A great black hawk pulled from the clutches of a frozen death in Portland is hungrily eating mouse medallions and seems to be well on the road to recovery, officials at Avian Haven in Freedom said Wednesday.
The out-of-place tropical bird, a feathered celebrity in Maine since it landed here last August, may only lose part of one toe, said Diane Winn, the co-founder of Avian Haven. Talons grow from the toes of birds, and if a bird loses the tip of a toe, the talon will be lost, too, she said. The great black hawk was taken to the wild bird rehabilitation center after being rescued on Sunday from Deering Oaks Park in Portland.
It’s too early to figure out what will come next for the hawk.
“Right now, it’s really let’s wait and see how well it recovers,” Mark Latti, spokesman for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife, said Wednesday. “We can’t decide a course of action before we know what kind of health it returns to.”
Many in Maine and beyond are rooting for the raptor, which last year flew thousands of miles from its home range in Mexico and Central America. It was spotted in the spring at South Padre Island in Texas, where it was believed to be the first of its kind in the United States. Then it showed up in August in Biddeford, where it was a big surprise to Maine birders, according to Doug Hitchcox, a staff naturalist at Maine Audubon.
“In Texas, people said, ‘it’s bizarre that this bird wandered north,’ but it was only a few hundred miles,” he said. “For that same individual to show up in Maine last August blew everyone’s mind.”
Birders were further astonished last fall when the hawk made itself comfortable at Deering Oaks Park in Portland. There, it has been attracting “easily thousands” of birdwatchers from all over, Hitchcox said, and has been dining on squirrels, pigeons, rats and other urban fare.
But it took a turn for the worse over the weekend, when it was found on the ground and unable to stand by a man who sought to help the bird. He was joined by a cross-country skier who had raptor experience and was able to get the bird safely to a warm place, then called the center.
Because of the storm, it took Avian Haven volunteers a total of four hours to make what would normally be a 90-minute trip.
In updates shared on its Facebook page, Avian Haven officials have been letting people know about the bird’s progress. They have not yet been able to determine the sex of the hawk, because there is little difference between the male and female of this species in size, weight and plumage.
There’s been a lot of interest in the hawk, Winn said, saying that the rehabilitation center is “very swamped” with calls and emails from people who want to know how it is doing.
“Our Facebook manager is asking people to please not call here,” she said.
The nonprofit agency also has received more than 250 online donations since the bird arrived at the center on Sunday, she said. Avian Haven is not funded by governmental agencies and depends on private donations and foundation grants to pay for its operating expenses.
Winn, like Latti, said it is too soon to start making plans for the bird’s future, in part because they do not know the ultimate extent of frostbite damage to its feet. They also are not 100 percent sure of the hawk’s subspecies, and therefore its likely country of origin.
But the future is on the minds of many of the bird’s fans. Nick Lund, the outreach and network manager with Maine Audubon, considered some of the possible outcomes for the great black hawk in an article on the organization’s website. If the hawk’s injuries are so severe that it cannot be released, it is possible it could become a wildlife ambassador, Lund said.
“Not every bird is the right fit for that,” he said. “A bird’s temperament and comfort with being handled plays a role.”
If the hawk makes a full recovery and can be released, officials will need to decide where to let it go. A poll on the Maine Audubon website indicates that 65 percent of respondents would like to see it released in its home range, while just 10 percent want it to be released in Maine. Bringing the bird to its home territory would pose logistical challenges, Hitchcox, the naturalist, said, and would not guarantee its survival. More than that, it also could bring up some thorny ethical questions.
“Maybe the best way is to think of it from a natural perspective. This bird essentially selected itself,” he said. “This bird flew thousands of miles off course. It should not contribute to its gene pool. There could be something wrong with it. Something happened in its decision making that told it to fly thousands of miles in the wrong direction. We don’t want this bird breeding with other great black hawks. It’s just a can of worms.”