Ranger Jen Miller
Cunningham Falls State Park
(6/2012) The best part about being a park ranger is that each work day is unique and not entirely predictable. The unexpected can come in the form of the
sudden appearance of strident wood frogs at the office pond or the urgent call for help from a visitor injured on a trail. Working with animals only seems to increase the odds of a day were nothing goes according to plan. Such a
day was progressing in late August last year when I received a call from the office staff at Cunningham Falls State Park reporting that a hawk was stuck in a grill. "A grill?" I had just shoveled out the barbeque grills around
the lake and saw no sign of a hawk. "Yeah, like the grill of a truck", they repeated, "down near the Catoctin Iron Furnace". What we discovered was almost indescribable. A man had been driving down Rt. 15 North at 65 mph when a
hawk flew low across the road. Approaching the parked truck, I could only see the head and fully outstretched wings of a young hawk sticking out between the inch wide space separating the front bumper and grill. The entirety of
his body and legs were stuck inside the vehicle. And it was still alive. The driver, Ranger Brian Donovan and I quickly set about trying to free the bird. With parts of the grill and bumper pried and removed, I was able to pull
the hawk out only to be rewarded with a fierce footing to the hand. Alive and feisty! My amazement over his survival dulled the realization that another unexpected turn of events had occurred. I would be spending the remaining
portion of my day in the emergency room!
Unfortunately, a bird being hit by a car is not an uncommon occurrence. This is especially true for Red-tailed Hawks. These magnificent birds can be our touch stone to the natural world as they are often
seen along highways in trees and on top of light posts. The development of roadways creates an ideal edge habitat for red-tails. An edge habitat is one with open fields that run along the border of a wooded area. The red-tail
can nest and hunt along the forest edge and survey the grass from soaring heights for food. Red-tailed hawks dine on squirrels, mice, rats, chipmunks, snakes, amphibians, and other small birds. Habitat availability is not the
only reason why much of this prey can be found along roads. The addition of litter, including biodegradable items such as apple cores, increase the likelihood that small rodents will be there looking for an easy meal. This means
that the hawks will also be there.
Both of our resident Red-tailed Hawks were hit by cars. Our smaller, pale male had a whole wing amputation and the larger, redder female is missing an eye and has healed from a broken shoulder. Red-tail
females tend to be about 25% bigger than the males. This is a trend seen throughout the raptor world. Some believe this adaptation occurred to protect females during courtship and mating as raptors are known to kill their own or
similar species due to competition. Despite potential dating hazards, red-tails do have a dynamic love life. Because of her size, the female can be selective about her life-long mate. Flying courtship behavior can be seen when
the male and female hawks interlocking feet while flying high in the sky. The pair then tumbles towards the earth. It is said that if the male lets go first, that the female will not choose him as her mate due to his cowardice.
Iím not certain of the truth of this assertion but it seems fitting for such a bird.
Red-tailed hawks are common in Maryland. Despite their abundance, there are still numerous fatalities as they are hit by cars, shot, and poisoned by lead found in deer carcasses. In fact, the hawk we
pulled from the vehicle in August had to be euthanatized due to the severity of its injuries. What can be done? Disposing of trash and recyclables properly saves the lives of countless animals and keeps the environment clean for
all to enjoy. If you are a hunter, bury deer remains so that hawks, eagles, and vultures can not ingest the lead shot remaining in the entrails and carcass. To learn more about red-tailed hawks and view a live Red-tailed hawk
nest cam go to Cornell Lab of Ornithology All About Birds webpage.
Native Americans view the Red-tailed hawk as a totem or medicine that encourages one to see problems or struggles for what they really are. The hawk soars high above us and all our worldly issues. May
this hawk medicine guide and be with you always.
Read other articles by Ranger Jen Miller