Once injured, red-tailed hawk serves as educational animal ambassador
Editor's note: This column is reprinted from "Horizons," the quarterly publication of the Lake County Forest Preserves. You can subscribe to receive the free magazine at lcfpd.wufoo.com/forms/horizons-quarterly.
With a badly injured right wing, the future was uncertain for a 4-month-old red-tailed hawk found near Highland Park in the summer of 1988. The hawk was taken to a wildlife rehabilitation facility, but after healing, it could only glide short distances.
It was unable to gain enough lift to soar and hunt, and as a raptor both skills are necessary for survival in the wild. The Lake County Forest Preserves staff recognized this hawk could touch many lives as an ambassador for birds of prey. So a home was built at Ryerson Conservation Area in Riverwoods where the bird became an honorary environmental educator.
It's difficult to determine the age and gender of a young hawk, but as they grow certain markers become evident. This hawk's striped tail feathers and lighter eye color indicated it was immature, and its larger size implied it may be female, as males are smaller.
Shortly after taking up residence at Ryerson, the juvenile hawk began to molt into its adult plumage, its eye color darkened gradually over the next few years, and its gender was confirmed as female when she began to lay eggs. Up until just a few years ago, when she stopped laying eggs, she instinctively built a nest to hold her different colored eggs using sticks and evergreen branches we provided for her.
For the hawk and other wild birds, egg laying is a natural, seasonal process that doesn't always require the presence of a male; however, such eggs are infertile and will not hatch.
She lives outside year-round in an enclosed structure, called a mews, built specifically for her. The mews protects her from stormy weather and predators, and provides a secure place for her to feed and nest.
Because her species is protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the Forest Preserves must hold state and federal permits to keep her.
The hawk, now 31, is tended to by environmental educators. Volunteers also donate their time each weekend. Staff members maintain regulatory permits and complete required government reports that hold the Forest Preserves accountable for her care.
Throughout her long life, the hawk has served as an educational assistant to our staff during school programs, summer camps and special events. Though not formally trained, she has become well-conditioned for public interactions.
"People are drawn to her when we are in public. She's a conversation starter, and a strong teaching tool, assistant and educational animal ambassador," said Nan Buckardt, director of education at the Lake County Forest Preserves.
Because she is a wild raptor, staff refrains from assigning her any human attributes like a name. This helps communicate to the public that wild animals are not pets and should always be handled with caution and care. "If you look closely, you will see leather anklets on our hawk, called jesses, which stay on at all times to help the handler safely and easily manage her," Buckardt said.
On average, red-tailed hawks live between 10-21 years in the wild and up to 29 years in captivity.
Each year in summer, the hawk molts some of her body feathers, and by winter they are replaced. Feathers are composed of beta-keratin, the same as human fingernails, arranged in a branching structure.
A special permit, for which the Forest Preserves apply annually, allows us to send discarded feathers in good condition to a repository in Colorado for Native ceremonial traditions, Buckardt said. Another government permit allows us to use the remaining feathers for educational purposes.
• Kim Mikus is a communications specialist for the Lake County Forest Preserves. She supplies a bimonthly column about various aspects of the preserves. Contact her with ideas or questions at kmikuscroke@LCFPD.org. Connect with the Lake County Forest Preserves on social media @LCFPD.
Red-tailed Hawk FactsScientific name: Buteo jamaicensis
Height: 17-22 inches (male), 18-25 inches (female)
Weight: 1.5-2.8 pounds (male), 1.9-3.2 pounds (female)
Wingspan: 4 feet
Diet: Small mammals, birds and reptiles
Eyesight: 8 times better than humans.
Vocalizations: Hoarse scream; shrill clucking
Did you know?
• Talons are razor sharp.
• Beaks grow like our fingernails.
• Most iconic eagle cries in movies are the scream of a red-tailed hawk.
• Strength is in their legs and feet.
• Interlocking barbules on feathers, similar to teeth on a zipper, form a wind- and waterproof barrier.