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

Part III. A LIFE FILLED WITH RAPTORS

Chapter 35. Winterizing Harris’s Hawks

What do you do with a Harris’s hawk, a species native to the southwestern deserts of North America, when winter temperatures in New England drop severely below freezing? The first winter with Injun, I adhered to advice that Harris’s hawks should be protected from cold nights when the thermometer went down to the single digits. I kept a weather eye on the thermometer and hauled Injun into the family room when it went below ten degrees at night. I had been told he could withstand low temperatures during the day with no ill effects. I followed the advice carefully.

When the spring came, I noticed several white dots on some of Injun’s talons. When I tossed out the lure for him, he came down to hit it with a resounding smack. To my horror, there was blood welling from his talon where it had broken off. He looked down, saw the red blood, and mistook it for a tidbit. He then began to tear at his own foot. I got him home and found styptic powder to staunch the bleeding. The incident scared me badly. Immediately I went into action to find out what had caused the talon to break. I learned the white spots were where the material of the talon had become delaminated, indicating Injun had suffered frostbite to the quick of his talon. What had happened was a wake-up call and changed how I manage Harris’s hawks during the winter months.

When hawks get cold, they warm their feet by tucking them up into their feathers, alternating them one foot at a time. The problem with Harris’s is that, being native to the deserts of the United States and Mexico, they do not have as much feather insulation as raptors native to the Northeast. The first sign of trouble is the delamination spots. Those spots damaged by frostbite do not form a solid talon, which is made up of layers of keratin. This is why Injun’s talon had broken off when he whacked the lure. The bleeding came from breaking the talon too close to a blood vessel, just as would happen to you from breaking a fingernail too close to the quick. If the frostbite had been severe, the entire foot could turn black and drop off. I watched Injun’s toes carefully, hoping such a horrible thing would not occur. After another month when I had seen no changes to his feet, I breathed a relieved sigh.

I set a new standard for myself in protecting Injun from the winter temperatures, and this is what I have done for over twenty years since. If the nighttime temperature was forecast to drop below twenty degrees Fahrenheit, my bird came indoors.

Today, I protect my Harris’s from the winter elements as I first learned to do with Injun. The only problem is now I have four Harris’s hawks to protect from cold temperatures. Rather than invade our living quarters, I bring them to the cellar, which is clean, brightly lit, and fairly spacious. I had a carpenter build stalls that are open on one side, much like the cubicles in office buildings. Each Harris’s has its own stall and perch within it. Because our hot water pipes, which pass through the room, are insulated, the temperature stays between forty-five and fifty degrees. It is a perfect place to keep four Harris’s hawks from exposure to frigid temperatures. Except for one thing—they get bored.

An idle hawk is the devil’s playground, I have learned. I switch the placement of each hawk, give them bath pans with fresh water for bathing, and do all the things I can think of to keep them reasonably occupied and not on the lookout for trouble. One long winter, however, trouble came in several forms.

Smoke and Fire, two sisters from Luis after Scout and Sidekick, started sliding their perches inch by inch across the concrete floor. And their intentions were not friendly, as they are terrifically predatory towards one another. I retaliated by weighting the perches with bricks. I thought the two brothers, Scout and Sidekick, because they lived together in a single mew when they were outside, would deal well with being next to one another. At least they would not try to move their perches. I was wrong. In their boredom, they made life more interesting by engaging in foot fights underneath the partition that separated them. I had not thought an inch and a half of space would allow the boys to get into trouble. But when I went down to feed them one afternoon, I discovered both had scratches to their toes. Alarmingly, Scout had a big chunk out of one toe, and his entire foot had swollen badly. I called the vet, put Scout into the giant hood, and set off for the Fisherville Animal Hospital and Bird Clinic in Concord.

Once there, Dr. George Messenger reached for Scout’s foot. Dr. Messenger’s interest in avian species means he goes the extra mile to provide the best care for our birds. Even so, Scout was not sure he wanted the white-coated stranger touching his foot.

“Hold on, Doc,” I said. Scout was on the glove on my left hand. I encircled him with my right arm so that my right hand could grasp his foot out for the doctor to examine and treat. Scout put up with all this very well and actually settled into my body like a young bird under the protective wing of an adult. This evidence of trust amazed the veterinarian. “Well,” Dr. Messenger said. “Come to Momma!”

I did not tell him that it’s my practice to pull my coat over my hawks during winter hunts if a stinging wind kicks up. My hawks now associate this maneuver with protection from the elements and therefore are at ease when I pull one close under my arm. Scout’s vet visit was accomplished in timely fashion. Not all hawks and falcons would be able to trust being held so close. I was able to do this because Scout was, after all, a Harris’s hawk.

Antibiotics and fresh dressings soon healed Scout’s wound. My first order of business when we got home was to hawk-proof the cellar by covering the spaces underneath the partitions and weighting everybody’s perches even more. Fortunately, for the rest of the winter, hawk activities were limited to Harris’s croaking songfests. This made watching and hearing the evening news a challenge, but it was better than having the hawks get into mischief.