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Sonoma County Gazette
Dr. Michael Trapani with a Red Tail Hawk

An Unexpected Visitor

Mar 16, 2018
by Dr. Michael Trapani


Wild animals are in constant need of care and we have a policy of helping them. Usually this means serving as a stop on their journey along the Rescue Railroad (my personal term for the vast wildlife rescue network in our area). We will accept nearly any species of distressed wildlife into the hospital. Sometimes we can help them ourselves, but most often the care that a particular species requires is so specific that our role is limited to first aid and sheltering them until someone from the appropriate wildlife rescue group arrives to transport them to the proper care facility.

Sea birds area fine example: The housing and nutritional needs of a Brown Pelican are vastly different from those of a White Pelican, even though the species are similar. The Brown Pelicans I have known have been easy going birds who rapidly learned to accept fish proffered by humans. They don’t understand why we give them fish, but this doesn’t stop them from chugging those fish down by the pound! They seem to look forward to human visits to their cage, knowing there’s a sardine or three coming.

The White Pelican I met was an entirely different matter. This lily white, turkey sized Velociraptor was keen to charge the cage bars in a whole hearted effort to rip the flesh from our bones. There was a seriousness to these efforts that was outright scary, and we had to keep his (?) cage covered lest he harm himself in his fury. This White Pelican had been entangled in fishing line. Since he was otherwise unhurt, we cut him free and opted for direct release to the mud flats of Bodega Bay, where his cohorts congregate. Normally, it is only necessary to keep sea birds swaddled in a thick towel to control them when they are placed in a carrier for transport. In this case, the bird was so aggressive that we had to both hold him, AND keep a firm grip on his beak to keep him from hurting us or himself during the five-minute ride to the shore!

Wild animals, even similar species, have very specific handling, housing, and feeding needs. It is critical that these creatures be turned over to the appropriate care facility if there is to be any chance of success in their rehabilitation. Handling these animals is not a task for the inexperienced, and even professionals know better than to dabble with unfamiliar species. We send these animals through the Rescue Railroad so that trained experts can give them the care they require for return to the wild.

Birds of prey are species with which we are more familiar. These magnificent birds are smart and gentle when handled properly. Hawks usually do not bite (not that we ever rely on it!), but allowing one to sink its talons into your flesh is a mistake that a hawk handler will make only once. The strength of these birds is truly amazing and they DON’T LET GO. Once properly restrained and their feet controlled, however, these intensely intelligent birds respond well to appropriate care and nutrition.

This young Red-Tailed Hawk was so young that he (?) didn’t even have lice! His juvenile coloration led me to first believe that he was a Cooper’s Hawk, since his tail had no red at all. It soon became clear that he was a first year bird, beat up, starving, and unable to get by on his own. A friend had seen the droop-winged bird walking along the side of the road. We drove to the site and found him on the ground, unable to fly even ten feet between fallen branches.

I spoke to the bird and calmed him enough to wrap his wings with a thick towel, then made sure his feet were safely tucked away for the trip to the hospital. Once there, we gave him a physical exam and determined that his wings were intact (and that he would indeed be able to fly again), then fed him a meal and settled him in for the night.

We contacted Sonoma County Wildlife Rescue (a favorite local rescue group) to arrange his transfer. After feeding our friend breakfast and checking him for parasites (since we had plenty of hawk poop to check), we passed him on to the rehabilitation staff to start his journey back to the wild. He was with us only 16 hours, but I’ll never forget him.

Be a friend to wildlife. Volunteer or donate to Sonoma County Wildlife Rescue!

Visit the BBVH Facebook page at to see more pictures of our friend.


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