The sky is falling!

I don’t know if anyone else noticed, but I’m pretty sure the planet tilted on its axis a little more than usual a couple weeks ago.  Or perhaps it was the reverberations of Captain America and Iron Man throwing entire cities at each other.  Whatever the cause, during the past few weeks at Peace River Wildlife Center, we have been inundated with animals falling out of the sky.  While it is not unusual for baby birds to tumble out of their nests at this time of year, we have taken in numerous adult squirrels and birds that have hit the ground right in front of people for no apparent reason.  And, of course, lots and lots of baby birds that have suffered the same fate.

One particular group of gravitationally-challenged avians is our cast of red-shouldered hawk fledglings.  No, they are not starring in Joss Whedon’s next Marvelous movie; a group of hawks or falcons is called a cast.  If they are in flight, the group is referred to as a kettle; and if the kettle happens to be spiraling, that’s called a boil.  Mmm, boiling kettle…now I want a cup of tea.  Try to focus here, people.  We’ve got an article to get through! 

Within a two-week period PRWC admitted ten juvenile red-shouldered hawks that fallen from their nests for various reasons.  Red-shouldered hawks are one of the most commonly seen hawks here in SW Florida.  They are readily distinguished by reddish-brown feathers over their, well, shoulders.  (Don’t you love it when names make sense?) 

As year-round residents of Florida, red-shouldered hawks begin their breeding season in late January.  The eggs hatch after an incubation period of about one month.  The hatchlings grow quickly and within another month’s time, have gone through the downy fluff stage of the nestling, to become fully feathered fledglings.  They will spend another month or two with their parents, becoming fully independent by four months of age.

This rapid progress can be disrupted when the babies do not remain at their nests.  This is why we make every effort to return a displaced bird, especially a raptor, to his nest whenever possible.  Due to habitat destruction, the death of the parent(s), or illness or injury of the nestlings; when nestlings have to be raised in captivity it can delay their maturation by weeks or months.  Luckily for these red-shouldered hawks, the fact that there were so many of them at the same time worked to their advantage. 

Most of those youngsters are now ready for release, and not a moment too soon.  These ravenous raptors have been eating us out of house and home.  When they first arrive, nestlings have to be fed chopped up rodents which we hand-fed to them using bird-shaped puppets with our faces and arms covered, so as not to habituate the birds. 

As the fledglings mature and are ready to start eating on their own, they are moved to an outdoor flight cage, with one of our resident adult hawks as a role model, while she teaches them to eat whole, thawed mice.  With release imminent, it is imperative that the birds be able to feed themselves in the wild.  That means they need to be able to recognize the food they will find in the wild and what to do with it.  With live prey training now under their belts, they are ready to hit the road.  Or, rather, the skies.  And hopefully they will stay aloft this time.

by – Robin Jenkins, DVM

A red-shouldered hawk flies away on release from PRWC
A red-shouldered hawk flies away on release from PRWC
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