Hawk Chick Drama

By Bob Holeman

I hesitate to write of our nesting hawks again so soon for fear of sounding like that friend who opens the conversation with “Here, let me show you some more pictures of my grandchildren.”

But drama demands an update.

It was raining as Sunday’s storm approached a week ago and I was cleaning mildew from the front porch pillars. I spotted what appeared to be s dishrag at the base of the nearby pine and feared correctly that it was the soaked, lifeless body of one of three hawk chicks we’d been observing from our patio.

We buried it in the corner of shrubs near the pine that had been its home for such a short time.

Monday was a pretty day, fresh as always when sun follows rain, and I was happy to report to Diane that I’d spotted the mother in her nest 60 feet up, feeding the two surviving siblings. So we had no qualms as we left home on business early Tuesday, another pleasant morning. Then the drama began.
Upon return, Diane went into the house and I headed around front to check the hawk tree. There on the green grass lay the two chicks, motionless, blowflies buzzing all around. I didn’t approach closely. “A mother’s entire brood, gone,” I thought to myself as I circled back to the kitchen door to give Diane the bad news. I stopped first in the storeroom to get gloves.
We met at the kitchen door but it was Diane who spoke first, telling me she’d gone out the front door, only to see the chicks on the ground. “But they’re alive. They are moving.”

She was right. Like pigeon-size harp seals they lay a few feet apart, with only slight motion of their heads. I fetched an Amazon box, put in some pine straw and carefully placed the little guys with my gloved hands into this shelter from the flies. A burlap bag over the top, like the cover over a parrot’s cage, kept them calm.

As they lay, their beaks were open, tongues out. They looked thirsty. I poured a little bottled water into their open mouths. The first sip seemed to bring lip-smacking appreciation. The second, however, got their attention and they stood up, their developing wings outstretched in protest. This might be good, I thought, as they didn’t appear to be injured despite an impressive fall.

Diane had begun making calls to locate a hawk expert. The vet. The Alexandria Zoo. Wildlife & Fisheries. All led us to a WL&F website for certified wildlife rehabilitators. I spoke with Dale Barry, the raptor guy in Monroe. His plan: create a new nest, interim housing for the hawk family, out of an old milk crate and some pine straw and nail it high on the tree. If the parents accept this and resume feeding their chicks, we’re on our way. If this doesn’t happen by morning, he suggested we’d have to bring the young birds to him. “Or let nature take its course.”

We had the crate and pine straw. We have a short A-frame ladder but borrowed the longer extension ladder from my neighbor, the same ladder we borrow every year to hang our Christmas star. With neighbors helping steady the ladder and documenting the event, I secured anchors about 20 feet up the nest pine. I was ready to come down and load the baby birds into their new home when I heard a shout from below, “Snake!”

There was a beat-up garden snake at the feet of one of the youngsters. My guess is that while we were getting things ready on the carport side of the house, Momma Hawk had not given up on her babies. She dropped them some lunch. The reptile was not the predator but the prey. Just to make sure, I whacked him against the tree before dropping lunch into the crate with the chicks, putting on the burlap cover and heading up the ladder once more.

Now we’d wait. We’d done what we could. Would the hawks’ innate nurturing instincts be so strong that they’d accept this makeshift plastic nest over the real thing 40 feet higher for the sake of their babies? We saw no direct evidence of this acceptance that evening but I did notice the chicks actively bobbing up and down, pecking as we’d seen when feeding. This could have been the snake or perhaps a fresh meal.

I rose earlier than normal the next morning, filled with anxiety-tinged hope. I was rewarded as I peered through Laura’s room window to see the mother perched on the crate’s edge. She dropped her head down as if leaving something for the kids, straightened up and flew off. I called our WL&F contact later to report that things were looking good.

When a new storm hit the second night, the mother lay over the chicks, wings outspread, providing shelter and protection. Both Momma and Dad bring in food: snakes, frogs, mice and treats unidentifiable. Momma usually stays to help the youngsters with the tearing process. Dad generally drops off meals and leaves. The mother also brings in new straw and twigs to improve this nest she found.

Laura’s room is now our observatory. Borrowed camouflage netting covers the window, with one gap where my camera is mounted on a tripod. Another is there for Diane with binoculars to view or her iPhone to record the adventure. Our being able to watch interactions of this bird family just a few feet beyond our own window has been like a gift from God to a couple nearly home-bound due to virus protocol.

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