Raptors in flight

Enduring relationships begin with encounters.

Hyla is done for the morning. Amanda, crouching behind a snag, waves at her through the ocotillo and mesquite, but Hyla is not coming over, not in this wind. Not for all the glistening raw rodent flesh in the world. She’s down a hill, almost out of sight. She stays there.

 

Gliding near the ground, maneuvering between saguaros, braking precisely — this is difficult for Hyla to do on any day. Ferruginous hawks are the largest soaring hawks, or buteos, in the United States; they stand almost two feet tall, and their wings can reach four feet from tip to tip. Because of their size, buteos are slow to lift off. It takes them several broad flaps to clear grass clumps and junipers and ascend to where thermals can carry their weight for miles, sometimes thousands of feet above the ground. On especially windy days, short demonstration jumps are difficult for Hyla to navigate, and if she gets up a little too high, she soars like a kite. “Wheeeeeeee!” Amanda, Hyla’s handler, says by way of explanation. Hyla’s handlers don’t press her on days when she demurs. On the blustery morning I attend Raptor Free Flight at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum outside of Tucson, hoping for a glimpse of Hyla on the wing, all I see of her is a distant blur of white and rust-red, hopping once from a human’s glove-covered arm to a nearby tree branch and back. Carroll, the docent, a charmer with chin-length gray hair who is mic’ed over a loudspeaker, maintains a calm, engaging monologue about Hyla’s species, while making dramatic decapitation motions at Amanda — Should I cut Hyla’s part of the show? Amanda, in the creosote, gives a quick nod.

During Raptor Free Flight, birds of prey such as Hyla are handled without jesses or hoods, the leashes and eye-covers falconers use. They are tethered to their handlers by the draw of fresh, uncooked animal protein — rabbit chunks, mouse heads, quail eggs. A crowd of Desert Museum visitors jostles behind metal gates, gasping and shooting video as one bird after another flits up from the shrubs.

“Notice the top of your head and the bottom of your feet,” Carroll says. “That is your space.” Everything else belongs to the birds.

“Are our eyes the top of our heads?” a woman asks tremulously. Corralled with other humans while predators glide just overhead, it’s easy to feel like prey.

Pick me, I think, envious each time a raptor swoops within inches of another person’s head. Hawks, primates: We must be equally inscrutable to one another. And it’s so easy to confuse inscrutability with wildness, instincts with secrets. I long for a raptor to fly close enough to ruffle my hair with the movement of its wings, as if proximity would mean that a wild animal chose to collapse that other distance between us, letting me into its world, acknowledging me as one of the wild ones, too. But the birds keep their distance.

In my 20s, Raptor Free Flight would have upset me. In college, two decades ago, I spent four years learning about the environmental catastrophes my generation faced. Later, I collected biological field data in locations popular with tourists, from San Francisco to Yellowstone National Park. I came to comport myself as a weary insider to environmental heartache, detached from the naiveté of less well-informed visitors. Back then, I would have considered Raptor Free Flight’s treatment of wild animals cartoonish, the birds’ lives cynically circumscribed for money. How could birds preening on saguaros matter to tropical deforestation or climate change?

I stopped feeling snobby about the right way to connect with nature once I realized what nourished my own passion and curiosity about science and the outdoors. What stood out were visceral moments of connection that could happen anywhere — on coastlines, under trees, in creeks, beside microscopes, in classrooms — moments that seemed, in some quiet way, to stop time. Now, with a bit more life experience — and, perhaps, humility — I attend shows like Raptor Free Flight believing a moment under wing might change a person profoundly, including me.

 

Hyla, a ferruginous hawk, swoops low during Raptor Free Flight at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.
Don Sorensen / Courtesy Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

From below, Hyla glows pale white against the sky. Closer up, she appears to wear a deep reddish cape that hoods her head and cascades across her shoulders and wings, a watered-down tea color staining her chest and muscular legs. It’s these rusty markings that give her species the name “ferruginous” — from ferrum, Latin for iron. Hyla’s scientific name is Buteo regalis, the regal hawk. Ferruginous hawks resemble eagles, with deeply set eyes under dramatic eye ridges, severely hooked beaks, and legs feathered all the way to their feet. Arthur Cleveland Bent, an early 20th century ornithologist, approved of the name — he may even have nursed some eagle envy. “This latest name, regalis, is a very appropriate one for this splendid hawk, the largest, most powerful, and grandest of our Buteos, a truly regal bird,” he writes in the 21-volume Life Histories of North American Birds. “One who knows it in life cannot help being impressed with its close relationship to the golden eagle, which is not much more than a glorified Buteo.” Hyla’s call is the thin, high note of an eagle: A fluted sound so delicate that it’s replaced with the cry of a red-tailed hawk in old Westerns. It’s a piercing piccolo I’ve always found too fragile for an eagle’s powerful form, revealing in sound a vulnerability not obvious by sight.

This is all I know about Hyla’s history: Twelve years ago, she and her brother tumbled too early from their nest in Montana. A falconer kept the pair alive.

Ferruginous hawks nest in sun-struck places — sagebrush and native grassland, generally. In the nest, a chick’s body temperature can fluctuate from 104 to 109 degrees Fahrenheit in a few hours. Nestlings huddle under each other for shade while their parents forage. Left alone, they sometimes find relief from the heat by seeking a breeze at the windward side of the nest. In his memoir of studying ferruginous hawks for three years as a graduate student, wildlife biologist Leon Powers describes babies sitting on the edge of the nest, legs sticking out in front of them, feet to the wind, mouths gaping open, catching the breeze on hot prairie afternoons. (“They have huge gapes,” Carroll tells me. Hyla, in fact, was named for a genus of cavernously mouthed tree frogs.)

Sometimes accidents happen. Even when chicks are safely ensconced within a nest, the nest itself may be unwieldy — less construction project than hormonally driven nest Jenga, a prolonged bonding ritual for the parent ferruginous hawks. The whole thing may topple in a strong wind. I imagine a storm blew baby Hyla and her fuzzy, awkward brother over the rim of their nest, built in a low-growing juniper tree or on a mound of earth. I imagine that a recreationist or rancher found them on the ground, tangled in grass or struggling on sun-beaten soil, and called the falconer because he was an expert in raptor care.

Ferruginous hawks, however, are not popular pets among falconers. “Prospective owners of this bird of prey should consider their level of experience with raptor birds very carefully before buying ferruginous hawks, as these birds can be extremely temperamental and require expert handling,” warns the British website Birdtrader.co.uk. “Some ferry hawks can be exceptionally difficult to train, so amateur falconry enthusiasts should perhaps consider alternative birds.” Hyla, though not the most social of creatures, made the cut for Raptor Free Flight. Her more aggressive brother was “sent to live at some zoo,” Carroll says vaguely.

 

Hyla, a ferruginous hawk, up close during Raptor Free Flight west of Tucson, Arizona.
Don Sorensen / Courtesy Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

“Rescuing does nothing for the birds,” my supervisor at a wild bird rehabilitation center told me, after neither of us worked there anymore.

I worked at the center the summer after I graduated from college. It was a converted home (previously a barn) in north-central New Jersey, full of wiped-down surfaces, bright lights and piles of towels. The center’s founders lived there in the 1960s, before shooting raptors was illegal. Eventually, they moved into the house next door. Now, hand-built walk-in aviaries, connected by trails, dotted the center’s wooded property, and waterfowl swam in a large walk-in cage with a pool. A gift shop in a squat wooden building across the gravel from the house sold T-shirts.

The littlest songbirds had sunken shoulders and yellow beaks closed in exaggerated frowns. I cupped them under my shirt, against my skin, until their icy bodies became warm or terribly still. Older songbirds lived in outdoor aviaries until they were ready for release. The center specialized in caring for injured or orphaned raptors, which stayed in rows of individual cages up a flight of stairs in an area generally off-limits to volunteers. Evolved to eat squeaking meals, wielding sharp beaks and claws, raptors require special handling, sanguineous food. We taught them to hunt in a hacking cage, an outdoor aviary large enough for young birds to glide and dive. We “taught” a young hawk or falcon by waiting until the bird was hungry, then letting it perch up high and releasing a live mouse. At the sight of the tentative mouse exploring the edges of the cage, the raptor’s instincts took over, its aim improving with practice. On occasion, while cleaning songbird aviaries elsewhere on the property, I pretended not to see a refugee mouse nibbling fallen birdseed. To my mind, it had earned its freedom.

The center had an educational component as well: Many visitors walked through the grounds to see birds in aviaries. Staff carried raptors into schools to teach children about conservation. The winter of my sophomore year of college, when I volunteered at the center, I sometimes carried a kestrel on my wrist, training him for teaching programs, training myself to act detached while my heart raced, trying not to love the complicated feelings that came with tying something wild, and beautiful, and self-contained, to my arm.

Being at the center was very stressful for many of the birds. My supervisor understood this. The discomfort and fear these wild animals felt interacting with humans, no matter how soft our voices or steady our hands, sometimes outweighed the prospect of their eventual release.

Captivity could result in injuries despite careful veterinary work. Bumblefoot, for example, begins as lesions on a bird’s foot soles and can cause crippling or life-threatening infections. Rather than being euthanized, raptors whose injuries left them unreleasable were kept in cages on-site for the duration of their lives, a practice that my supervisor questioned.

Even the fostering of birds that seem completely unbothered by temporary captivity — the glossy dark starlings greedy enough to yank feeding tools right out of my fingers; the inquisitive, awkward young crows we had to feed wearing hand puppets so that they didn’t, in the end, crave human company — had questionable value as a conservation strategy. People were unlikely to encounter and bring us rare species. And wild bird rehabilitation — one concussed woodpecker, poisoned vulture, or bullet-torn owl at a time — hardly seemed to connect with larger-scale conservation issues, such as habitat destruction or climate change.

Amanda Timmerman, lead trainer at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, displays Solo, a Chihuahuan raven, to the crowd gathered for Raptor Free Flight.
Jordan Glenn

Does rescue do nothing for the birds? The summer I worked at the rehabilitation center, people brought in clutches of featherless, blind birds to be fostered and released. Every half-hour in the nursery, a chorus of tiny screams crescendoed and then subsided as we stuffed moist puppy chow into beaks with long silvery feeding tools. After every feeding, we cleaned out the strawberry pint containers in which the chicks lived, moving on to the next box until everyone was asleep again. The nursery was the building’s kitchen when the center was a home. The baby boxes sat along the old island countertop. Between feedings, I’d clean the sink, pulling out mealworms, fetal mice, seeds and whatever else happened to gather over the drain, and toss it all into the trash. When the trash filled up, I lugged it away. I walked the trails between scattered outdoor aviaries with cleaning supplies, removing droppings from floors, changing water, checking feed. I did this endless physical work believing it mattered. With our care, many small birds grew their flight feathers and flew away; many older birds recuperated from human-caused injuries and swam, flew, or waddled off. We did not differentiate between native or non-native species, between common or rare; we took all birds, from eagles to show chickens, doing our best to keep them comfortable and calm until the eagles could be released or the show chickens found a new home.

Amanda Timmerman, lead trainer at the Desert Museum, prepares a breakfast of small birds and organs for the raptors.
Jordan Glenn

Amanda Timmerman weighs the ferruginous hawk, Hyla, during feeding time.
Jordan Glenn

My supervisor did work that I wasn’t trained for: surgeries, disentanglements, euthanasia. Perhaps it curdled her heart. For years, she witnessed the worst of bird suffering, and by extension the worst of humanity. The worst I saw balanced out against the rhythm of everyday feeding and cleaning. Helping with surgery was a treat. And I had to believe that rehabilitation mattered for the birds, because the good Samaritans who’d brought in naked nestlings, handling them with quiet tenderness, sometimes went right back to doing whatever it was that had caused the nest to fall.

Does wild bird rescuing do nothing for the humans? I believed then, and still believe, that the moment when a person narrates herself into the story of a distressed animal’s life — when a person chooses to feel, and act upon, compassion for a vulnerable animal — matters. Whether you pull over your car to round up the gawky yellow goslings whose Canada goose mother lies smashed on the road, or gently close a shoebox lid on a window-fractured woodpecker, or help an awkward young falcon master hunting, your choice has symbolic and actual significance. Such a small yet active way of caring unselfishly, of affirming or discovering where things stand between you and other living beings, matters. I decided long ago that rescuing wild birds was meaningful, most of all, for the people doing the rescuing — profoundly so. There may be a limited number of ways for a person to acknowledge that her choices directly impact the lives of other, wilder organisms. Some of us choose to gather up an orphaned infant hawk, fluffy and ungainly and really pissed off, settle it into the quiet darkness of a cardboard box, and drive it to people who know what to do next. The idea we’ve heard so often — that our choices, our actions, produce ripples — suddenly rustles its feathers in the car seat next to us.

Almost all of the birds skimming past during Raptor Free Flight are alive because of such an impulse, including Hyla.

 

Ferruginous hawk chicks in an eye-level nest atop a stunted tree in Montana.
Ron Dudley

After Free Flight, I say hello to Hyla’s handler, Amanda, who has been rewarding the raptors throughout this morning’s flights with food. Like the other staff and volunteers I have seen, Amanda wears bland desert colors. Unfolded from her position behind nearby foliage, she is lanky, taller than I’d realized. Her dark hair skims the top of her sunglasses and covers her ears. She holds out her hand. I grasp it eagerly, realizing belatedly that it’s covered in blood.

Hyla and the other raptors return to their aviaries in hand-carried animal carriers, which the birds find less stressful than being carried in the open the whole way. Amanda and her coworkers make the carriers by putting perches inside small dog crates and modifying their doors to slide open more smoothly.

The mews is in a secluded place, so the raptors can relax when they are not earning their keep. Mews — the word comes from meur, French for to change — were developed by falconers to hold birds of prey while they molt. At the Desert Museum mews, each bird has its own aviary, blocked off so the birds can’t see each other. But the walls facing the desert are fine mesh, so the birds can watch the world go by. Occasionally, a snake or mouse slips through her aviary’s window frame, and Hyla, a veteran hunter, kills it.

Tension pervades the mews, mainly because of Hyla’s unsociability. She is still in her carrier while the staff prepares to weigh her. This requires using a treat to entice Hyla to dash from the carrier to the aviary. In the aviary, she will sit on a perch scale for a moment. Then she will dash back to her carrier for another treat, and the staff will remove the scale. Weighing Hyla after every Free Flight is a way to keep track of how much food she eats during the show so she isn’t over-fed later.

Hyla does not want anyone invading her territory. Her neighbor, a prairie falcon named Franklin, is a personable bird amenable to primate friendliness. Hyla is not friendly. She glints and screams. Ferruginous hawks rarely participate in free flight programs because of their behavior. It would be unfair to blame their personalities; that would deny the role of evolution in shaping a ferruginous hawk’s temperament, perception of threat, response to other living beings.

One of Amanda’s coworkers gives me my own treat, the chance to toss Hyla a hard-boiled quail egg. The small egg is rubbery and sticks to my palm, and for a moment I have a terrible premonition that it will stay stuck, and that Hyla will get very angry. I have no idea what happens to the egg, because after it hurtles toward Hyla, I slip behind the aviary door, hiding from those sharp yellow eyes. My fear surprises me. Then again, the staff has cautioned me that Hyla is a human imprint. Had she stayed in her birth nest and grown up in the wild, Hyla would flee from humans — those strange, noisy, featherless, bipedal predators — as well as from their lights, machinery and vehicles. Instead, hand-raised since before her first feathers grew in, Hyla believes humans are what she looks like; she thinks she is human, insofar as she conceives of herself. As a result, she considers humans to be competitors for resources in her territory. And as far as Hyla is concerned, the Desert Museum is her territory — though the great horned owl believes it’s hers, and the red-tailed hawk is convinced that it’s his. This is why visitors at Free Flight must stay in their spaces and why no one enters Hyla’s aviary while she is in it. Just as a wild ferruginous hawk would dive, crying out, all wings and talons, at an interloping hawk in its territory, Hyla would chase a human from hers.

After Hyla is back in her carrier, I pop my head into her aviary to look around. A long, clean space, with a few perches and a sandy floor. Lots of light from the mesh wall. “She likes to watch bird TV,” Amanda says, meaning, the world. Amanda invites me to open Hyla’s carrier so she can settle in her aviary, now that the scale is removed. I stand behind her carrier while doing this, so that if Hyla turns on me, I’ll have somewhere to cower.

I reach over the front of the carrier and carefully slide the door open. But I’m not quick enough; Hyla bursts through, bashing her shoulders against the doorframe before she erupts into her aviary. Ohjesuschrist, I exclaim, jumping back. Amanda and her coworkers laugh. We shut the door to the aviary. Hyla is no longer a white-and-brown blur to me; now she is a sound and sensation of power, a bang reverberating through plastic and metal into my hands and up to my shoulders. I had not expected so much force out of a 4-pound bird. Soft feathers and hollow bones are deceptive; it’s easy to forget this beast can land hard enough to drive her talons deep into the muscles of a thrashing rabbit and then take off again.

After Carroll and I leave the mews, I ask if Hyla will likely ever come across a male of her species. I imagine her out in the wild, weaving creosote branches into a nest so big I could curl up inside it. Ferruginous hawks are monogamous, Carroll tells me, to the extent that humans are. Mated ferruginous hawk pairs maintain breeding territories in the northern shrub-steppe and grasslands of the Great Basin Desert and Great Plains of Idaho, Montana, Wisconsin and Canada. Ferruginous hawks do not engage in the showy mating behaviors of some birds — elaborate winged dances, complex singing or aggressive aerial displays. Instead, they bond over their homes. Some humans pick out bath towels together; ferruginous hawks pick out twigs and branches. They build up to four or five nests together scattered throughout their territory. On succeeding years, they return to their territory and visit their nests, renovating them, adding twigs and soft lining — perhaps the inner fibers of juniper bark or bits of vegetation — before finally choosing where to lay eggs for the season. Nests can be several feet high and four to five feet across. Unlike other raptors, ferruginous hawks will build nests in trees, on cliffs, or directly on the ground, messy piles that grow larger and larger over the years. Sometimes songbirds build nests within the sides of ferruginous hawk nests. In the early 1900s, biologists found hawk nests made of interwoven antelope ribs and bison bones, lined with soft bison fur. When wildfires passed through, the circles of bones were left behind. In 1995, the Journal of Raptor Research described a nest in Saskatchewan that was in use for 32 years consecutively, with baby ferruginous hawks hatching there every year. Ferruginous hawks don’t live much longer than 20 years at the most, but they do migrate back to their regions of birth, so it may have been an old family residence.

In answer to my question about Hyla’s mating prospects, Carroll shakes her head — the Sonoran Desert is not the normal haunt of wild ferruginous hawks. Hyla would have to go about 70 miles east to the agricultural fields of Sulphur Springs Valley, where rodent populations support some wintering birds. “But even if she did,” Carroll said, “I don’t know if she would recognize the other hawk as the same thing as her.”

I wonder about this later. Wasn’t there anything a male ferruginous hawk could do, a soft whistle, a hurtling dive, a gift of fresh cottontail, something unassailable by human fostering, that would trigger pair-bonding in Hyla? Once in a while, on a flight, Hyla takes off on the kind of long soar her body was built for. She wings it to a nearby hill, Brown Mountain. When she gets there, she perches on a familiar cliff and waits for a handler to come get her in a truck.

If Hyla did somehow mate, it would pose some interesting logistical challenges at the Desert Museum. Often, nesting ferruginous hawks do not take well to humans handling, tagging, or even simply approaching them. Leon Powers, the wildlife biologist and author, learned this the hard way at the beginning of his study, when he tried to hang a camera over a ferruginous nest and scared the parents away from their three chicks. The adults stayed away overnight. One chick died of exposure; Powers took home the other two for emergency feeding and warming. This shyness must have served Hyla’s fore-hawks well. When their wide-open territories were filled with musky herds of bison or haunted by hungry badgers and coyotes, the hawks’ willingness to abandon their low-lying nests at the first hint of danger may have made them more likely to survive to nest again. Skittishness combined with site loyalty: It’s a bad combination for a species that nests where North Americans dig, bulldoze and frack.

Wild ferruginous hawks live in the open spaces of Western North America: shrublands and native grasslands ranging from Canada to Texas, where a nest just eight feet up in a juniper provides a good view. These plant communities are not as vast as they once were. “How is it possible that something as dominating and widespread as sagebrush in Western North America could be threatened?” Powers asks in the epilogue to his memoir, Hawk in the Sun. “After all, even in our lifetime, we Westerners have all driven through seemingly unending, monotonous stretches of sagebrush. How could all that gray-green vegetation possibly disappear?” He attributes this loss of habitat to a combination of fire and invasive cheatgrass, Bromus tectorum. Cheatgrass — an annual that turns brown and inedible in the spring and summer when other plants are just waking up — cheats farmers of their wheat crops by invading fields. Introduced from Europe in the 1800s via shipping ballast, agricultural products and livestock feed, cheatgrass has become a dominant grass in the Intermountain West. Cheatgrass burns intensely, wiping out native grasses and shrubland, erasing ferruginous hawk habitat. Then it’s the first plant to grow back once the ashes have settled, sucking moisture so quickly from the soil that other plants have nothing to drink.

Paradoxically, in the American Southwest, fire suppression also has whittled away at hawk habitat, letting woodlands grow over native grasslands. “Ferruginous hawks hunt in a catlike manner,” hawk expert Joe Schmutz explained. “Very arid grassland is their primary home. Wherever forest encroaches, ferruginous hawks tend to avoid.”

Visitors watch as a great horned owl, LB, skims past cholla during Raptor Free Flight at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.
Jordan Glenn

Journalist Paul Tolmé points a finger at resource extraction as well, attributing habitat loss to the George W. Bush administration’s pro-development approach to public lands. Under Bush, energy-development restrictions by federal agencies such as the Bureau of Land Management became more difficult to justify. Oil and gas companies paid the salaries of temporary BLM employees who processed permit requests. To meet the requirements of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the BLM built artificial nesting platforms with buffer zones where ferruginous hawks could breed away from wells. But the zones applied only to new wells. Workers approached old wells within buffer zones even when adult hawks had chicks nearby to protect. Others have blamed the intentional shooting and poisoning of ferruginous hawk prey — prairie dogs and rabbits — along with urban sprawl and outdoor recreation for reducing ferruginous hawk populations.

Ferruginous hawks have been proposed for listing under the Endangered Species Act more than once, and rejected each time. Some states list them on their endangered species lists, and Canada has bumped ferruginous hawk status up and down more than once on its version of the Endangered Species Act.

When it comes to rare animals, it’s easier to focus on direct threats with obvious solutions: overhunting, DDT spraying, prey poisoning. But the destinies of ferruginous hawks are largely determined by broad ideas: changing land use in the West and the impacts of climate change on prey.

Ferruginous hawks need wide-open spaces, and they eat animals that need wide-open spaces. Best of all, from a ferruginous hawk’s perspective, is jackrabbit, and in parts of the West where jackrabbits, well, abound, a ferruginous hawk can capture a good-sized meal in one snatch. In places without jackrabbits, ferruginous hawks eat ground squirrels. Jackrabbits and ground squirrels are not small animals; they attest to the size and strength of these hawks.

Like many top predators, ferruginous hawks cycle according to the boom-bust of their prey populations. When those populations have bad years, the hawks do not raise young. When roads divide sagebrush ecosystems, when transmission lines slice through them, when extraction projects fragment them, when fires, invasive species and climate change together eradicate their preferred prey, the hawks leave or simply die out. Ravens and red-tailed hawks — generalists capable of thriving in disturbed habitat and close to urbanized areas — move in.

Artificial nests, such as those created by the BLM, pose a different question than wild animal rehabilitation. This is the dependency — or the salvation — of entire populations, and as now implemented, might not even work. In 2011, researchers in New Mexico walked toward nesting ferruginous hawks and measured how close they could get before the birds flushed — and often attacked. The researchers calculated the buffer distance the hawks needed in order to not abandon their nests, waste energy or expose their young by freaking out: 650 meters, or approximately 2,133 feet. That’s seven football fields, almost twice the BLM’s currently used quarter-mile buffer. When it came to more intense disturbances, like mining or construction, the researchers recommended a buffer of one kilometer during nesting season. These buffers would protect ferruginous hawks — which are listed as sensitive species by the BLM and the Forest Service — and also, perhaps more to the interest of developers, follow the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which makes killing migratory birds or destroying their nests or eggs illegal. But these larger buffer distances have not been adopted.

Developers, biologists and consultants may argue about the size of buffer areas during nesting season. I have worked in environmental consulting and have seen how an environmental law may be both the last hope and a great sellout when it comes to environmental protection — how the same codified words can at different times be the best and the worst this country has, depending on who reads them.

The most prolific ferruginous hawk researcher, Joe Schmutz, describes artificial nests as a necessary but insufficient tool for ferruginous hawk conservation. “People are naturally fond of artificial nest programs,” he writes, “because it appears as something one can actually do to help the hawks.” What ferruginous hawks really need, he continues, are healthy grassland ecosystems. Schmutz suggests protecting ferruginous hawks by supporting a sustainable ranching economy in the Northern Great Plains.

“In my neck of the woods, we have ranching on expansive rangeland,” Schmutz told me, speaking from his home in Saskatoon. “It’s too arid for anything else. We have ferruginous hawk protection via public ownership of rangeland. We’ll have ferruginous hawks as long as we have that kind of land here.”

Boy Scout troops build artificial nesting platforms for ferruginous hawks: Of course this feels effective, proactive, positive. I can hear my old boss asking: Does this do anything for the birds? I think it depends on the builder. If it’s the Boy Scouts or any number of local community groups, then I want to believe that by building birds artificial nesting platforms, and making other decisions about the other lives around their own, they will become men and women who make decisions believing their own actions matter. Because of that, their actions will. If it’s developers or resource extraction companies who erect nesting platforms only because their contracts to use federal lands require that they do, then no. But in those cases, the way things stand, I don’t think anything would matter for the birds.

 

A red-tailed hawk gets a treat of raw meat from handler Daniel Trocola during Raptor Free Flight at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.
Jordan Glenn

After my visit to the Desert Museum, I visit the Raptor Free Flight website. There’s a gorgeous photo of Hyla perching on a thick dead branch. Against the gray, her orange digits, tapering to black claws, appear long and sharp to me, but the caption tells me her species’ feet are small in comparison to those of other hawks. I read that ferruginous hawks can form fists with their feet and punch through burrows, yanking prey out of the dirt. Carroll has seen wintering hawks in southern Arizona stalking along fallow fields and plucking grasshoppers with their claws in a manner more reminiscent of dinosaurs than modern birds. These hawks dwell in the liminal zone of earth and sky, a shoreline I rarely consider.

During Free Flight, visitors come close to bird species they otherwise might never notice, much less approach. The birds of Free Flight who brush a soft downdraft along faces and cameras, who land powerfully on handlers’ arms to quietly tug at meat curled inside fists, include species I have not seen in the wild. I am not a birder. Sometimes birds catch my eye, and I name the familiar ones, the ones attracted to the edges that humans make between cities and wild places: raven, red-tailed hawk, woodpecker, jay. From working long ago at the wild bird rehabilitation center, I know that a breathtaking diversity of bird species lives in North America at least part of the year. This avian diversity makes me unexpectedly proud. But I answered phones and the door and focused on shelters, towels, food, water. I have spent few crepuscular hours hunkered outside, carefully watching and listening, immersed in avian acquaintance-making. Like almost every other visitor to a raptor show, I could stand to learn more about North America’s birds of prey.

On days when Hyla declines to fly, I wonder how long visitors take to forget that she exists, that ferruginous hawks exist. I worry that this kind of forgetting makes it easier to tear up native shrubland and grassland and weaken the Endangered Species Act. But I am trying to take the long view. I am trying to remember that all meaningful relationships begin with encounters. Perhaps it does not matter whether the visitors recall all the Free Flight bird species, where they live, what they eat. Perhaps shows like this serve as introductions for people, useful ways of meeting the neighbors. If each visitor recalls only one bird flying from snag to desert sky, perhaps for today — just for today — that’s enough.

Maya L. Kapoor is an associate editor with HCN. She writes about science and the environment in the urbanizing West. 

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