A life-sized, bronze statue of the South American Great Black Hawk that lived for a time in Portland's Deering Oaks Park is unveiled on Friday, near the grove of pine and fir trees the bird seemed to favor. Private donations paid for the $28,000 piece. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

PORTLAND, Maine — The confused, Great Black Hawk that soared into Mainers’ hearts when it showed up in Deering Oaks Park in late 2018 will now live there forever — in bronze.

A $28,000 statue commemorating the raptor, which died from frostbite complications in January 2019, was unveiled in the park Friday morning.

Anne Pringle, president of Friends of Deering Oaks and Diane Davison, an Avian Haven wild bird rehabilitation board member, spearheaded the fundraising and organizational efforts. Harmony wildlife sculptor David Smus created the 25-inch, life-sized, gleaming effigy sitting atop a granite pillar.

“It was a very unique event that drew a lot of people to the park, from the kids at King Middle School across the street, other parts of Maine — and all over the country,” Pringle said. “I, personally, saw it about six times.”

The juvenile hawk, far from its home in Central and South America, arrived in Deering Oaks in November 2018 for unknown reasons. It immediately attracted large crowds of birders and regular Mainers curious about the unexpected visitor. Instead of feeding on its native diet of lizards and other reptiles, the hawk laid waste to the park’s squirrel population. It often was photographed with a bloody mass of fur and entrails in its grasp.

The Great Black Hawk, however, was poorly suited to Maine’s winter weather. It was found on the ground in January 2019 with severely frostbitten legs. Experts at Avian Haven in Freedom tried to nurse it back to health but to no avail. Eventually, the decision was made to euthanize it.

Julia Kirby of Portland’s Public Art Committee unwraps a statue of Deering Oaks’ Great Black Hawk on Friday in front of television cameras and a small crowd. The hawk arrived in November 2018 and died of frostbite the following January. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Designed in 1879, Deering Oaks Park has just one other statue within its borders. In May 1924, the park received “The Hiker” Spanish American War memorial. The Great Black Hawk is the first likeness to be solemnized since then.

Pringle said the statue is not about the bird itself, so much as the events surrounding it.

“This is not memorializing someone — not even memorializing the bird,” she said. “It was a community event at Deering Oaks, because of this unusual visitation.”

The statue had to pass muster with several city organizations before coming to fruition, including Friends of Deering Oaks, the parks commission, historic preservation board, public art committee and city council.

“It was approved by all five bodies, unanimously, which reflects how many people had actually seen the hawk, and how it resonated with a lot of people,” Pringle said.

To raise the needed cash, individual donors gave from $5 to $500. Local businesses also kicked in thousands of dollars. Donations came from outside Maine, too.

“Some of the money came from Nebraska, Texas, Louisiana, Tennessee,” Pringle said. “Somehow, people found out about this.”

Despite the new statue, the central question of the Great Black Hawk’s decision to fly here remains a mystery.

“Nobody will ever be able to answer why it came here, so far from its range,” Pringle said. “It’s always going to be an open question. Why was it here? We’ll never know.”

Here’s an illustrated timeline of the Great Black Hawk’s transformation from bewildered youngster to bronzed city icon.

Nov. 29, 2018

The hawk, which was spotted in Texas in April and then Biddeford in August, takes up residence in Deering Oaks. Birders immediately begin to flock to the park. Audubon staff naturalist Doug Hitchcox tells BDN Portland that it’s the first great black hawk ever to be spotted in the United States.

Associated Press photographer Robert F. Bukaty documented the Great Black Hawk and its admirers in November. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty/ AP

December 2018

By the first of the month, nearly every Maine media outlet has published a story or two on the Great Black Hawk. The New York Times, Associated Press and Boston Globe have also spent time covering the feathered visitor. Birders show up under the oaks every day, watching it pick off squirrels. King Middle Schoolers, just across the street, name it Hector. Its gender is never actually determined, being too young to tell.

People also start to get conceded about the hawk, wondering if it can survive a Maine winter. It’s long, bare legs are good for keeping cool in the tropics but not suited to staying warm in the cold.

Jan. 2019

Temperatures drop below zero amid a series of snow and sleet storms. Volunteers start searching grounds at Deering Oaks Park, expecting to find the Great Black Hawk in distress. Signs appear urging anyone who sees the bird on the ground to call Avian Haven.

Jan. 20, 2019

The BDN reports two volunteers find the bird on the ground, unable to stand during a snowstorm. Because of the storm, it takes four hours to get the hawk to Avian Haven in Freedom. Once there, it’s discovered to have severely frostbitten feet.

Jan. 23, 2019

Under Avian Haven’s care, the Great Black Hawk begins to recover. The BDN reports that it is eating well and standing on its own, bandaged feet. Avian Haven experts say the bird might lose a toe. The organization receives more than 250 online donations in the first 24 hours and is swamped by well-wishing phone calls, which it stops answering.

Jan. 28, 2019

The Great Black Hawk’s health takes a turn for the worse, the BDN reports, as the frostbite continues to take its toll.

“The condition is currently very serious, and we may not have seen the worst of it yet, but some hope remains,” Avian Haven said in a Facebook post. “As all of you know, this hawk is a trooper.”

The Great Black Hawk that has been attracting birdwatchers to Portland’s Deering Oaks Park was found on the ground with frostbitten feet on Sunday. It was transported to Avian Haven in Freedom where it is being cared for. Credit: Courtesy of Avian Haven

Jan. 30, 2019

Due to extensive frostbite damage on both feet, the decision is made to euthanize the Great Black Hawk.

“That decision was tinged with regret, sorrow, even heartbreak. It was seen by some of us as an end of suffering, and by others as the release of a spirit from its hopelessly damaged shell,” Avian Haven said in a lengthy Facebook post. “Either way, all of us believed it was the only course of action that was fair to the hawk.”

Almost immediately, people begin to talk of a permanent memorial to the Great Black Hawk. A temporary shrine dedicated to it appears the next day on the bridge in Deering Oaks. Amid the shining candles and flowers are several drawings depicting the bird as a phoenix along with the city’s motto, “resurgam”, meaning “I rise.”

The BDN publishes a tribute song called “The Hawk that Flew the Wrong Way” and its death is noted in national media outlets.

May 2019

BDN Portland reports that Friends of Deering Oaks is officially raising funds for a bronze statue.

Feb. 2, 2020

The Associated Press announces the Maine State Museum is having the Great Black Hawk’s body mounted by avian taxidermist Tom Berube of Poland and plans to display it.

The taxidermic remains if the famous Great Black Hawk from Portland’s Deering Oaks Park will be on display at the Maine State Museum in Augusta when it reopens after renovations. Credit: Courtesy of Paula Work, Maine State Museum

July 17, 2020

Friends of Deering Oaks unveils the bronze likeness of the Great Black Hawk on the western end of the park.

Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled David Smus’ name.

Troy R. Bennett

Troy R. Bennett

Troy R. Bennett is a Buxton native and longtime Portland resident whose photojournalism has appeared in media outlets all over the world.