by Scott Turnmeyer,
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One evening in mid January I was coming home from shooting high school basketball photos at Warren County High School when I came across a little Cooper’s Hawk is distress. This post will go through the adventures that this little guy and our family has had over the past two months.
The Cooper’s Hawk is a medium-sized hawk found in our area. It is most definitely a bird of prey, or raptor, and the males tend to be smaller than the females. They are absolutely beautiful raptors with short rounded wings and a very long tail with dark bands. The adults have stunning RED eyes and a black cap. The Cooper’s Hawk prey almost always on small to mid-sized birds, which would allow you to find the Cooper’s Hawk in smaller towns just as easily as out in the forest. In fact, they have been known to watch your backyard bird feeders and use them as bait stations for their next meal.
So it was dark and cold on that January night as I came down Accomac Rd in Front Royal. As I approached the corner of Accomac and Pinecrest I noticed an animal sitting about three feet from the stop sign right in the middle of the road. From my wildlife photography it was easy for me to tell right away that this was a type of raptor and it certainly seemed out of place at that time of night. As I slowed down and got closer I noticed it try to fly but just jumped in the air and came back down, major indication of trouble. I threw on the hazard lights as a car came up behind and immediately grabbed the cell phone. The nice gentlemen stopped to see if I needed assistance, thank you by the way because most people don’t do that these days, but left after I thanked him and explained the situation and that all was well. I was already looking up the hotline number on the Wildlife Center of Virginia’s website.
The Wildlife Center of Virginia(WCV) is an amazing establishment that treats and rehabilitates wild animals, and have been performing their unselfish duties for 30 years now. Please see my blog post WCV Open House where you’ll see photos of the tour and of the animals that they have for educational purposes, not including all of the patients.
So I left a message on WCV’s emergency hotline and then began to call a few other places until I heard back from them. I called the local Animal Control, who wouldn’t do anything and forwarded me to Department of Game and Inland Fisheries(DGIF). DGIF said there was nothing that they could do but gave me a couple of numbers of people in the area that might help. Luckily, Dr. Miranda, with WCV left me a voicemail while I was on the phone. She was very professional and gave me a couple numbers of local volunteer transporters that they have who could possibly help me get the hawk and transport it to WCV, unfortunately none of them worked with Raptors!!! So plan B, we’ll catch it ourselves and take it in. I rushed home to get my wife for assistance, gloves, flashlights, more warm clothes (it was like 15 degrees) and a box with holes.
Now mind you my wife and I had NEVER captured a wild animal, well a mouse one time, but I certainly don’t count that. When we returned to the hawk, it was literally a few 100 feet from our house we sprung into action. We positioned the box to be ready WHEN I caught it and then I grabbed the comforter that we had brought. The goal was to throw the comforter over the hawk and then pick it up, which was a great plan except there was NOTHING wrong with the hawk’s feet and he would keep getting out from underneath the comforter before it completely hit the ground. Long story short, after about 10 minutes, I finally got him on open ground and under the comforter. I scooped him up in my arms and headed to the box. My wife held the flashlight while I maneuvered and reposition the hawk and comforter to get him into the box without the comforter, surprisingly it worked the first time. So the bird was caught and we headed home. Now we had a full grown RAPTOR in a cardboard box in our garage, WOW!
Once home, I contact Dr. Miranda at WCV again and arranged to bring the hawk down to Waynesboro, VA the next morning. And so the next morning I drove the hour and a half down to drop him off and then back again. Now he was in the wonderful care of WCV.
Over the course of the next two months the little guy went through quite a bit. He was quickly diagnosed with head and neck trauma and they needed to get him more stabilized before they could do anything else. We’re thinking he may have flown into something or possibly had been hit by a car, but it was days before the swelling and bruising subsided and they could find the extent of the injuries.
After the needed time, rest, medicine and other amazing care given to him, WCV determined that all looked well bone wise for him. He did tilt his head slightly and squint one of his eyes, but hopes were that they both would get better in time and that he wasn’t blind. He continued to get stronger and eat well and finally was moved to an outdoor enclosure for further monitoring. After some time the head tilt subsided but there still seemed to be an issue with his eye. It was now time for see for sure.
For some raptors, they have to pass what is called “mouse school” before they are cleared for release. This is exactly what you think it is and is a test to see if they can still hunt effectively to be in the wild. For birds of prey like the Cooper’s Hawk, who feed on other birds, they have to go through “chick school”. I won’t get into the details of that but you can probably get the picture.
The hawk had some issues with “chick school”, but WCV wasn’t entirely convinced that it was his eye. Apparently Cooper’s Hawks are funny little things in captivity and have a bit of an anxiety issue, the belief was that he was concerned with going to the ground to hunt. I’m not an animal behaviorist at all, but maybe that was because the last time he did that he was hit by a car. It would certainly scare me a bit about ground hunting the next time.
So finally, the little guy passed “chick school” and was cleared to be released. WCV is amazing because when you bring an animal in they ask you if you’d like to be part of the release. We most definitely did, not just because it meant a lot, but this entire process taught our now 4 year old such a great lesson on life and how important animals are to us and the environment.
I drove down to WCV to pickup the Cooper’s Hawk and brought him home. My wife, daughter and I decided to release him at a small park just a few blocks from where he was found and headed there. The release was QUICK and unfortunately the strong wind that day caused there to not be many photos, but we did have a video camera up to actually get the release.
To talk a bit about photos, this type of thing was absolutely brand new to me. I decided to cover my bases by having three different setups going, still didn’t work great, but I learned a lot for next time. The first setup was my HD Handycam on a tripod for video. Pretty straight forward and you’ll see below a shot of the bird flying right past! The second setup was my large Canon 400mm f2.8 on a tripod focused on the box. The goal here was to get the hawk coming out of the box, but the wind blew the box over so it was out of focus. I had the camera automatically taking shots every 1 second and shooting at 1250 shutter speed to freeze the action. My third setup was my Canon 70-200 f2.8 with me and handheld. I got the shots of my wife opening the box and eventually the hawk in the air, but the 200mm just wasn’t enough reach to get me what I wanted.
We’d like to throw out a huge THANK YOU to the Wildlife Center of Virginia. They came through when needed, were so professional and actually cared about the animal. EVERY time I emailed or called to get a status of the hawk I got a full report in minutes. They are simply amazing. I was so impressed, and so let down that there were no transporters in our area that dealt with raptors, I’m happy to say that I signed up and am now part of their transporter network. I have even taken their capture and transport class, so maybe I can do even better next time we need to get a little guy for help. I’d like to also remind you that the Wildlife Center of Virginia runs solely on donations, and does not receive money from the government. I urge you to visit their website and DONATE for the amazing work that they do!!!
Now he is back soaring where he belongs, and we couldn’t be happier.