Natural Occurences: “Surviving Winter, Raptor Rescue Up North”, by Ellyn Gaydos

It was the beginning of Winter Storm Grayson when I went to visit Craig Newman at his raptor rescue. “Outreach for Earth Stewardship” is a small house on the property of Shelburne Farms in Northern Vermont. Outside the house, a series of white slopes disappear under a snow-white haze. Inside, Anubis, a turkey vulture, is regarding us with a jovial leer perched on the back of his dropping streaked chair. I can see straight through his red nostrils, oversized for smelling rot, to the other side of the room. It is here where wild raptors are taken to convalesce and get treated for injury, illness, or malnourishment with the purpose of returning them to their natural habitats as soon as they recover.

Craig and I stand in our coats surrounded by dog crates swaddled in blankets to block out light. In the adjacent room a great horned owl sits in an indoor apiary and watches us from a high post. You can still smell the skunk on it. “They all stink,” Craig tells me, “all of them eat skunks, but his smell won’t go away”. The bird’s head is tilted at an odd angle. Something’s not quite right. Craig thinks it may be neurological. This is the owl responsible for the red cuts across Craig’s nose and the fading black eye he is sporting, though he is quick to defend the bird: “It was just a flukey thing he miscalculated flying and tried to climb over my head…they’re not always aware that you’re trying to help them.” This owl can hear the syncopated rhythm of our heartbeats from across the room. Whereas hawks are purely visual hunters, owls have the advantage during the winter with their ability to hear industrious mice tunneling beneath the snow.

The room is filled with bird decorations, in the form of tchotchkes and poop. There is a chest freezer full of frozen prey (from guinea pigs to day old chicks), a slop sink, filing cabinets of records and medical supplies, a microscope for analyzing parasites, a scale and large whiteboard for recording bird weights. Craig and other volunteers come in daily. They check the feet, talons and beaks of birds, weigh and feed them, wrap perches, shovel snow.

Inside one dog crate is a merlin, small as far as hawks go, with shining eyes and a rounded head; a less off-putting creature than its larger cousins. A screech owl, another miniature of its breed, claws at the grating of its cage nearly hanging upside down. A barred owl sits sleepily in its cage. His beak and talons have been worn to ineffective nubs from desperate attempts to scratch his way out of a brick chimney. Craig’s hoping they will grow back by springtime. Some birds spend a few days recovering from impact, others a season waiting for a broken bone to set or tail feathers to regrow. For now, Craig lives with two birds at home who need monitoring overnight. The unlucky few deemed unfit for survival in the wild end up permanent residents.

When the rat delivery comes, Craig has to tell the deliverymen to keep their voices down. “Music has charms to sooth the savage beasts,” Craig quotes, “I don’t think that works with birds.” To be good at this, one needs a calm almost stony disposition. When a bird grips their talons deep into the flesh of your shoulder you wait for release. When setting broken bones, a bird reacts better to a steady hand.

Craig estimates his rehabilitation attempts began as a child with a songbird, which he tried to feed milk soaked bread and watched slowly succumbed to malnutrition. Craig grew up neighboring a small-town vet, who he assisted on his rounds while he tended everything from cats to cows. He got his permit to rehabilitate in the ‘90s.

Craig stops talking to the perched owl through the window and opens the back door, calling for a raven in an outdoor enclosure. The raven, a permanent resident because of blindness in one eye, hops through the doorway and settles onto Craig’s arm. It begins chanting “HOLD STILL” in a vocoded-sounding voice, a phrase it learned from receiving eye drops.

The wild carnivorous life is not an easy one- 50% or more of raptors die within their first year of life. “I didn’t get my Christmas eagle this year,” Craig remarks regarding the winter weather, “I always get a juvenile red tail hawk on Christmas, starving.” An ideal breeding season does not ensure abundant prey during fallow months. A brutal storm at the end of winter can especially try juvenile’s resolve. An obvious sign of a starving bird is a sharp keel as opposed to a well-fleshed and rounded one. They may sit on the ground, too weak to fly or wait by a bird feeder for mice to scamper by. In contrast, a healthy bird is bright-eyed, reactive, able to hunt and maintain a normal parasite level.

The most common raptor injuries are sustained from impact by cars. Many birds use the roadways as hunting grounds, a rare clearing in the snow, increasing their vulnerability. The second threat is rodenticide. It is everywhere: on farms, around businesses, homes, and parks. Its effects are cumulative, the more poisoned rodents an animal eats the higher their toxicity becomes. If this is the case, eventually the birds perish from internal hemorrhaging. Often a necropsy is performed on an otherwise healthy looking bird only to find internal bleeding. More than a few of the patron red tailed hawks of Central Park have met such an end (The Audubon cited twenty red tail nests citywide, fueled by the prodigious rat, mouse, and pigeon populations).

Despite these dangers there is hope from successful mass repopulation efforts after the devastating effects of DDT (an insecticide sprayed by farmers), which caused thin-shelled bird eggs unable to reach maturity. DDT was banned in the US in 1972, a decade later many birds from ospreys to robins bounced back to pre-DDT breeding levels. Unfortunately, new herbicides, insecticides, and rodenticides applied throughout migratory habitats continue to affect bird populations and their prey.

However, Craig has his share of success stories. After someone phoned in a dazed merlin that flew into a window, Craig kept her to recover from a probable concussion for four days during spring breeding season. He let her go in the unwelcoming grocery store parking lot where she was found. At first, she just stood on the pavement. But then Craig heard a “ki ki ki ki ki” coming from an Elm tree towering behind him. Suddenly, the female perked up and flew into the tree. There sat her mate and a couple of babies.

He released a barred owl that he raised from a “puffball”, found in a blown over tree alongside dead nest mates on the property here. It has made Shelburne Farms its permanent home. The owl swoops down, sometimes stealing his hat, or maybe “trying to get my scalp,” Craig says laughing, he’s not sure what the gesture means. He sees a northern harrier he released from time to time, distinguishable by the odd molted feathers on its tail.

Craig puts on camo mittens and prepares a Tupperware of white rats for the birds outside. He sprinkles the frozen rodents with a vitamin mix that looks like cumin. We trudge through snow to the outdoor apiary nestled in a Hickory grove currently being scavenged for nuts by a group of wild turkeys. The series of wire cages are two stories high, one is shared by red tailed hawks. Craig opens the locked door and places a rat on a small shelf. The birds, with breast feathers of a downy cream that burns out into their distinctive rust colored tails, eye it with intensity and wait for privacy to eat. In the snow Craig finds a rattail and a severed head, the frozen leftovers of yesterday’s meal. Though there are three hawks, he only gives them one rat so as not to overfeed.

Next a group of barred owls is fed. Awoken they watch with entirely black eyes, shining out of brown striped bodies, well insulated from the cold. Two swing from a perch. None move toward the food.

I ask what Craig thinks of the phrase, bird brain, “you just have to look at it with a different view. They’re highly specialized. They’re hardwired to do certain things.” If human’s possessed eyes as large as these master hunters, they’d weigh two pounds each.

We visit two screech owls sleeping one atop the other gray and brown morphed pompoms sewn together in a wooden birdhouse. Craig reaches his hand toward the nest box and lifts an owl out. It stands 8 inches tall on his mitten and calls out to him in short chirps. He weighs the same as a ½ can of soda.

“I like to think of all the places they’ve seen,” Craig says as he bolts the door heading back into the snow. Now in an apiary snug in a stand of trees and insulated by winter weather, many of these red tailed hawks have been to South America and will hopefully go back again.

Ellyn Gaydos is studying nonfiction writing at Columbia and works as a farmer trying to raise a pig good enough for Thomas Pynchon. She has a pig story in this winter’s issue of Ninth Letter.

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