A rough-legged hawk that was probably hit by a car near Casper a couple months ago would have had no chance of survival had it been left to fend for itself.
However, this particular hawk was spotted by a man driving through Wyoming on Interstate 25. John Cameron noticed the injured bird on the side of the road just north of Casper. The bird was unable to stand, and paw prints spotted the snow around the body.
Cameron put the bird in the front seat of his U-Haul truck and took it to the Wyoming Game and Fish Department Casper Regional Office. Federal regulations prohibit transporting raptors without a permit, and Cameron received a warning for his act.
The bird had significant injuries and needed expert care. Volunteers with the Golden Eagle Rescue Network — a new program in Wyoming that helps injured and orphaned raptors — drove the hawk to Cheyenne. A staff member with Rocky Mountain Raptor Program in Fort Collins, Colorado, picked up the bird for the last leg of its emergency journey.
Rough-legged hawks, which migrate south for the winter from Canada, hunt across open spaces from perches on fence posts and power poles. Their preference for low, gliding flight makes them vulnerable to vehicle collisions, one of the most common causes of injury to raptors in general.
Mike Tincher, rehabilitation coordinator at Rocky Mountain Raptor Program, said an initial examination of the hawk revealed fractures in each shoulder and severe internal trauma.
“There was bleeding from the oral cavity for several days,” Tincher said. “It was touch-and-go for the first seven days.”
However, the hawk recovered from the initial trauma and is currently eating well. Tincher said it will be moved to an enclosure for flight practice soon.
“She’s one tough bird,” he said.
The hawk didn’t cooperate in having its wings bandaged, but it did fine with close confinement to keep the wings immobilized.
“She has a very chill personality,” Tincher said.
The prognosis isn’t certain, but Tincher said he’s hopeful the hawk will be able to recover its flying and hunting ability and return to the wild.
The Golden Eagle Rescue Network is a new initiative of Teton Raptor Center in Jackson. With grant funding from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, a network of volunteer drivers, pilots, veterinarians and other wildlife experts are called on to transport injured raptors to licensed rehabilitation centers.
In Wyoming, those centers are Ironside Bird Rescue in Cody, Wind River Raptors in Lander and Teton Raptor Center. Rocky Mountain Raptor Program takes injured birds from southeast Wyoming.
“By having this network, especially the volunteer drivers that are … on call to do transports, we’ve been able to get birds to care more quickly than ever, and that just increases their chances of recovery,” said Carrie Ann Adams, Teton Raptor Center program associate.
A rehabilitation permit is required for facilities that work with injured raptors. Such facilities also have specialized staff members, equipment, medication and food.
“It requires a lot of infrastructure,” Adams said.
Raptors are defined as birds that eat only meat they catch with talons and rip apart with their beak.
The group includes owls, hawks, falcons and eagles.
The first bird was transported through the Golden Eagle Rescue Network in early September, and since then, the network has transported 14 birds.
Volunteers are needed throughout the state, especially in areas several hours from the nearest medical center.
While transporting a raptor, volunteers are requested to leave the bird in its kennel, keep the vehicle cool and drive with no radio, music or talking.
“The bird is in a totally foreign environment — they’ve probably never been inside a car before — so we want to try to minimize stress as much as possible,” Adams said.
Tincher said most injuries to raptors are caused by encounters with the human world that go badly. That could mean a vehicle strike, window strike, electrocution or even lead poisoning.
Upon arrival to the Rocky Mountain Raptor Program, birds are treated immediately or stabilized as much as possible. If the bird survives the first 96 hours at the center, its chances of survival go up. During treatment, human contact is minimized.
“We only handle the birds as much as is needed to conduct their care,” Tincher said.
When a raptor leaves critical care, it moves into a recovery complex that includes enclosures of different sizes for perching and movement.
Eventually, birds are allowed into an area for flight conditioning and catching prey.
If all goes well, a raptor is released as near as possible to the spot where it was picked up. Rocky Mountain Raptor Program treats about 300 birds a year and releases 80 percent back into the wild.
Tincher said with growing human populations and spreading infrastructure, raptors are at ever greater risk.
“They need us, all of us,” he said.
Call 307-203-2551 or email firstname.lastname@example.org to volunteer with the Golden Eagle Rescue Network.
What to do with an injured raptor
Wyoming residents that come upon an injured raptor, or one that seems to be orphaned, should call the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.
Federal laws prohibit transporting raptors without a permit, while a permit is also required for rehabilitating raptors.
Permitted raptor rehabilitation centers in Wyoming are Ironside Bird Rescue in Cody, Wind River Raptors in Lander and Teton Raptor Center in Jackson. Rocky Mountain Raptor Program in Fort Collins, Colorado, takes injured birds from southeast Wyoming.
While birds that are clearly injured do need human assistance, fledglings are young birds that might appear to be orphaned or to need help, but they don’t need human assistance. Fledglings are adult-sized and fully feathered with a few downy feathers. These young birds often leave the nest before they can fly.
“It’s not uncommon for birds to leave before they can fly and spend a couple days or weeks on their own, and their parents will continue to come by and feed them,” said Carrie Ann Adams, program associate at Teton Raptor Center.