostbite damage occurred well before the bird was found on the ground on January 20, when frozen feet and associated pain had likely resulted in an inability to perch. Although he may not have appeared to be in distress in the few days prior to his rescue, any injured wild animal will hide discomfort until unable to compensate.
Our treatment efforts followed the most up-to-date protocols in human and veterinary medicine. Sadly, however, because foot and leg tissues had already been irreparably damaged, those efforts came too late. For those of you who have asked, our treatment plan included topical applications to enhance skin viability, plus a suite of medications to control pain and promote blood flow to extremities: western/conventional drugs, herbal formulations, and homeopathic remedies. We also used low level (“cold”) laser treatments.
Of course, we had hoped that the frostbite damage would be minor and that the bird might be releasable. Once the extent of the damage became obvious, possibilities for prosthetics use and captive placement were discussed at length. In this bird’s case, neither option was realistic. First of all, the damage was too extensive: both legs as well as both feet had been damaged. Secondly, animals that adapt best to prosthetics are not only less severely affected, but they are also of calm temperament, comfortable around people, and used to being handled. None of us could even remotely imagine a reasonable quality of life for a wild bird having two artificial legs that would need frequent adjustment, and that would likely never be completely comfortable. Related hawk species present in North America are known for their high-strung, hyperactive temperaments, and this bird has been no exception to that general rule. During the hawk’s stay here, we often had to turn off the cage lights to discourage challenges to the cage walls. The wildlife professionals who met yesterday all agreed that the Great Black Hawk would never successfully adapt to captivity, especially without even one foot that could be used in a natural way to perch, grasp food, or land successfully after flight.
The decision to euthanize was completely unanimous among all who gathered here yesterday, though that decision was tinged with regret, sorrow, even heartbreak. It was seen by some of us as an end of suffering, and by others as the release of a spirit from its hopelessly damaged shell. Either way, all of us believed it was the only course of action that was fair to the hawk.
Although greatly saddened that this beautiful hawk could not be saved, we take some comfort in knowing that she or he touched a great many lives, bringing people together and inspiring a greater interest in the natural world. Although this was an extreme case of species displacement, with changing climate and increasing destruction of natural habitats, it is likely that we will see more and more animals dispersing from their homelands into territory they are not well adapted to. A decision as to what will happen to the remains has not been made, though several scientific institutions are under consideration. Genetic studies may finally reveal the original home of this remarkable visitor to Maine.
All of us at Avian Haven extend our profound appreciation to all of you for the good wishes, prayers, love, and support that have poured in during this remarkable bird’s stay here. We intend to dedicate your donations toward funding a special project that will enhance our ability to care for future birds, whether or not they are frostbite victims. For us, and for many of you as well, today will be a day of grieving, but also of imagining this extraordinary Great Black Hawk flying free again in some realm other than our own.
Diane Winn, Executive Director
Avian Haven Wild Bird Rehabilitation Center