The following story is based on an accumulation of several true events rescuing wildlife over the past 30 years by Northern Alberta Wildlife Rescue & Rehabilitation. It is written to give the reader a complete overview of WILDNorth’s rescue operations.
Some details with respect to wildlife injuries can overwhelm
sensitive and young readers.
Red Tail Hawk’s Gift story illustrates the typical effect on the public who witness tragic events involving wildlife. This story demonstrates the vital need for wildlife rescue and rehabilitation service. Once you’ve read Red Tail Hawk’s Gift, you’re ready to read the remainder of this book.
By F. Stone, Author
Ten-year-old Sylvia braced herself in the front passenger seat of her dad’s old farm truck. He swerved to miss a vehicle radically switching lanes on the busy four lane divided highway. Her fingers clutched the dusty dashboard. She could tell other drivers were ticked with him. Her dad drove like a tired old man partly because he seldom drove beyond the country roads. But mostly because he knew the old Ford probably wouldn’t pass a safety inspection.
Sylvia and her dad were heading into Edmonton, the capital city of Alberta, Canada. The shopping trip was a treat after enduring one of Alberta’s coldest winters on record. Snow had finally retreated and migrating birds had arrived by the thousands. Daily she watched flocks of Swans and Canada Geese flying low, just feet over her head. The sound of the wind in their wings made her gasp with delight. If wishes came true, she’d fly with them.
To block out her dad’s muttering and the dizzying speeding traffic, she gazed at the landscape to her right – railway tracks, fence posts, a seeded grain field, and a forest beyond. Best of all, the Alberta blue sky and sun welcomed fresh green Poplar leaves and yellow Dandelions.
She squinted at the brightness of the distant sky. Yes, it wasn’t her imagination. Two birds, circling, came closer. They hovered high above, then plummeted down to sweep just above the grassy field.
In an instant the beautiful scene shifted into horror. A barbed wire fence snagged the bird’s wing. It struggled to wrestle free. Each twisting damaged more feathers. Tore more skin. Blood stained the bird’s body.
Sylvia shrieked. Louder with every breath. Desperately she fumbled with the seatbelt. It wouldn’t release. The bird needed help. It was dying.
Her dad pulled hard onto the shoulder of the highway. Shocked by his daughter’s outcry, he slammed on the brakes.
Finally, he saw it. With trembling hands, he unbuckled her seatbelt and pulled her shoulders to him. Desperately, he tried to shield her view from the sickening scene in the field. In seconds he pulled his cell phone from his pocket. Sylvia yanked it from his hands. She knew who to call.
* * *
Traffic on the Edmonton Yellowhead freeway rush by an unremarkable one-story building. It’s old, but there’s evidence the owners take care of the exterior. Very few have entered the premises. The few visitors that have come through the front doors never get beyond the foyer.
Many years ago, it served as the city’s dog pound. Now, a modest sign over the front entrance announces you’ve arrived at WILDNorth, Northern Alberta Wildlife Rescue & Rehabilitation. The vast majority of Edmontonians are unaware of the struggles to survive within its walls.
It’s a hospital. The patients are among the most diverse wildlife species in Canada, perhaps the world. Some are considered species at risk.
The personnel speak in hushed tones around the sick and injured birds and small mammals. Wildlife does not handle captivity well. In fact, the stress alone can cause their death faster than the injury. Exposure to their human care givers is only as necessary. Kim Blomme, Director of Wildlife Services, Elizabeth Malta, Animal Care Manager, and Kristen Vanderlinde, Lead Veterinary Technologist are just three of WILDNorth’s many dedicated professional staff, interns and volunteers.
From tiny bats to Bald Eagles, every animal delivered to WILDNorth is treated as though it is rare and treasured. Hour upon hour through the day and night, orphans are fed, wounds are cleaned, broken bones mended. When the animal shows signs of gaining strength and wellness, it goes to the rehabilitation building. There its wounds will heal over, wings become strong again. It must be able to survive on its own before being released back into its natural habitat – often several months, sometimes a year or more after admission to WILDNorth
This morning, the day shift has begun. Hospital staff moves about calmly from hallways to animal cages, to the x-ray room and the surgical suite. Kasia Brytan, Events and Volunteer Coordinator, checks the schedule to see who is available for emergency transports.
The entry alarm sounds. Jade Murphy, the Business Expansion Manager, is first to spot a woman in the foyer. She’s holding a cardboard shoe box, very gingerly. To anyone else, they would assume the content in the box is an extremely fragile ornament. They’d be half right.
Jade approaches the lady and introduces herself warmly, asks if she’s delivered an injured animal.
The woman stammers a little, unsure if she’s made a mistake or is in trouble having captured a baby rabbit. When Jade learns that the woman’s dog found the little hare on their morning walk, she slowly opens the lid. Immediately, she can see the rabbit is indeed a baby. A physical exam confirms it’s not suffering from injuries.
Jade smiles at the “kidnapper” and places the bunny back into the box and closes it. She understands the woman thought the baby had been abandoned. After a brief explanation that baby rabbits are left alone by the mother for hours each day, the woman agrees to take the little one back to the spot where she found it. Mom will return to feed it.
Just as she’s leaving, Alex in the Hotline room taps on his side window and motions for Dale to come in.
Dale Gienow, WILDRescue Manager, listens as Alex explains he’s received a call from a man parked on the Queen E highway a few miles south of Edmonton. He further reported, “The man’s name is Mike. I could hear a child crying. Mike wanted to know if there was anything he could do. Sounded like a bird, maybe a hawk, tangled up in a barbed wire fence.” Alex hands over the written details of the location and a callback number to Dale.
* * *
Dale Gienow has more than a working knowledge of wildlife. He’s a professional with years of experience handling both wildlife and exotic animals. As he listens to Alex’s report, he’s already assessing his next step. Before initiating a rescue, Dale needs confirmation of the exact facts. Dialing Mike’s number, he scans the board in the Hotline room to determine which of his rescue team volunteers is closest to the scene.
The sound of highway traffic on the phone gets Dale’s attention.
“Hello. Is this rescue?” Mike’s voice is tense.
Dale hears a child correct Mike. “Wild north, dad. Wild north!”
“Hello, Mike. Yes, this is WildNorth. My name is Dale. I understand there’s a bird you’re concerned about. Tell me what happened, please.”
Mike quickly explains a hawk has gotten itself tangled in barbed wire. Still thrashing about but seems to be getting tired, maybe weak. “Is there anything I can do? Or should I just get it out of its misery, you know?”
“If there’s a chance to save the bird, we should try. We have a rescue team to respond to your location. In the meantime, you can help calm the bird if you’re willing to try. Do you know what kind of bird it is?”
“Hawk, pretty sure it’s a Red tail hawk. There are two of them. Its mate keeps circling overhead.”
“Thank you, Mike. Do you have a blanket? Or a large towel, coat?”
“Pretty sure we have something here. My daughter, Sylvia, says we could use her coat.”
“You must be careful, Mike. What you could try is to gently place the coat over and around the bird. If it’s in darkness, the bird may relax a bit. Only try it if you feel comfortable with that. Wear heavy gloves.”
“No problem. Handle turkey toms with attitude all the time. Got leather gardening gloves. Just a minute. Sylvia is heading out.”
“Keep her safe, Mike. And watch out for the mate. It may attack. That bird’s talons are very dangerous.”
Dale heard no response. “Mike. Hello, Mike.” The call had been disconnected.
Dale turned to Alex. “We better get there quick. Call the rescue volunteer, Lisa in Leduc. Ask her to meet me at the site. She’s only about fifteen minutes from Mike’s location. Call the police. Give them a heads-up. Let them know what’s happening there.”
Dale jumped into his specially equipped SUV and headed south through the city. Thankfully, the morning rush hour traffic had thinned. In thirty five minutes he breathed a sigh of relief to spot Mike’s vehicle and another. Lisa had arrived.
When he spotted two adults in the distance, his fears escalated. The ten-year-old girl was not visible. The men appeared to be hunched over something. He didn’t dare call out. If they had captured the hawk, sudden noises would cause the bird to struggle, try to escape. Stress combined with shock from its injuries could kill the hawk.
As Dale got closer, he realized why he hadn’t seen Mike’s daughter. Mike had covered her with his heavy coat, shielding her from the mate still flying above them. Sylvia sat on the ground, and cradled within her arms was a large bundle. The hawk was wrapped in Sylvia’s coat.
Lisa approached Dale. “The girl, Sylvia, seems to be experienced. She got a firm hold onto the hawk’s legs. She not ready to give him up.”
Dale nodded. “How’s the bird?”
“From the description Mike gave, we should get the bird to the hospital soon.”
Dale said hello to Sylvia and smiled encouragingly to her. “Well done. You’re very brave young lady.” Dale asked Lisa to bring the soft sided crate closer and turned back to the girl. “We’ve got a special crate to transport the bird so its feathers don’t get any more damaged.”
“He’s hurt really bad.” Sylvia’s chin quivered. The girl’s protective embrace of the bird clearly indicated she may not be willing to give up the hawk.
Dale wondered if the bird had died. “Is he moving at all?”
Sylvia nodded and spoke softly. “I told him he’s safe now.” The bird struggled momentarily under the coat.
Dale was relieved to see she still had a firm grip around the legs. She wasn’t going to release her patient easily to his care. Lisa brought the soft-sided crate close to the hawk and unzipped the crate’s screened top doorway.
“It’s time for me to bring him to the hospital. I’ll need to take him from your hands. When we move him into the crate, he will be frightened. It’s safer for him and you if I do the transfer. Are you ready?”
The girl looked at Dale with some suspicion. “You’re not going to hurt him, or anything?”
“I promise to be very gentle. Now I will place my hand over yours holding the legs. I will tell you when to let go. Ready?”
Reluctantly, Sylvia nodded and allowed Dale to take over holding the hawk. With confidence and smooth action, the bird was lowered into the crate. The coat that had covered the bird was gently removed and the top doorway zipped closed. At last, Dale could view the full extent of the hawk’s obvious injuries. Always the professional, he hid his grave concern from the child’s view.
“Great job, Sylvia. At the hospital we will examine his injuries. We will do everything possible to help him recover.” He decided to not add that she could call to find out how well he was doing. Perhaps it was better to not encourage the seeds of hope.
As they returned to the vehicles, Dale watched the mate making sweeping dives and calling. “Will she wait for him?” Sylvia asked as she touched the side of the crate. Dale hoisted the crate into the back of Lisa’s vehicle, placed a blanket over it and shut the vehicle’s door.
“It’s late in the mating season.” He thought of a nest that may become abandoned. Without her mate’s to help supply food and protect the eggs, there was almost no chance of her eggs hatching. He shrugged his shoulders casually and smiled, “She could find another mate for next year.”
He hoped that was enough of a hint that ‘her’ hawk would not be released any time soon, if ever. Lisa jumped into her vehicle. The hawk was now on its way to WILDNorth’s hospital. Dale stood in front of Sylvia and her dad. “How did you know how to handle the hawk?”
“Well, I help dad with the turkeys, and I like the wildlife documentaries on TV. And dad sent me to one of WILDNorth’s camps for kids.” She began to shake off the trauma. “I had a great time.”
* * *
When Lisa arrived at the hospital she immediately took the crate into the treatment room. The hawk had remained quiet inside his darkened crate during the drive. She caught the attention of Kristen Vanderlinde and Kim Blomme. To not cause any further distress to the hawk, they spoke in hushed voices. Kim opened the crate and gently lifted the large bird out. Grasping the legs with one gloved hand and her arm around the body, she and Kristen observed the bird’s injuries – torn flesh and ragged feathers.
“Oh, dear,” murmured Kristen. The expression on her face spoke of amazement. “How is this bird still alive, Kim?” Its chances of survival rested on her many years’ experience as WILDNorth’s lead veterinary technologist. Kristen graduated from the University of Alberta with a Bachelor of Science with specialization in Animal Biology with honours in 2011 then became Senior Wildlife Rehabilitator in April 2016.
Kim Blomme, director of wildlife services, caught herself holding her breath. Too often, the decision to euthanize a suffering animal rested on her shoulders. Even if it were to recover from its injuries, would it ever fly again? If not, it cannot be released. That equated to euthanasia.
Kim’s career began as a veterinary technologist at Delton Veterinary Hospital and led to being the founder of WILDNorth thirty year ago. She might agree that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. But constantly seeing animals so needlessly injured, she would also admit, “There are days ….” Everyone who knows Kim declares she’s a problem solver with a bright smile.
“We’ll give it a chance, Kristen. Let’s get to work.”
They ran their hands along the bones looking for fractures. “We need to do x-rays,” Kristen whispered. “And clean these wounds. Thankfully the bleeding has stopped.” The hawk had made a valiant effort to escape the barbed wire but it caused deep lacerations and blood loss.
“First we’ll give him time to rest and get pain medication started. Probably will need an antibiotic” After administering the medication, they placed the hawk in a large cage. It was big enough that he could spread his wings as well as having a solid wood structure on which he could perch. All the hawk did was hop to the farthest dark corner and turn his back to his caregivers.
Kristen sighed. “Maybe he’ll perch after some rest. We’ll schedule the x-rays for this afternoon.” They draped the cage with a blanket and walked away. “If he survives, it’s going to take another year before he has enough feathers for flight.”
Kim nodded. “One day at a time. Let’s just get him through the first night.”
After the x-rays had been completed, the hospital staff breathed a guarded sigh of relief. No broken bones. Euthanasia could be deferred. Swelling indicated severe muscle strain, and the lacerations were going to be a challenge to keep clean. The bird barely revealed its raptor-like aggression during the handling. Weak from blood loss, exhausted from the struggle, surrounded by what he sees as predators, shock was now his most immediate threat.
The next morning, the Red Tail Hawk showed no interest in food. In fact, he was as close to death as rabbit would be when snatched by his great talons.
Four months later,
Kristen waited for Dale in the treatment room. Finally, he arrived carrying the hawk’s body. Seeing the lifeless Red Tail Hawk, she fought the tears. The hawk appeared perfect, but without the “I dare you,” glare normally seen in raptors. The eyes were closed, wings flaccid.
“We rescued him from the side of the highway. Hit by a car.” Dale placed a towel over the body. “He was still alive but died on the way here.” He spoke softly, out of habit to calm the beautiful hawk. Taking the left wing and gently extending it to its full length, Dale and Kristen sadly admired the perfection. “No damage to the flight feathers. What do you think Kristen?”
Kristen eyes became bright and she smiled. “Yes! A gift for our Red Tail Hawk. He’s so frustrated that he can’t fly up onto the top perches. We’ve had doubts he’d survive captivity over the winter months. Imping is his last chance.”
A week later, Dale called Mike.
* * *
Mike listened to Dale’s request. He wanted to meet. Something about a gift. Mike tried to discourage the rescue manager. It was harvest time, mid-September. No time for chatting. Trouble was, it had been over five months since his daughter and he tried to save the Red Tail Hawk. He was curious.
Sylvia had avoided discussing the hawk. They both knew the hawk could not survive. What they did talk about was barb wire fences. Were they necessary? Would rural land owners change?
Then Dale revealed the truth of the need to meet in two hours. Asked if Sylvia could come along.
Mike hung up the phone, slapped on his tattered ball cap, and headed to his truck. He ignored the speed limit. There was barely enough time to get to Sylvia’s school, grab her, and get to the location Dale specified. He knew exactly how to get there.
When they arrived at that same section of highway, Mike and Sylvia saw Dale and several other people waiting for them in the distant field. They were standing near the forest. “You ready, Silly?”
Sylvia shrugged. “You’re still not going to tell me why we’re here? I don’t like this place.”
“Dale said it was important. Said it would help us get over what happened to our hawk.”
Mike noticed his daughter’s face become pale. His own heart was beating faster. “You don’t have to come with me, but I think this will be good for both of us. Okay?”
They walked out into the field and up to the edge of the forest, far from the barb wire fence.
Dale stepped forward, greeting them with a wide smile. “I’m so glad you could be here. Everyone here sponsored a hawk. They helped provide food and medical care. When people sponsor one of our raptors, they are invited to witness the release.” He motioned for Mike and Sylvia to come closer to the poplar tree, its leaves in bright gold.
Sylvia looked up into the blue sky, recalling the horror. She hesitated. “But, my hawk ….”
Dale turned back to the tree. From behind the trunk in the shade, he lifted a soft-sided carrier. He set it down in front of Sylvia and Mike. “Mike and Sylvia, this is the Red Tail Hawk you saved in April. He survived his injuries. For a long time we doubted he was going to recover. We didn’t want to announce that he was going to make. Sometimes he would be okay, and then other times he struggled. But, he’s strong now, and he has borrowed feathers.”
Sylvia knelt down to lift the towel off the crate. She peered into the screened top. Staring back at her were the marvelous dark eyes of her hawk. “He’s alive.” She bounced up. “He’s alive, he’s really alive. This is my hawk?”
Dale laughed. “Yes, absolutely.”
“Borrowed feathers? A bird can’t borrow feathers,” Sylvia exclaimed.
“We worried he’d have to stay here over winter. His flight feathers were slow in returning. It would be much better if he could follow his normal migration schedule. Sometimes nature provides a gift.”
“That’s what you meant about a gift?” Mike’s surprise showed in his bright eyes.
“There is a special technique at the rehabilitation centre for special cases. When we knew that your hawk was going to survive, we needed cadaver feathers to glue in with his own feathers so that he could make his migration flight this fall. It’s called imping.”
Sylvia’s excitement crashed. “You’re saying that a dead hawk was used to give my hawk the ability to fly. Was he killed?”
“A few days ago a young Red Tail Hawk was killed in a highway accident. We brought his body to the hospital and used his flight feathers to help your hawk. After a week trying out his new feathers, he’s been very anxious to get his freedom back. We wanted both of you to see him return to the wild.”
“Excellent, Dale,” exclaimed Mike. “Thank you for inviting us to this special release. Right, Sylvia?”
She seemed to mulling over the information in her head. Finally, she gave her opinion. “So the other hawk is going to help my hawk fly again.”
“That’s exactly right. Sylvia. Since you’re the reason the hawk was rescued, would you like to open the crate’s door? Just unzip it and let the door rest on the ground. The hawk will probably jump out and take off. Ready?”
Before Sylvia could fully unzip the crate’s door, they heard another hawk give a warning call. They were surprised to see another Red Tail hawk flying nearby and then perch on a fence post.
“Guess who’s waiting for her mate,” Sylvia giggled.
Finally, the door was fully open and an eager Red Tail hawk stepped forward. His boldness was obvious. Head erect, feet planted firmly on the soil, eyes bright. For a moment he stretched his wings to greet the wind and sun. He hesitated.
The hawk turned his head to face Sylvia. The pose was not accidental. When his eyes locked onto Sylvia’s, there was a private message sent to his heroine. Then he claimed the sky. As he rose higher, the mate joined him. In minutes, they were gone.