Being an orphan is usually difficult; however, being an animal orphan can be deadly.
This season, the Volunteers for Wildlife rehabilitation center in Locust Valley took in six young red-tailed hawks, an unusually high number. Sometimes people find them injured or malnourished on the ground. After providing them treatment, if we can get these birds back with their parents, they stand a better chance of surviving. However, sometimes we cannot find the nests, the nests have been destroyed, or the parents have been killed by cars or poison intended for rats.
But there is another tool for wildlife rehabilitators: foster parenting. We try to place the orphans with other adult pairs before nesting season ends in early July.
Not all birds will accept chicks that are not their own, so we pay close attention to the research by experts before moving youngsters. It’s not always easy. Hawk nests are often 40 or 50 feet high in trees and inaccessible.
Happily for this season’s chicks, I knew of a nest that was still active at Bethpage State Park, where I work as a naturalist and have access to a bucket truck. There was one chick in a nest at Bethpage, high above its famous golf courses. The young bird was nearly ready to fly, but was still in the nest and being fed.
We decided to try to relocate one of our orphan birds. Our young hawk, about the same size and age as its soon-to-be stepsibling in the nest, was packed in a carrier and transported to the park by Lauren Schulz, our head rehabber. I drove the bucket truck to the nest tree, Lauren grabbed our youngster, and up we three went in the bucket.
The wild parents were still in the area, and the adult female hawk could be aggressive, so we worked fast. We got to the nest, about 40 feet up in an oak, and placed the chick in the center of the large collection of sticks that was a nest, where it happily stayed as we headed down. The original wild chick was not in the nest (not unusual), but we saw a little present — a freshly killed chipmunk. Luckily, there were no attacks on us by the parents. We drove away pleased and hopeful.
I came by later in the day and the next morning to make sure the adults had accepted their new child. They had! The chick had a full crop (food storage area in the throat) and the adult female perched nearby, watching me closely. I also spotted the original wild chick in a nearby tree. In the following days, the news would continue to be good. We didn’t find the new bird helpless on the ground or being ignored.
The results were so promising, we tried it again! A week later, we placed another young red-tail of about the same age on a branch in the same tree. The adult hawks now had three youngsters to care for; one theirs and two foster chicks. When I checked a few days later, I was greeted by a wonderfully natural raptor show. Both parents were tending to the young birds a few feet from the nest or even on the fairway. All three young hawks were aggressively seeking more food by screaming constantly! It was amazing to watch, and heartwarming to know that we had a part in it.
Reader Jim Jones lives in Bayville.