A Cinderella Story
how a pair of "shoes" changed one hawk's life
by Bill Streeter
Last summer we received a female eastern goshawk for rehabilitation. It was the first goshawk to come to our center in over ten years. Goshawks are stunningly beautiful large woodland hawks that are rare. The largest of our three accipiters (about the size of a red-tail), the adult has a sleek back with grey wings and tail, light grayish breast, brilliant white undertail coverts, a black capped head with a white eye stripe over a blood red eye. Their preferred food in our area is ruffed grouse, and anyone walking in the woods who has ever flushed a grouse may be able to appreciate the explosive quickness and speed it would take for a predatory bird to catch one in flight. Goshawks do it regularly with their incredibly powerful acceleration, lightening speed, and amazing reflexes all while dodging tree trunks and branches.
Their numbers are very low, in part because of their specific habitat requirements and intolerance of human disturbance. They need large expanses of isolated forest near a water source without human activity nearby. They are normally hard to find because their behavior is very secretive. A goshawk will fly away long before you get close enough to see it, except during nesting season from March through June. Then if you enter their territory, they will find you. Goshawks will defend their nests vigorously. If you approach a nest tree within a couple of hundred yards, one or both parent birds will generally fly overhead screaming loudly "kak-kak-kak-kak." If you get close to or climb the tree, they may whack you on the head and face with their formidable talons during a flyby. They won't be too happy with your dog either, and will attack it without mercy. If you are passionate about raptors, it is easy to appreciate the magnificence of a goshawk.
This particular hawk came in with her legs extended and talons clenched in a ball. Whenever hawks come in with both of their legs or feet compromised it implies one of two things: poison or trauma. Certain types of poison result in limited paralysis of the legs. Generally the bird has some movement, but always wants to keep its legs extended with its toes clenched tightly. Often this is in combination with other symptoms such as salivation and uneven pupils or pupil fluttering. Poisoned birds are treated by a combination of techniques including flushing out their system with oral boluses of lactated ringers or other isotonic solutions, the use of various poison absorptive agents, and injections of atropine sulfate if organo-phosphate poisoning is suspected.
If a bird has no leg movement at all, x-rays may reveal a fracture in the pelvis or spine. Spinal cord injuries are often not detectable in an x-ray, however, and prognosis for recovery is always very poor if the spinal column is injured. A fracture in any of the leg bones rarely results in complete immobility of the leg. Leg fractures are usually easily felt and are obvious on an x-ray. Tendon damage is always a consideration with fractures as well.
This particular goshawk could actually move both legs in a normal manner. It just couldn't open up its feet to walk. X-rays showed no fractures, and although we treated for poison, we suspected spinal trauma. In our experience, when birds cannot stand, they generally do not live more than a week or two, often because their excretory functions are severely compromised.
We were encouraged by the mobility of the legs; we just needed to come up with a way to allow her to stand on her own and give her a chance to recover. The solution was a rubber baseball. We cut the ball in half and while laying each ball on its flat side, cut two sides of the ball off on either end resulting in a half-moon platform shoe of sorts. To fit the gos with her new orthotics, we pried open her toes, then secured her foot along the curve of the moon with bandaging tape and vet-wrap. We now had a goshawk on platform shoes. Would they work? When I placed her on the ground, she stood up and in a clumsy manner, ran away from me. This brought an immediate smile to my face. Still, since she could not use her feet to secure food in order to tear it up, she had to learn to eat chopped up mice, quail, etc. from a bowl or be force fed for an indeterminate length of time. Accipiters in captivity may have all types of problems. They are extremely high strung, bouncing off walls, and fast enough to fly out a door when opened a crack for a second, but poor appetite or stubbornness about eating is not one of their myriad of problems. Any self-respecting, sharp-shinned, Coopers, or goshawk can't resist a free meal. She was placed in an outdoor 8'x8' building with free eats and when we checked her in an hour, only the plastic bowl remained. Occasionally, over the next couple of weeks, we had to tighten her shoes. Eventually she started flying to her perches, but could not perch because she could not grasp. After two weeks we removed the shoes. I expected her to close her feet but they remained open. When I forced them closed, she re-opened them on her own. We placed her on the ground of one of our smaller outdoor flight enclosures, and she flew up to a perch and managed to grasp it. Although she was a little unsteady on her feet, she remained perched. Then she flew to another perch and was able to hold on and maintain her balance. I was so thrilled that she was doing so well I found myself laughing out loud. Over the course of another two weeks, she was moved to a larger flight enclosure and became as sure footed as any wild bird.
It was now time for release. We always release adult birds where they were found, but this bird was transferred to us from another rehabilitator who knew what town she came from, but not exactly where she was found. I called John Serrao, a naturalist who was more familiar with the area where the goshawk was found, and he suggested an area about four miles from the town which turned out to be excellent goshawk habitat. We assumed that release at this site should put her close to wherever she was found and from there she could easily find and return to her established regular hunting territory. On a sunny Saturday morning, I made the fifty mile drive to the release site and was very pleased with John's choice. I removed her from her box and immediately her head started making back and forth movements, checking out her new surroundings. I tossed her gently and as with most hawks she flew into a tree and stayed for a minute to look around and get her bearings. Then she took off darting through the forest dodging tree branches as swift as any goshawk could. Yes!!