Wild Raptors Get Another Chance
Reintroducing rehabilitated wildlife back into the wild can be tricky because sometimes a rehabber can’t be sure the animal is completely up to speed before it is released. In a few releases I’ve participated in recently, we were prepared to recapture the animal if we felt it wasn’t as ready to be on its own as we hoped. Of course, in cases involving birds, they may turn out not to be ready but are, nonetheless, able to fly just well enough to elude any attempts at re-capture. When the release goes well, everyone is satisfied, especially the animal that gets to resume its wild existence. In conjunction with Falcon Heart Rescue in Herkimer, we conducted a number of releases at our nature sanctuary in 2017. All but one involved raptors, and most went off without a hitch. Only one case involved an individual that needed to be re-captured and brought back to the rehabilitator.
When possible, it’s best to release an animal in the vicinity of where it was originally found. If it’s during the breeding season, the individual may have a nest, a mate, a brood, and a territory that it needs to return to. Territories are often not easy to obtain and once one is lost it may be lost for good. In the releases that took place this year at the nature preserve, these were not important factors, since they involved birds that were already migrating or they involved immature birds that had yet to gain their own territories. Those birds needed only to be released in a safe environment and preferably one that offers the appropriate habitat for that species.
The most recent release we participated in involved an immature Merlin. A Merlin is a species of falcon that is intermediate in size between the crow-sized Peregrine and the Robin-sized American Kestrel. In truth, the Merlin is closer in size to the Kestrel than the Peregrine. An adult male Merlin possesses a blue back while adult females and immature birds typically have brown backs. Like the Peregrine, the Merlin shows a black “malar” or mustache mark below the eye. However, on the Merlin the marking is not so distinct. Merlins have dark tails which show three or four bold whitish stripes. Formerly the species was called the Pigeon Hawk, although given their small size, a Pigeon could be considered outside their class as a prey item. This Merlin was originally found in North Utica. He was injured and unable to fly and was turned over to Deb Saltis at her Falcon Heart Rescue (wildlife rehabilitation facility) in Herkimer. Upon examination it was determined the bird’s left wing was broken. After being evaluated by a Veterinarian, the falcon was treated; the wing was splinted and wing-wrapped for seven days. After about a month of convalescence in the aviary at Falcon Heart Rescue, the bird was tested in a large flight cage. This is done to gage the competence of a raptor’s flight in a relatively large space. During the test, the falcon became disoriented by the enclosure and made some unconventional landings, one which left him hanging upside down by his talons, but overall his flying was good. In other words, he passed the test and this meant that he was bound for release.
Since the Merlin was in the process of migrating when he was injured, it wasn’t necessary to release him in the same location where he was found. It was decided to release him at Spring Farm CARES’ Nature Sanctuary, where we could monitor him post-release. So on a Monday morning in late October, we carried him out to a place close to one of our beaver ponds. I chose this location because of the great amount of potential prey available in the form of large insects, small mammals, and birds. There are plenty of dead snags to perch on and a large open area where a raptor can watch for prey as well as any predators that might pose a threat. Because of these attributes this location has proved to be a favorite stop-over spot for migrating raptors, including Merlins. Prior to the release, I went down to the site to check on the activity levels. When I got there I found the ponds to be loaded with Wood Ducks and Mallards. There were also a couple of Beavers swimming around. That of course, would be no problem. The Merlin would be no threat to any of them and visa-versa. My colleague, Tim Johnston, was about a half an hour behind me. He was charged with bringing the raptor. I had already given him the OK to come down to the pond, but then right before he arrived, I saw another raptor fly in. This was an immature female Sharp-shinned Hawk (AKA a “Sharpie”). This raptor could perhaps present a threat to our rehab bird. I’ve seen the two species spar in the past, and normally they are evenly matched. They may engage, but the consequences are not usually lethal. However, if our rehab bird wasn’t up to snuff, he could become injured. As it turned out, this wouldn’t be an issue. The Sharpie left as quickly as she came and disappeared in the west. This meant that we were all clear for the release. When Tim came over with the cage it seemed he was bringing a container full of fury. The bird was thrashing around and was highly agitated. This wasn’t good. Raptors can damage their wing and tail feathers by repeatedly ramming them through the barred doors of pet carriers. We put the container down and covered it completely with a sheet. The bird calmed down immediately. After a half-hour, I removed the sheet and opened the cage door. The Merlin flew straight out of the carrier in a low direct flight to the beaver dam about 50 feet away. He zoomed over the dam, rising only about ten feet and put down on the branch of a dead buckthorn tree. There he instantly gave a very loud, almost trill-like cackle: “kikikikikikikikikikikikikikikikikikikiki”. It was clear that he was in full emergency mode. He didn’t know where he was or what situation he was being injected into and his response was to dramatically inform the neighborhood that there was a falcon on the scene and he was a force to contend with. Surprisingly, his dramatic entry into the placid pond setting didn’t elicit much of a reaction from the ducks. They all continued casually swimming around in the water below and even engaged in some preseason courtship behavior. Conversely, the songbirds in the area were not pleased and began emitting high-pitched alarm calls of their own.
We were very happy that his first flight looked unlabored and steady and his left-wing was not hindering him, at least not in any obvious way. We did notice while he was perched that his injured wing was slightly stiff and not completely folded flush against his body as his right wing was. I was told this would be the case with him. After about ten minutes the little falcon launched again; this time landing on a nearby snag at the base of the beaver dam. There he issued two volleys of loud alarm calls. The raptor then showed off his agility by hopping from branch to branch not unlike a squirrel. I’ve seen Cooper’s Hawks and Sharp-shinned Hawks maneuver this way when hunting game in low brambles, but I’ve never seen a falcon do it. Despite having proportionately shorter legs than most other raptor species, he seemed just as proficient at hopping. He ended up on a high branch over what we refer to as the beavers’ Jacuzzi. It’s a tiny pond situated beneath the dam at Morton’s Pond and right at the edge of Sarah’s Pond. It’s more of a cove now since the water level at Sarah’s Pond has reached parity with it and there is a significant gap in its dam. Suddenly the Merlin dove straight down into a grassy area next to the Jacuzzi. It looked to me like a dive for prey, but we lost sight of him for a few minutes so we weren’t sure. Soon enough, he was back up. We think he dove for an insect; a behavior common with Kestrels but not so common with this species. However, this is an immature male falcon (small) and he may in fact behave more like a Kestrel when hunting. Deb Saltis told me that when he was in an outside aviary during the last stage of his recuperation, he was eating the insects that ventured into the cage.
After some more hopping around in the branches and giving more warning calls, he flew to a large dead willow tree that stood at the center of Morton’s Pond. There he made a solid landing on a thick branch. But soon after, he scrambled up the bark and assumed another perch on a branch on the opposite side of the trunk. After about ten minutes of being hidden from our view he made his most impressive flight of the morning. He flew from the willow at Morton’s pond all the way over to a large Eastern Hemlock tree above Sarah’s pond. In that flight he covered a distance of at least 150 feet. After perching for a minute or two he scampered up the tree. When he did, I noticed his wings were not flush against his body, but flopped around somewhat as he moved. It was almost as though they were hanging on loose hinges. From there he made a quick dash-like flight to a dead Buckthorn tree. Up to that point, the Merlin’s antics had escaped the notice of a small flock of Blue Jays that came through the area and stopped at the feeding station near Morton’s Pond.
Blue Jays have an interesting and rather complex relationship with raptors. Basically it’s adversarial since raptors sometimes take them as prey. However, when it comes to the smaller raptors such as the Sharp-shinned Hawk and Cooper’s Hawk, and the small falcons like the Kestrel and Merlin, Jays often try to provoke them into taking part in sparring matches or chases. It’s a brand of rough play that tests the speed and agility of all participants, including the raptors. It can also be a hazardous game for the jays, and if they make a miscalculation they risk getting injured by sharp talons. Evidently, for the jays it’s worth the risk because this type of interspecies sparring is a common and widespread behavior. For the raptors, sparring with jays is more of a mixed bag. It does enable them to sharpen their own skill set and make them better, more agile predators, but taking part in such visible antics also serves to alert the local songbird community (including potential prey) to their presence. This could deprive the raptor of the element of surprise and lessen their chances of obtaining a meal.
Typically, the jays’ mode of operation is to take turns diving at the raptor; each veering off and dashing for cover when the hawk turns on them. When a raptor gets too close or makes physical contact, the jay gives a harsh guttural call note. You tend to hear a lot of those distinctive call notes when jays are provoking Sharpies. In the case of the Merlin, I watched as two Blue Jays tested him. They flew in close and, while exercising a degree of caution, one of them landed on the same branch as the raptor. It got as close as two feet away before quickly darting off to a more remote branch. The jay’s companion then took a turn. In both confrontations, the Merlin inflated his throat while facing the instigators in what I took to be a threatening gesture, but he wasn’t acting overly provoked and he resisted the urge to engage them. After a couple of hazing dives, the jays seemed to make the determination that this raptor wasn’t going to provide much fun and they departed, presumably to cause havoc somewhere else. Actually they didn’t go very far away. For the most part, they kept within visual range of the Merlin. No doubt they were waiting to see if the raptor’s disposition was going to change. For the Merlin’s part, he seemed to take the jays’ taunting with a grain of salt. No doubt, prior to his injury he had experiences with jays. Regardless, the blue marauders were gone now and the Merlin went back to preening. He was acting rather nonchalant, even though he was perched only about half as high as we typically see the species when they use the pond side trees.
Finally the Merlin flew again; this time landing on a dead hemlock tree that hung over Secret Pond. He didn’t linger there long and made a dashing flight into a low bush above the dam at May Pond. From there he dove into a grassy little meadow at the headwaters of Secret Pond. He most likely was going after insects again – probably grasshoppers. Soon enough he was back up in a low bush again. I could just make out his light chest which was heavily streaked with brown spots. His plumage was a good match for the color of the surrounding October foliage. It struck me as I watched him that, had I not observed him fly into that spot I would never have picked him out in a thousand years. He was so well camouflaged that it made me realize how many raptors I’ve probably missed over the years when scanning habitats like this. Soon the Merlin was up again, but landed only about ten feet away on an open branch over the water and near the dam at May Pond. There he took some time to preen and generally inspect his plumage. He worked to straighten out and repair the tail feathers that he crumpled earlier when he crammed them through the barred door of the carrier. Being low and well camouflaged allowed the Merlin to disappear in the environment and soon songbirds began to reappear in the trees surrounding the ponds. I heard the short quavering whistles of Eastern Bluebirds and then a flock of ten landed in the branches of a maple tree that rose high over the pond. They were soon joined by a single Chipping Sparrow. Most Chipping Sparrows had migrated out of the area already, so I was surprised to see one. These songbirds seemed oblivious to the presence of the Merlin. As for the Merlin, he was still actively preening and not in hunting mode, so they had little to worry about at least for the time being. A flock of Pine Siskins came through giving their characteristic raspy, ascending zipper-like calls, and some of them landed among the bluebirds. The little striped finches had only arrived in the region the week before and were seen making common cause with their goldfinch cousins and feeding on birch seeds. That day, however, they seemed to prefer the company of bluebirds, and together with their blue flock mates, they took off and flew a circle around the habitat. All eventually landed back in the same tree. Still, the Merlin paid them no mind.
Beaver dams serve as natural bridges for wildlife and this fact is not lost on predators, including raptors. They know that if they wait next to a dam long enough they will see mice, voles, shrews, and chipmunks attempting a crossing. That morning it was a Red Squirrel standing ready to cross the dam. Before getting more than a quarter of the way across the dam, the squirrel spotted the Merlin and began issuing sputtering complaint calls and stomping her feet. Nervously, she hopped forward a few meters and then quickly dashed back. She repeated this agitated behavior several times. Like the jays, she seemed to be testing the threat potential of the intruder. Time after time, the squirrel would push forward and then just as quickly, double back and resume chattering. The Merlin, for his part, side stepped on the branch a few times in a slightly ominous manner, but didn’t seem to be all that interested. The squirrel began climbing around in the bushes just below the falcon and then, in a brazen manner, she hopped up onto the same branch that held the Merlin. She got within six feet of the raptor before hastily retreating back down the tree. Finally, she seemed satisfied that the raptor wasn’t a pressing concern and she proceeded across the dam. Meanwhile, the jays hadn’t forgotten about the Merlin. From a distance they had monitored his interaction with the squirrel. Both jays swept by in succession in order to reassess the raptor’s keenness for a game. The Merlin was more animated in his reactions this time but still restrained from launching out after the pranksters. Like the time before, the jays quickly lost interest and departed. No doubt they’d be back.
At that point I had to leave as well. I wasn’t too worried about the falcon. I’d seen him fly at least a dozen times and his landings seemed more than competent. He still wasn’t exactly perching on treetops, which is something that falcons most often do, but then again this one seemed to have a penchant for hunting insects, so maybe low perching was normal for him. His left wing will never be perfect, but will it be good enough? Will he be able to hunt? Will he be able to migrate? The main reason we released him at the nature preserve was so he could be monitored and if necessary recaptured. If he didn’t resume his migration right away, we knew there was an ample supply of prey to suit his needs. When I returned in the afternoon, I searched the pond system for the Merlin, but I couldn’t find him. I listened closely for the characteristic harsh calls that jays give when they harass raptors, but I didn’t hear that either. I was beginning to think the bird had left the area and perhaps resumed migrating. However, right before leaving I went down to Secret Pond once more and scanned the trees around the pond. Sure enough, there in a leafy Buckthorn tree, on a branch above the water, was a small raptor. He was facing me and I could see his heavily streaked underside, which so accurately mimicked the brown foliage around him. He seemed fine. He was preening and very alert. I looked away to make some notes and when I turned back he was gone. That was the last I saw him. I looked around for him a few times in the following days but couldn’t find him. I had assumed he moved out of the area and then, fully six days later, when returning to the main beaver pond after a long excursion around the property, I saw a Merlin perched at the apex of a dead American Elm tree. The sun was low in the west and the bird was backlit against the sky, so I had a hard time seeing plumage details. I had a camera with me, but only had a short lens and so I couldn’t get detailed pictures. I suspected this was our small male juvenile Merlin, but I couldn’t be sure. I could not detect the droop in the bird’s left wing, but the end of its tail feathers did look a little ragged like those of our rehab bird. Another thing that led me to believe this was the same bird was the fact that he wasn’t flying away. Typically, most raptors that haven’t been habituated to people will fly when their hunting area is disturbed. This one didn’t seem to mind my presence. Lack of skittishness notwithstanding, this bird was on a very high perch and acting more like a Merlin is supposed to. If this was indeed our bird than he would appear to have come a long way and his reintroduction into the wild was working.
We carried out three releases of Eastern Screech Owls this summer. The first one was a medium-sized female that came to Falcon Heart Rescue after being struck by a car. She had a head injury and a damaged wing. The wing was set and following a period of convalescence the owl appeared to have made a recovery. Inside an aviary the bird was observed flying from her perch to pick up food on the ground, and so there was no reason she couldn’t be released back into the wild. We chose Spring Farm’s Nature Sanctuary as the release site. We brought her to a place where there were plenty of roosting cavities and lots of prey. I had planned on observing the bird throughout the morning to make sure she was ready for prime time. When we opened the door of the carrier, the little owl did not jump right out, which is typical. In most cases the bird being released will take some time to leave the relative safety of the carrier and venture out into an uncertain situation. We backed off about 100 feet up the trail in order to give the owl lots of space. An hour passed and by then we had become distracted by some other aspect of the nature in those woods and we did not see the owl leave the carrier. When I looked back I saw what I believed to be a squirrel run behind a log just adjacent to the carrier. At the time I thought the owl was still in there and feared some kind of confrontation might be in the offing. I got a bit closer to see if I could make out the owl through the ventilation holes in the carrier. Suddenly, what I thought was the squirrel jumped up from behind a log and ran to the base of a hemlock tree. It began scrambling up the trunk. I had never seen a squirrel like this, and there was a good reason for that. It wasn’t a squirrel; it was the owl. She was running and climbing instead of flying. I didn’t even know Screech Owls could do this, but she was able to scale the sheer side of the tree while flapping her wings for stability. Using this unlikely method, she actually made it ten feet up the trunk and onto a side branch where she found a perch. Honestly, if I hadn’t seen her do it I would have thought she had flown up to the perch. Obviously this wouldn’t do. There was no choice, we had to recapture this bird and bring her back to the rehabilitation facility. This was going to be tricky. Even though the bird couldn’t fly, it had proven how adept it was at climbing. We quickly went and retrieved a ladder; brought it back to the release site and very gently moved it in place next to the tree. Fortunately, I had Becca with me that day. She has had over ten years’ experience working with wildlife rehabilitators and in that time has done a lot of work with raptors including owls. The Screech Owl was not happy about our fussing around under him and her response was to scale up the tree another few feet. Becca put some thick gloves on and ascended the ladder. While standing on the “this is not a step” platform at the top of the ladder, she was just able to reach the owl. In one move she adroitly grasped the bird by the legs and talons and then carried her back down the ladder. It was as if she did this kind of thing every day. We put the owl back in the carrier and prepared to bring her back to the rehabilitator.
Some raptors that are unable to be released back into the wild become educational birds. Birds like the Screech Owl can be kept and cared for by people who have a federal license to keep raptors. These birds become emissaries for their kind and for raptors in general. An educator showing one of these un-releasable birds can inform the public about the habits and physiology of raptors and describe their crucial role in a healthy ecosystem. The little Screech Owl written about here now lives at the Utica Zoo where she is used in their raptor education program. It’s a shame the owl is unable to live in the wild and have a chance to raise a family and do all the other things that owls do so well, but at least she will have a role in helping people understand birds of prey. With that understanding perhaps more of us will work to protect owl habitat and at the very least, learn to appreciate how incredible raptors are and how lucky we are to have so many species in our region.