By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com
Lofting along on rising waves of turbulent early summer heat boiling up from the fresh blacktop his variable geometry swept wings make minor trim adjustments to change his flight attitude.
At 130-feet of altitude and a leisurely 10 knots of airspeed he spots a target just east of the fire station south of the old tennis courts along Outer Drive at Dearborn High School. The Rouge River has flooded here driving targets north into the open fields and making for, what seems like, an easy kill. Easy that is, if it weren’t for these flying conditions in the strangely hot spring afternoon.
He banks hard right, pulling 3.5 G’s in a turn a fighter pilot would be envious of, especially this close to the ground.
His target is acquired, a scurrying field mouse driven up from the Rouge River basin by the heavy rains and rushing floodwaters from the past week.
He locks-on his target with eyesight that is nearly eight times better than yours and mine. He has eyes like a hawk, because he is a two-year old red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis).
He commits to the attack, wings quickly swept back, angle of attack tipping downward to nearly a 70-degree dive exactly like a fighter plane in a diving attack. In an instant his weight and efficient, aerodynamic body shape allow him to accelerate to over 60 MPH, almost straight down. Even though he is only two years old, his targets seldom escape. The local environment depends on him even if few people notice his daily aerial patrols.
Nearly every hunt over this suburban wilderness area near the intersection of Michigan Ave. and Outer Drive in Dearborn, Michigan is successful.
But not today.
He made a rare error, however slight, in his attack trajectory. His angle of attack relative to the scurrying target was just a bit too steep. His vision is optimized for locking on and tracking a distant target camouflaged against the colors of the ground. It’s not optimized to detect fence tops and power lines when in a terminal attack dive.
Speed, normally part of his arsenal, now becomes his enemy. As his target grows in his telephoto eyesight he suddenly detects a minor miscalculation in dive angle. But at over 70 MPH of airspeed, it is too late. Just as he drops the feathers at the trailing edge of his 3&1/2-foot wingspan to generate more lift and deploys his razor-sharp talons as airbrakes he hits the top of the 8-ft fence. Hard.
The impact is crushing. His right knee is torn, leg broken in three places. The collision with the high fence at the edge of the tennis courts causes him to flip tail over beak in uncontrolled, tumbling ballistic flight. The impact with the fence top stunned him, and he has momentarily lost situational awareness. Any pilot will tell you, losing lift and situational awareness this close to the ground with no room for recovery is usually fatal, especially at high speed.
Hitting the pavement stuns him. He’s not used to this. He is always the alpha, the hunter, firmly on top of this suburban food chain occupying the only rung above the silently stalking feral cats that hunt on the ground mostly at dawn and dusk. Even the cats know they are vulnerable to the hawk. There was the occasional fox in this area, but they haven’t been seen for five years now.
For a moment he is motionless, wings akimbo and sprawling, upside down on the hot, black asphalt. Hard wired instinct sends the alert that when he is on the ground he is vulnerable. Vulnerable to a cat or a fox or a dog or to the greatest threat in his environment, a human being.
He rights himself, but cannot fly. Shakes his head to clear it. Cannot get purchase on the air for more than a few meters at a time. He tries to fly, but his landing is uncontrolled on his shattered right leg. In only a split-second the buffeting ground turbulence, target fixation and collision with the fence top moved him from the top of the food chain to the bottom, now vulnerable to predation from anything on the ground.
Spectators at the soccer game at Dearborn High School on Tuesday night spotted the wounded juvenile red tail hawk alternately lying in the field and trying to fly and posted a photo on the Dearborn in The Raw community group on Facebook.
Mark Trzeciak, a local community baron, educated man and teacher, alerts me with a tag in the Facebook post. I grab my car keys. There is already a backpack in my beat-up old Ford Escape loaded with what I need to rescue a cat or an owl or a snapping turtle. But this is my first red-tailed hawk rescue.
I do a quick Google search: “How to rescue an injured hawk”. Then I am on my way.
I can’t find him. Searching the upper tennis courts, the entire lower field close to the Rouge River where Dearborn High School’s track is, I divide the area into a grid and carefully walk each section looking for him. I ask where he is on the Dearborn in The Raw page, but the replies in the thread are disorganized. One of the custodians at Dearborn High School notices that I am walking around with a backpack looking for something.
“Are you looking for the hawk?” asks Will Denton of Dearborn High School. Will has been keeping an eye on the hawk since he had his accident a few hours earlier. “He’s up here by the top tennis courts, just flew over there and landed. Doesn’t look like he can fly well.”
Mr. Denton directs me to an open gate behind the school and points out the juvenile red tail hawk sitting calmly in the grass, alert, looking around, but not moving.
I resolve to spend the night there with him but a friend messages me about Dr. Kevin Smyth of the Morrison Animal Hospital. Dr. Smyth is a veterinarian and specialist in birds and raptors including hawks and owls. I text him at about 9:30 PM. He replies quickly, “Call me”.
After I pick up the wounded hawk and drive him home my girlfriend and I make a nice temporary house for him on our back porch, safely sequestered from our three cats who are now very curious about our large, feathered overnight guest.
The hawk is majestic, even in his wounded condition. His body is massive and his wings huge and muscular. His talons are nearly the size of my hands, with inch and a half long hooks optimized for his high-speed diving attacks. But he is weak, seriously broken leg bleeding on his new, soft white sheet.
The next day we’re at Dr. Smyth’s office first thing. Transporting a large, wounded raptor is a bit tricky but we manage to keep the Mr. Hawk calm and comfortable.
At the veterinarian office Dr. Smyth handles the large hawk with confidence and the raptor responds with calmness, allowing the doctor to hold him and test his vision.
The news is not good.
It would appear the hawk’s vision is compromised in one eye, possibly from his crash. His right leg is broken severely in three places, including directly through the knee joint. The hawk is dehydrated and weak. Dr. Smyth gives him a mild anesthetic and administers I.V. fluids for the hawk’s dehydration. He is comfortable, but very weak.
We cannot know how a hawk thinks. Since we have begun observing and writing about them we’ve ascribed a nobility and power to hawks. Throughout the night, the hawk rests at the veterinary office. I want to say that he somehow knew we were all trying to help him. That he did feel a little better from the I.V.’s and the pain medication. He sat normally in a large cage on a soft blanket, maintaining his noble appearance throughout the night and into the next day.
But when the sun came up his spirit took flight, and his broken body remained grounded. Despite the best care of the doctor and the efforts of rescuers, he did not survive the morning. He died a peaceful, pain free, dignified death in the company of people who revered, cared for and respected him.
The loss of the Dearborn High School hawk is significant. He controlled the population of mice and other pests every day. He could have started a family of hawks that would have managed pest populations on each side of Michigan Ave. from Telegraph Road all the way east to Military, where the hawks from the Henry Ford Nature Preserve take over. He could have patrolled the two Kroger parking lots and the parking structures near the Village Plaza building.
But instead, he died from a collision with a fence we put there, in his environment. WE seldom give thought to the animals we share the city with. They occasionally show up in a Facebook post, or on a smartphone photo. For the most part people don’t pay attention. But their role is critical in maintaining the delicate and complex balance of nature in our neighborhoods. Losing the Dearborn High hawk is a significant loss in maintaining that balance.
If you want to help protect and care for local hawks, owls and other large birds in Dearborn, Dearborn Heights, Garden City and the surrounding neighborhoods you can make a contribution directly to Dr. Kevin Smyth at 33607 Ford Road in Garden City. His phone number is (734) 425-6140. His website is morrisonvet.net. Dr. Smyth, a 1980 Dearborn High School graduate and Dearborn native, cares for wounded hawks and owls on his own. He did not charge anything for his extensive emergency care of the hawk we brought him. Contributions to his practice are used to pay for the expenses such as food, supplies and drugs used to rehabilitate hawks and owls and return them to their environment once they have recovered. Dr. Smyth’s contribution to our community is significant and worthy of support.
Author Tom Demerly has petted most things with legs, fins, feathers or scales.