Peregrine Spring: A Master Falconer's Extraordinary Life with Birds of Prey - Nancy Cowan (2016)

Part III. A LIFE FILLED WITH RAPTORS

Chapter 30. Mosby, the Gray Ghost

In the spring and fall, when the balance of light and dark is precisely just right, we hear the calls of an imprinted goshawk in love. The love object is my husband, and the bird calling to him has lived here for fifteen years, a long life for a raptor we thought would surely die when she was only nine and a half weeks old.

We have handled raptors with various backgrounds. Some of them were from the wild; some came from breeders but were raised by their parents (the term for this is “chamber raised”); and some were imprinted from the time they were hatched by breeders. In the case of Tabasco, we learned a non-imprinted bird from the wild could begin to demonstrate imprinted behaviors after a period of years spent with humans. Another thing we’ve learned is that it is a mistake to try to handle a wild or a chamber-raised bird like you would a bird imprinted from the time it could see, or a bird semi-imprinted over a long association.

To understand the sequence of our accidental imprinting of Mosby, you need to know wild goshawks are, for the most part, shy and nervous as they go about their business of catching small game or birds on the wing and then returning to their homes in the deep woods—unless you approach their nests in the spring, that is. Then you’ll hear a loud, staccato scream—ack, ack, ack, ack, ack!—warning you to get out of the area. What comes after and sometimes during the calls is a large raptor dive-bombing your head to rake you with its razor-sharp talons.

Jim received a call one spring day from our friend Tom Ricardi, who was the head of the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife’s Law Enforcement division. Tom told Jim he had a young goshawk, likely about four and a half weeks old, which had been brought in as a “salvage bird.” Tom knew Jim had raised young goshawks before, so his question to Jim was if he wanted to raise this young bird for use as a falconry bird. Of course, the answer was yes, and we hurried to meet Tom in Worcester, Massachusetts. When we got there, Tom told us how the eyass goshawk came to be salvaged.

It was spring turkey hunting season in Massachusetts. A turkey hunter had gone into a forest that was a nesting area for a pair of goshawks. He must have ignored the warning cries, for suddenly he was under attack. The man panicked and fired, resulting in the death of the female goshawk. (We wondered if he had actually shot both parents, or if something had already befallen the male, because there was no remaining parent guarding the nest.) Recovered from his initial panic, the man realized he had done something very wrong. He turned himself in to the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife and offered to guide them to the nest.

When the conservation officers and the hunter reached the nest, they spotted two baby goshawks with no parent birds nearby. When no parent bird returned, a climber went up the next day to bring down the chicks, one male and one female. The male chick was given to a Massachusetts falconer. The female was to come home with us. Tom sent along a cooler full of frozen mice for feeding the eyass hawk. We carefully put the nestling into a cardboard box lined with towels and set the box on the backseat of our car.

We had barely cleared the city limits before the curious young hawk climbed out, found a perch on the top of the seat, and watched the other cars on the road. Knowing goshawks as adults are gray and black, fast, and strike without warning, I suggested the name “Mosby, the Gray Ghost” after the famous Confederate raider and guerilla fighter John Singleton Mosby. Jim was not in favor of the name since his bird was a female, but the name persisted, and she is Mosby still.

It is amazing to watch eyass raptors develop. Up to the age of about four weeks, they are white fuzzballs. At four and a half weeks, a little stubby tail starts poking out and the wings sprout feathertips. The fluff is shed at every grooming, which happens often because new feathers must be itchy. During the next five weeks, startling changes take place. The stubby tail feathers emerge out of the baby hawk’s body to form a thirteen- or fourteen-inch tail. The young goshawk now has a pair of fully feathered wings, the longest primary feathers of which are another thirteen or fourteen inches in length. This feather development seems to happen overnight until the fuzzball is completely transformed.

Where do the feathers come from? Well, they are made of calcium derived from what the goshawk eats. We were feeding Mosby mainly the mice Tom had given us, not realizing he may have expected us to supplement them. There wasn’t enough bone or calcium in these mice for a creature increasing its size by the feathers it was growing. There is normally a progression of ills that befall a calcium-deprived creature. First, muscle control begins to erode, and then the creature goes blind. Next, the creature begins to have seizures. Its nervous system fails due to insufficient calcium and death occurs. We learned later that the rapid growth of those long feathers was depleting the calcium Jim’s young goshawk needed to live.

The problem came on suddenly. “Mosby is not moving right,” Jim told me. “She cannot seem to stand up, and I don’t think she can see.” He was gathering his glove and equipment as he said this, and was out the door on his way to her mew before I could respond. When he brought her in, it was evident there was something terribly wrong. We put her in a box, where she soon began thrashing in a seizure. We looked at one another, our shared thought written on each of our faces. We had a bird near death, and neither of us expected she would survive. I ran for the address book of our falconry contact phone numbers. As I dialed the number of the Vermont Institute of Natural Science Raptor Center, Mosby began thrashing in another seizure.

I was calling our friend Mike Cox, the director of the center and a raptor rehabilitator. We knew we needed his expert help fast. The center receptionist told me Mike was leading a group of bird-watchers on a birding excursion. When I caught my breath and launched into the reason for our call, she put me through to the rehab building. The young woman on the other end of the call explained she was a veterinarian working at the center and lately arrived from West Virginia where she had had just finished treating nine-and-a-half-week-old goshawks for calcium deficiency.

“Go to your farm store,” she told me, “and buy bonemeal—the kind you put on your flowers. Pulverize it. Then mince quail meat and mix the bone meal into it. Feed the bird with forceps to get the bonemeal down its throat. Oh! Go to your local pharmacy, too, and pick up electrolytes—the kind you give a sick child. Feed that to the goshawk with a syringe.”

I raced to the local feed store to get there before it closed, and then on to the pharmacy to get a big bottle of orange-colored electrolyte mixture. Jim chopped up quail while I was gone. By the time I returned, Mosby was having seizures repeatedly, five or six per hour. It did not seem possible we could save the young gos, but we managed to get a bit of food down her throat and made sure as much bonemeal as possible went along with it. Afterwards we fed her electrolytes by the syringe. She kept the food down, and the electrolytes went down even more easily. She seemed to savor the liquid. After some more feedings, the seizures became fewer and fewer. We turned out the lights for the night and wondered if we would have a live or a dead goshawk in the morning.

The next morning, Mosby was standing upright in the box, although she was still fairly wobbly and most assuredly was blind. The awful seizures had stopped. We took this as a good sign. Every few hours we would give her a feeding, carefully lifting the bonemeal-encrusted quail morsels to her beak with forceps. After each feeding we would fill a small syringe with the orange electrolyte fluid. As soon as the plastic tip of the syringe tapped against her beak, she would open and guzzle the electrolyte solution down, obviously relishing the liquid.

One morning several days later, Mosby came running across the box interior when she saw the syringe. Her sight had returned! Now she was up to eating her food from a dish, so we were able to stop feeding with the forceps. I joked to Jim that he should make a lure with an orange syringe when he began to fly with her. (In fact, when Jim emerged from the house one day with an orange popsicle, she nearly tore her perch from the ground trying to get to him!) Joking was something we could afford to do now that we were both relieved at having seen Mosby through a very onerous period.

The period had effected other changes, which soon became obvious. Mosby watched for us and hurried to join us when we approached. Once she was restored to health and put back into her mew, we were greeted with lots of goshawk vocalizations whenever we stepped into her sightline. This has continued until present day. I often imitate her call and she’ll call back. She flies from her high corner perch to a lower perch when she hears Jim entering her mew. There she sits patiently as he inserts each jess through the grommet of her anklets, never bating nor striking out as he handles her. She watches for him and gives excited vocal responses to his appearance.

The next spring, we got irrefutable proof we had an imprinted goshawk. In spring and fall the hours of daylight are just the right amount for goshawk hormones to rage and courting behavior to begin. A courting goshawk puts on one of nature’s most striking displays. Mosby lifts her tail and spreads the luxurious white feathers into what looks like a huge chrysanthemum flower. Accepting either one of us as a potential mate, she struts a bit, back and forth, in what I call her best “Sailor, do you come here often?” manner. Her courting behavior has given us an entirely new chapter on what we understood about imprinting. The old falconers’ lore about “sealing the eyes” (during the medieval era, master falconers would stitch a falcon’s eyelids closed and then remove the stitches after so the falcon’s ability to see was regained after this period of time to effect imprinting of the falcon upon the falconer) and hooding raptors for extended periods began to be more understandable to us. We knew that imprinting typically occurs as sight develops in newly hatched birds. But the idea that imprinting could occur if the bird lost sight and then regained it was new to us. Fortunately, during Mosby’s battle with calcium deficiency, we must have done everything right.

Mosby is now fifteen years old. We are courted by her twice a year, and her calls usually attract a wild male to hang about outside her mew at least once a season. What could have ended in sadness and disaster has turned out well. I wish I could thank that wonderful young veterinarian who helped us, but I was so panicked at the time, I never thought to ask her name.