It’s quiet on the back roads of Boyds, Md., where a small compound studded with bird feeders breaks up the monotony of the surrounding cornfields.
Suddenly, a souped-up Toyota Tacoma kicks up a cloud of dust as it pulls into view on a gravel path. It slows to a halt. A figure steps out of the truck: a woman with a glove covering one arm and a sleeve of hawk tattoos covering the other. Reaching into the passenger seat, she pulls out a box, one that seems to be fighting her back.
This one, I knew, would be headed for the I.C.U.
Nancy McDonald is a volunteer rescuer at the Owl Moon Raptor Center, an organization based in Boyds that helps rescue and rehabilitate injured raptors — including hawks, owls, eagles and ospreys — before returning them to the wild.
The word “raptor” derives from the Latin verb “rapiō,” meaning “to seize.” All raptors have four characteristics: a hooked beak, sharp talons, keen eyesight and a carnivorous diet.
In some respects, birds of prey that live among human populations have a fragile life cycle. The threats they face include rodenticides (pesticides that kill rodents), entanglement with fishing lines and wires, car strikes and collisions with windows.
In other ways, though, the animals are incredibly adaptive.
Peregrine falcons sometimes use high-rise buildings as their aeries; ospreys can occupy man-made platforms to raise their chicks; and committees of vultures sometimes take over dumpsters, said Ms. McDonald, a 62-year-old U.S. Army veteran who began as a rescue volunteer in 2017. (And yes, “committee” is one of the terms for a group of vultures.)
I first learned about Ms. McDonald and the Owl Moon Raptor Center, whose primary operator is Suzanne Shoemaker, an expert in animal behavior and ecology, when I was a college student in Washington, D.C. Then an aspiring wildlife photographer, I assumed I’d have to travel to far-flung places in order to find subjects to photograph.
And yet, on my way to and from classes, I would often see hawks soaring above the cityscape. Eventually I began to track the birds in between lectures, searching for signs of broken branches or the carcasses of their prey. Spending so much time looking for hints of the birds led me to wonder about the threats they faced and about those who worked to save them.
When the pandemic hit in 2020, I moved back to my family home in the suburbs. But still intrigued by the birds, I posted a question in a local birding group on Facebook, and Ms. McDonald answered. She invited me to visit Owl Moon and learn about the threats that plague urban raptors.
After my initial visit, I was hooked. For weeks I accompanied Ms. McDonald as she went about her work — on rescues, on hikes to the rehabilitation field, into the freezers to mince mice carcasses. We even shared a bottle of whiskey when a bird we both loved had to be humanely euthanized.
Not all the work was uplifting. On one occasion, a red-tailed hawk named Kean was found to be sitting on top of and crushing other birds in the mew, a large birdhouse designed to hold several raptors. (After colliding with a high-rise in Baltimore, the bird was suffering from neurological and behavioral issues.) In the end, Kean’s condition exacerbated the injuries of other birds, limiting their chances to heal.
It was a race against time. Ms. McDonald tried to find another home for the bird, calling other rehab centers that she thought might want the hawk as an ambassador bird, or a bird used for educational purposes with students and other visitors. But no one else had room for what some saw as “yet another red-tailed hawk.” (Many centers may have made room for a more exotic bird.)
Having exhausted all other options, and understanding that the bird’s condition was too dangerous to the other releasable birds, the Owl Moon Raptor Center had no choice but to euthanize Kean.
Euthanasia is an unfortunate reality of raptor rescues. In many instances, it is the only humane way forward after rodenticide poisonings or collisions with windows or cars. Still, for the anguished volunteers, each loss is painful.
Of course, it’s the successes that drive the raptor rescuers forward. Ms. McDonald still remembers one of the first tasks she was given when she joined the organization: to release a rehabbed red-tailed hawk in Crofton, Md.
“I opened the box and it hopped out,” she said. “The hawk just sat there for about 10 minutes, getting its bearings — and then, all of a sudden, it took off.” That was the first time she knew that she was part of something valuable, she said.
I spent a good deal of my time at Owl Moon in and around the mew, where many of the hawks are held. The wooden floorboards creaked as I came and went, accompanied by the rustling of more than 20 birds of prey who were confined while being rehabilitated.
I would watch and photograph as the rescuers carefully prepared for their daily rounds. They pulled on oversize Kevlar gloves and equipped themselves with 12-foot nets. Then they got ready to duck. There was a flurry of feathers as they entered the room with the birds, the newly admitted red-shouldered and red-tailed hawks scattering to the top of their enclosure.
To those who work at Owl Moon, each bird’s journey is part of their own. Both the birds and their rehabbers yearn for the day the raptors can fly free. But in offering the birds another chance, the rescuers themselves gain something, too: lessons about resilience, adaptation and recovery.
As a photographer, I learned something important from the birds, too — namely that profound conservation stories needn’t take me to the ends of the earth. They’re to be found all around us, in our cities and suburbs, if only we’re willing to look.
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