altitude and direction they’re flying in from, the angle of
approach, the wind currents, the time of day and position of
the sun — all these factors play into the trapping equation.
Getting the birds out of the nets is often challenging, too.
Sometimes they dive deeply into the mesh, requiring us to
snip the netting to disentangle them, which means a net-repair job, which takes time away from trapping. Other times
they get a wing stuck, or bite us as we try to extricate them.
We don’t hold on to the hawks for very long. Once we’ve
untangled them from the net, our job is to perform a quick
set of assessments and release the birds unharmed. The first
thing we do is attach a small, numbered band to the “ankle”
of each bird we catch, so it can be identified if it’s captured
again, either here or somewhere else. Then we measure and
weigh the birds and record data: each bird’s age and sex;
whether their crops (esophageal pouches) are full or empty;
whether they appear to have any injuries or abnormalities;
and the length of their wings, tails, beaks and talons.
Obtaining those measurements can be tricky. While some
birds are relatively calm, others are spirited. American kestrels,
for example, are infamous for pecking. Approximately the size
of a robin, these feisty falcons nip at our fingers as we extricate
them from the net, focusing in particular on any hangnails they
can reach. ( We don’t wear gloves because to be able to perform
these maneuvers we need to be able to feel as well as see what
we’re doing, and gloves would dull our sense of touch.)
Kestrels peck at the calipers as we adjust the movable tip
and attempt to align it with the exact tip of the bird’s upper
mandible so we can measure the length of the beak. They
bite the little plastic ruler we slip beneath their wings to
measure the distance to the tip of the longest wing feather.
And who can blame them?
This poking and prodding is akin to what humans might
undergo at an annual physical exam in the doctor’s office.
While no one would characterize it as enjoyable, it’s usually only mildly annoying. For hawks as for humans, it’s
important for monitoring the health of both the individual
and the species. Carnivorous raptors, being high up on the
food chain, warn us of contaminants like DDT — and, more
recently, rat poison — that have worked their way into the
environment and threaten many species.
It takes hundreds of volunteer field biologists to gather all
this avian data. We banders work every single day of the week
during the August-to-December migration season, catching
hawks during most of the daylight hours. In just over 30 years
the GGRO has trapped more than 40,000 hawks, keeping
meticulous records about each one. But the bird I was concerned about that day was the one gripping my thigh.
“Buzz, when you have a moment, I could use some help.”
I spoke softly and slowly. Buzz is not the kind of person who
makes sudden movements, but I wasn’t taking any chances.
A sudden movement would cause certain pain.
“OK; give me a minute here.” Buzz was bent over a
Cooper’s hawk he had just caught, measuring its wing length.
He did not look up.
I decided to wait for Buzz to finish his work before
explaining my predicament. He worked quickly; it would
only be a few minutes. The sound of our voices made my
bird nervous, and when she felt nervous she tightened her
grip. As long as the bird and I were both relaxed, and no one
was moving or speaking, the pain was quite bearable. Once
Buzz finished with his “Coop,” we could focus on my redtail.
I felt a little light-headed and needed to distract myself
from the pain, so I looked more closely at the raptor in my
lap. Its breast feathers were bright white; the stomach was a
bit darker, with buff-colored streaks. Its back was chocolaty-brown and the tail was dark brown with thin paler bands.
(This was a first-year bird; the distinctive brick-red tail
feathers would not grow in until the following year.) All the
feathers were in good condition, and I saw no lice or other
ectoparasites; that was a good sign.
I didn’t want to look directly at the hawk’s eyes, think-
ing that might antagonize the creature. But I couldn’t help
myself. They were mesmerizing: fierce, bright and alert, with
pale golden irises.
When I saw that Buzz was nearly finished with his
Cooper’s hawk, I continued. “I’ve been footed.” Footed is
the technical term for having a hawk’s talon deeply embedded in some part of your body. It’s embarrassing, because
it means you haven’t been paying close enough attention
to what you’re doing. You have not properly controlled the
hawk’s feet. You have made a stupid mistake. The only good
thing about being footed is that it hurts so much you will
probably never let it happen again.
Buzz turned toward me slowly, assessing the situation.
It may have taken a few seconds for him to move to my side,
or maybe it took a year. It was certainly a good 10 minutes
before he was able to pry open the hawk’s clenched foot and
slide the curved talon out of my leg.
Liberated from the red-tail’s grasp at last, I lay down on
the rough wooden floor of the blind and closed my eyes. Buzz
stepped outside and released the red-tail, which I’m sure
seemed unconcerned as it flew away. They always are. Often
a hawk will even give a quick little shiver as it flaps away, as
if to shake off the memory of a close encounter with humans.
The pain subsided quickly, and soon a deep puncture
wound was all that remained of my avian adventure. That
was 10 years ago and even though I was freed from that hawk’s
grasp, I will never be free from my fascination with these wild
creatures. I sustained no further injuries from this event, but
something about these magical birds captured my imagination and pierced me to the quick. And every time I look in a
hawk’s eyes, I am hooked all over again. m
Nineteen species of raptors pass through the
headlands; big redtails and the smaller Cooper’s hawks
and sharp-shinned hawks are most common.