Hawks Aloft Inc.
PO Box 10028
Albuquerque, NM 87184
Phone: 505 828-9455
Fax: 505 828-9769
E-Mail: gail@hawksaloft.org

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Hawks Aloft Blog

Blog Topic: Bird Anatomy

Through the Eyes of an Intern, No. 5: Rescues

Lisa in the office, holding the Great Horned Owl we rescued

Lisa in the office, holding the Great Horned Owl we rescued

I finally had the chance to go on my first few rescues. Most recentl of which was a Western Kingbird, which is now recovering from its twisted knee joint; a Cooper’s Hawk with severe head trauma; and a Great Horned Owl, camping out on a family’s fence because of a broken left wrist. He was beautiful and impressive even in his crippled state. I don’t think I’ll ever forget casually glancing at the box into which Lisa, our rescue coordinator, had just wrestled him, and suddenly seeing nothing but one luminous, sunflower-yellow eye neatly filling one of the air holes in the box. No wonder great-horns are so often seen as symbols of power and strength; I wouldn’t even dare call the chicks “cute,” they’re too intimidating! We are unsure of his prognosis, but I’ll keep you updated for sure.

A better story is that of my first rescue, several weeks ago now:

It had been a long day. I’d been up since five a.m. to go on a Willow Flycatcher survey with our director, Gail, in the bosque just north of Alameda. That in itself was fantastic, as we saw everything from a flock of Eastern Bluebirds and Black Phoebes (which are probably my favorite just because they’re so adorable) to a Snowy Egret, two types of woodpeckers, and an Indigo Bunting. But it was nearing two p.m. and the afternoon sleepies were hitting me pretty hard—until Lisa, who sits at the desk behind me, turned around and said, “HEY. You wanna come with me on a rescue?”

Well, that woke me up. How could I say no? The one part of Hawks Aloft that I had not yet experienced was rescues, aside from the occasional raptors Lisa would bring in like just another briefcase and keep in the office while she finished up her computer work. (I kid! She treats all the birds with a healthy dose of respect and love, and if I were an injured bird, I’d certainly want her to be the one taking care of me!) We hopped in her car and headed for a vague address in Moriarty. An hour and a half later, I felt nothing but gratitude for the inventor of GPS and a burning curiosity as to what a rescue actually involved. Running around after a panicked bird? Bandaging wings and consoling stricken house owners?

A Prairie Falcon coming in for a landing on a cottonwood tree. Photo by Doug Brown

A Prairie Falcon coming in for a landing on a cottonwood tree. Photo by Doug Brown

Pulling into a beautifully landscaped yard, I was surprised to see the husband actually sitting on the lawn less than a foot away from the bird, which he had been able to approach and take in from his field. Pro-tip: you don’t want your face that close to talons that sharp, much less to pet it just inches away from an equally sharp beak. But I digress. Lisa identified it as a juvenile, probably female, Prairie Falcon, and quickly got to work, first picking up the falcon and looking at its head, then examining its wings for fractures. Here’s where it got interesting for me, since the falcon was clearly well enough to start biting Lisa’s fingers midway through the wing exam: I got to hold the patient! This involved two fingers of one hand around its neck and three of the other around and between its legs, securing its main defenses. After finishing with the wings, which seemed to be in fine condition, she force-fed it a liquid containing amino acids and various other nutrients, wrapped it in a towel, and set it inside the cardboard pet carrier she’d brought with her.

And that was that. Pretty standard procedure, from what I’ve watched of other rescues Lisa has performed; a quick physical and some hydration, then off to a caretaker’s house or a vet’s, depending on the severity of its injuries. A couple days later, she reported that the Prairie Falcon would be unreleasable due to near blindness in one eye. We’re hoping that it can become an Educational Ambassador. Fingers crossed that the permit comes through soon!

I really enjoy going out on rescues, the feeling that I’m doing something to improve a bird’s life, even if that improvement is euthanasia. Loss is a very real aspect of rescue work, and I think it’s probably a good topic for me to learn about in this small and humane way. Buddhism preaches non-attachment and acceptance of life’s innate mutability, but I’m pretty sure anyone could learn that much more personally from just one day’s experience as a rescuer.

A Swainson’s Hawk being harassed by a Western Kingbird. Photo by Doug Brown

A Swainson’s Hawk being harassed by a Western Kingbird. Photo by Doug Brown

To end on a happier note, though, I saw two raptors on our drive to and from picking up the Prairie Falcon. I later identified them (all by myself! go me!) as light-morph Swainson’s Hawks, the first time I’ve seen them as far as I know. Anytime I feel stuck—in my work, relationships, day-to-day life—I think about these beautiful raptors, who soar through the sky and make even the mundane necessity that is hunting a majestic occasion. I’m learning that if I keep my mind as open as their prairie habitats, anything can be awe-inspiring in its own small way.

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Falcon Facts

One of our annual fundraisers is a photo shoot and lecture of some of our educational ambassadors and the wild cousins they represent.  We thank Doug Brown, Keith Bauer and Greg Basco for organizing this as a part of one of their multi-day photography workshops.  You might also note that many of the images that you see on our website and Facebook pages, are donated to us by these superb photographers.  This year, we thought it would be fun to take all four species of falcon that might be found in this region at some time of the year to the class.

Male American Kestrel.  Image by Keith Bauer.

Male American Kestrel. Image by David Powell.

The American Kestrel, represented here by our avian  ambassador, Clark Kent, is the smallest falcon in North America.  In New Mexico, it is present year-round.  One of the fascinating facts about this particular species is that males and females have markedly different plumage.  Clark Kent was named by one of our youngest volunteers, Lindsey Porter.  When given the task, she was told the name must be educational.  “Clark Kent” was named as the alter ego of Superman because Lindsey learned to tell the difference in the sexes when told that “each morning when the boys get up they don their blue Superman cape”, just like the action figure. Females are brown and black barred throughout, except for a circle of blue-gray on their heads.

Meet our newest Educational Ambassador, Merlie, a female Merlin.  Image by Keith Bauer.

Meet our newest Educational Ambassador, Merlie, a female Merlin. Image by Keith Bauer.

Merlins are somewhat larger and definitely heftier than the diminutive kestrels.  In New Mexico, they are present only during the winter months.  They nest in the boreal forest of the northern U.S. and Canada.  “Merlie Falconbird” was named by Will Fetz, six-year-old son of Trevor Fetz, our lead avian biologist.  Will was adamant that Merlie have both a first and last name.  At first glance, Merlins look like a weird female kestrel with the vertically streaked breast and pale malar stripes.  But upon closer inspection, Merlins have banded tails and are stockier than kestrels.  They also have different plumages between males and females but the differences are less obvious. You can tell that Merlie is a juvenile by the bluish membranes around her eyes and nares.

Sunny, the Prairie Falcon.  Image by Keith Bauer.

Sunny, the Prairie Falcon. Image by Keith Bauer.

Prairie Falcons are the large falcon of the arid West.  They are found in drier habitats than their similar sized cousin the Peregrine Falcon, nesting on rock faces and preying primarily on other birds captured after a low coursing flight over uneven terrain.  The Prairie Falcon is brown on the back and whitish and brown on the breast.  “Sunny” was named by Gena Esposito, our education and outreach coordinator in 2013, when he was admitted with his wingtip shorn away.  He was found on a trail by hikers, far from any roads, so we have no idea how he was injured.  He was named Sunny after Butch Cassidy, the Sundance Kid, for his plucky, survival instincts and the dark malar stripe that reminded her of the moustache of the Sundance Kid.  In this image, you can see that Sunny is undergoing a molt.  The darker feathers are the new ones that are growing in, while the pale feathers are the worn ones that are being replaced.

Isis, the Peregrine Falcon.  Image by Keith Bauer.

Isis, the Peregrine Falcon. Image by Keith Bauer.

Isis represents the goddess of the same name, the most powerful of all.  The Peregrine Falcon is the largest falcon in this area, eclipsed only by the Gyrfalcon of the Arctic Regions.  In New Mexico, peregrines nest on tall cliffs, usually near water.  They have been documented by National Geographic diving on prey at speeds of up to 248 MPH.    This makes them the fastest flying birds in the world, in a stoop.   Their prey is generally other birds that they capture in the air.  Isis is an adult peregrine, evidenced by her full black hood.  All falcons have dark eyes.



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Nest Monitoring at New Mexico Tech

I don’t know what we’d do at Hawks Aloft without our many wonderful volunteers.  One such volunteer is Vicky Gonzales.  Vicky has been monitoring this Cooper’s Hawk nest on the campus of New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology in Socorro NM, south of Albuquerque. This nest produced three fledglings.  In the photo below, one is visible in the nest.

babies - new bird (4)At the time these images were taken by Vicky, two of the chicks had branched.  Also called ‘branchers’ this refers to the time period when the young have climbed out of the nest and onto nearby branches in the same tree, but are not yet flighted.NMMT nest  with two fledglings

In the image below, one of the parents stands guard.  Adults wear distinctly different plumage than juveniles.  They have a horizontal rufous barring on their breasts and dark, solid gray backs.  Eye color in Cooper’s Hawks, and all accipiters, changes over time, from blue-eyed babies whose eyes become yellow by the time they are six months old, to the dark red of older adults.  Although it is tempting to try to determine the age of an accipiter by its eye color, the rate of eye color change is variable and can’t reliably be used as an age indicator.

NMMT nest parent

The bird shown below is a visitor to the nest, and not one of the parents.  If you look closely at this bird you will notice a combination of the vertical streaking characteristic of a juvenile and also the rufous barring of the adults.  It also has a yellow eye.  Thus, we can say with confidence that this bird was hatched in 2012.  Perhaps it was one of the fledglings from that year’s nest that is still tolerated by its parents.

NMMT nest visitor

Cooper’s Hawks are found in wooded areas, from dense forests to suburban backyards.  They sometimes show up at backyard feeders, looking for an easy meal – but not sunflower seeds.  They have adapted to city life in their pursuit of Rock Pigeons and other small birds to eat.

Many thanks, Vicky, for monitoring the nest and for your wonderful images of these beautiful birds.


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Rescue Update #2

Remember back in June that Hawks Aloft had one crazy week in which we performed five bird rescues? A previous blog post provided an update on the baby Great Horned Owl.  Here is an update on the American White Pelican with a droopy wing.

The bird was transferred to Lori Paras, Director of the Santa Fe Raptor Center.  They have named her Queen B (B for bug) because of the extraordinary number of bugs in her mouth and on her body.  This is common in pelicans.  They have a symbiotic relationship and the bugs clean  the bird’s mouth and throat.  Queen B had a shoulder girdle fracture a challenging fix for Doc Ramsay. If they do not heal properly, the bird will not be able to fly.


Dr. Kathleen Ramsey of the Cottonwood Veterinary Clinic in Espanola performed surgery on Queen B.  She was under anesthesia for 4 hours, which is a very long time for a bird.  At this point, the surgery appears to have been successful.  The wing is still wrapped and will be until the wing no longer has a severe droop. It will be periodically unwrapped for exams.   The bird’s ultimate rehabilitation outcome is still uncertain.  One very good sign is that she is eating fish from a pool. Since she will be in rehab for a long time, that makes it much easier to feed her and know she is getting proper nutrition.

Pelican2-editedShe currently resides in a 50 foot flight cage and is adapting well to her new surroundings.  She will probably have to winter over in rehab, but Santa Fe is too cold for an American White Pelican. Lori is examining rehabilitation facilities and zoos in the southern part of the state to see if someone can house her for the winter.  Click here to read a story on Queen B from the Albuquerque Journal.


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More Owl Camouflage


Western Screech-Owl nestled in a cavity.  Photo by Doug Brown.

Western Screech-Owl nestled in a cavity. Photo by Doug Brown.

This Western Screech-Owl seems pretty obvious against the reddish bark of this tree.   Generally, owl plumage matches the color of the environment in which they live.  For instance, Great Horned Owls that live in a coniferous forest tend to be darker and grayer, while desert dwelling Great Horned Owls tend to be more of a sandy brown color.  The Western Screech-Owl is commonly found in deciduous riparian forests of western North America.  The most common large tree in these forests is the cottonwood which has a gray bark that perfectly matches the owl’s plumage – or should that be the other way around?

Can you see the owl?  Image by Wendy Brown.

Can you see the owl? Image by Wendy Brown.

In this photo, the Western Screech-Owl largely matches its background.  It would be difficult to see unless one were looking closely. Of course, I helped by cropping the image so the owl is more obvious.

WESO full size - small

Here’s what the image looked like before cropping.

At Hawks Aloft, we try to display our educational ambassadors in the most natural way possible. Our small owls are generally perched on a table top in easy view of the attendees, and we just thought it was time to find a more natural way to display them.  So, we came up with the idea of making a tree perch with bark that matches the color of their plumage so viewers can see just how well camouflaged owls can be.  Below is our first attempt with our red phase Eastern Screech-Owl perched on it.

Can you see me?  Photo by Mike Quaintance.

Can you see me? Photo by Mike Quaintance.

What do you think?

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Burrowing Owl Camouflage

The Burrowing is a variety of different shades of brown, ranging from light to dark.

The Burrowing is a variety of different shades of brown, ranging from light to dark.  Photo by Mike Quaintance.

When looking at our educational Burrowing Owl on display at Festival of the Cranes in Monte Vista, CO earlier in March, it is easy to discern the bird against the whitish background.  It seems that no one could miss the fact that there was a bird perched right in front of their eyes.  But, is this always true?

Burrowing Owl med size

Wild Burrowing Owl in a grassland with green vegetation.  Photo by Charles Cummings.

In this image, the owl is still rather obvious.

Disappearing owl.  Image by Charles Cummings.

Disappearing owl. Image by Charles Cummings.

When threatened, Burrowing Owls retreat into their underground burrows with only the tops of their heads above ground.  In this situation, the owl would be nearly invisible to the casual passerby.

The brown plumage of the Burrowing Owl helps it to blend into its surroundings.

The brown plumage of the Burrowing Owl helps it to blend into its surroundings.

This Burrowing Owl, photographed standing in front of its burrow on the side of an arroyo, has plumage that matches the soil.  It it were to crouch down, it would be difficult to detect.


Burrowing Owl. Image by Mike Stake.

Burrowing Owl. Image by Mike Stake.


Finally, this close-up image, shows how well this owl blends in with the background.  If it weren’t for the bright yellow eyes, you might never know it was there!

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Educating Via Live Raptors

Image by David Powell

Diurnal raptors show sexual di-morphism in size.  The females can be up to 1/3 larger than the males, depending on the species.  We love to show comparisons among the species and among individuals whenever possible.  We often take two or more of the same species to an event so folks can ‘really’ see the differences.  At Festival of the Cranes at Bosque del Apache NWR our two Red-tailed Hawks sat side by side on the same perch.  The size difference is clearly visible when they are this close together.  These two birds, Jamaica (female), and Quemado (male) have shared living space in their expansive outdoor flight cage for many years.  Both are the calurus subspecies, or typical Western Red-tailed Hawks, exhibiting the characteristic belly band and dark head typical of this subspecies.

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How to Age Cooper’s Hawks

Cooper’s Hawk in flight, displaying the long, rounded tail characteristic of the species. Image by Doug Brown.

We were thrilled to receive a new set of images from photographer Doug Brown this past weekend.  He had been photographing migrating  raptors along the Texas Gulf coast and snagged some great shots.   The hawk in the image above  is a second year bird.  While the hawk has mostly the gray feathers of the adult, as well as the rufous color on the breast, some brown feather remain on the back.  Juvenile Cooper’s Hawk have brown backs with some white spots on the upper back.  They molt into the adult plumage with a solid gray back during their second summer.   This bird also shows a yellow-orange eye color which is indicative of age in all accipiters.  However, the rate of change in eye color is variable and cannot be used to definitively age an accipiter.


Cooper’s Hawk displaying the attributes that characterize the species: short, rounded wings and a long tail. Image by Doug Brown.

Cooper’s Hawks belong to the accipiter family, also known as ‘forest’ hawks.  All three North American species, the Sharp-shinned Hawk, the Northern Goshawk, and the Cooper’s Hawk, have similar body shapes and are adept at pursuing prey through dense vegetation.  Cooper’s Hawks are primarily bird-eaters, although they also take small mammals and insects.

Cooper’s Hawk close up. Image by Doug Brown.

In the above image, a few brown juvenile feathers remain on the bird’s back.  Additionally, the gray ‘cap’ that is characteristic of the adult Cooper’s Hawk is not yet complete, also identifying this bird as being in its second summer.  Note the eye color on this hawk is still yellow.  Cooper’s Hawks have a prominent supercilliary bony ridge above their eyes as do Northern Goshawks.  The Sharp-shinned Hawk lacks the bony protrusion, giving it a bug-eyed appearance.

Adult Cooper’s Hawk. Image by Doug Brown.

The above image shows an adult Cooper’s Hawk with a solid gray back and a pronounced gray cap on its head.

Juvenile Cooper’s Hawk. Image by Doug Brown.

Finally, here is a juvenile Cooper’s Hawk with the typical brown back with white spots, the light-colored head, and the very pale eye color.  It is important to remember that eye color alone cannot be used to accurately age any accipiter.

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Amazing Adaptations: Turkey Vulture

Turkey Vulture consuming a skunk.  Image by Mark Winger

“Nature’s Garbage Disposal”, the Turkey Vulture is a carrion specialist.  They have some unique adaptations for their vulturine lifestyle.  Their naked heads remain cleaner when feeding inside large carcasses.  They do not acquire the signature red color on their heads until they are adults. As they age, they acquire a number of spots, or beauty marks, on their heads.   Juveniles have black heads with no beauty marks.  Another adaptation for locating dead animals is their highly developed sense of smell. They can locate carcasses in dense forest by scent alone.  In areas where Black and Turkey Vultures co-exist, Black Vultures, with a lesser sense of smell, often follow Turkey Vultures in the hopes of finding food.

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