- With Hurt Hawks
Late afternoon sunlight beams through spreading oak leaves and dapples the grassy area between two rows of chainlink and mesh flight cages. A once-red dairy barn, now browned by snow and sun, huddles here in the hollow like an old tortoise squeezed between tree trunks. This is the West Virginia Raptor Rehabilitation Center; the renovated barn houses an intensive care unit for injured birds of prey, and nine flight cages stand in this small stretch of cleared forest. I am sitting cross-legged on the ground in a cage that belongs to a special red-tailed hawk; his feathers are not the typical rusty brown and buff of most red-tails, but are completely white. His eyes, however, are deep brown. The genetic term for this rare coloration is leucism; he is not truly albino. Part of the hawk's cage is inside the barn, part extends into the clearing; he can sun himself and feel the rain or huddle inside, out of the wind. I am working hard to gain this bird's trust.
The flight cage next to us holds four broad-winged hawks, three recuperating for potential release and one that will stay with us permanently. We will begin training him for our educational programs as soon as we can build him a separate flight cage. The three small hawks awaiting release line the highest perch like a row of plastic ducks in a carnival game. The sun lights their mottled chests and glistens on their fawn-brown backs. They fan their black-barred tails. The fourth hawk, the one we're keeping, desperately tries to fly up and sit with them. He flaps frantically in the grass below. The three cock their heads and peer down at him. One begins to preen a healing wing, indifferent to the frustration of his panting cage mate.
The broad-wing on the ground flaps again and fails, exhausted, wings spread out flat on the grass, amber eyes still fixed on the perch. In this [End Page 85] position, his crippling injury is apparent; the bird lacks flight feathers on his left wing and the gray flesh bulges with scar tissue. This hawk had been hit by a car and left on the side of the road to die. He reminds me of the Robinson Jeffers poem "Hurt Hawks," and I wonder if the desperate bird ever "remembers freedom and flies in a dream." We did our best with him, like we do with every bird, but some wings are "too shattered for mending."
I fight the impulse to rush into the broad-wings' cage and send the three flying from the high perch. I'd scatter them into the dark corners of the cage, then stoop to lift the disabled one onto the tall perch, high above the others. Of course, it's not as if the other three broad-wings have had it easy; they had all been hit by cars before their first migration to South American wintering grounds. One suffered a concussion, another had nerve damage to his left shoulder, and the third had a metal pin placed in his wing to repair a broken bone. And though they may sit on the highest perch, these little hawks are still in a cage, with no escape possible.
The red-tail clings uneasily to my gloved fist and tenses whenever the broad-wings next to us flap. This white hawk, too, is not releasable. He was found starving in a field with a punctured left eye. Since he cannot see out of that eye, he must remain with us for the rest of his life, "no more to use the sky." We think he may have been attacked by another red-tailed hawk, or maybe by a gang of blue jays. He would make an easy target, a large, white bird with nowhere to hide. His instincts tell him that he's safe high in the branches of a tree, but there, he's most conspicuous, his feathers so white they glow in the sunlight. I feel painfully sorry for him—for his injury, his genetics, his permanent captivity.