Dealing with Sick and Injured Raptors
Most sick or injured raptors found by people are collision victims. A sick or head-injured raptor will sit drooping its head and looking fluffed up. In contrast, an otherwise injured raptor is sleek, until you get close when it may puff its feathers as a threat.
Minimising stress to the raptor is your first priority. Wild birds are often killed by shock rather than the injuries they receive. If an adult raptor allows you to approach it, it may be in shock, or badly injured. Don’t handle the bird too much and further stress it. Concentrate on how to secure the raptor.
Raptors are powerful animals, with even the smallest species such as Southern Boobooks or kestrels having astounding power in their feet and talons. Raptors flip onto their backs and present their talons, their most dangerous weapons, to hurt their enemies. It is important that you pick up the raptor carefully. One procedure is:
- if the raptor is on its back defending itself, toss a towel over it, or use some fabric tossed towards it to engage its claws;
- place a hand in the middle of the raptor’s back and press down and forward so that its legs extend backwards out under its tail;
- encircle the body, including both wings and legs, by wrapping your hands around the raptor’s lower back just above where tail feathers emerge;
- pick it up with its beak facing away from you and carefully disengage claws from the netting or foliage. Place a finger between the raptor’s tarsi so it does not grab its own feet (see below).
Biologists or rehabilitators working long enough with owls, hawks, falcons, or eagles, will be grabbed by the raptor he or she is trying to hold. If grabbed by a raptors talons the following rules should be followed:
- If alone, hold the raptor firmly so it cannot free the other leg and grab you with the other foot.
- Do not make jerky movements that can hurt the raptor, or dig the talons in deeper into the person. Stay calm.
- You, or an assistant, need to straighten the raptor’s leg, not by pulling the leg out, but, instead, by grasping the femur, tibia, and tarsus, and gently forcing the bends out of the raptor’s leg so the locking tendons that hold the four grasping talons curled into you, are released. This tendon arrangement gives the raptor its powerful grip, and allows the raptor to sleep on a perch without falling off. By understanding this locking mechanism, you can use it to your benefit.
- With the raptor’s leg straightened, remember that talons are deeply curved, not straight, and each talon is concave underneath, not tubular (except for Black-shouldered Kites). That is, with the leg straightened, if you pull the talons straight out of you, they will pull out your flesh with them. Carefully pull out each talon around the curve of its shape, one at a time.
- Disengage each talon from your clothing.
Raptors should never be placed in wire cages. Wire damages the feathers and cere and makes the raptor unreleasable. Place the raptor in a darkened cardboard box (see below) perforated with holes along its sides near the bottom, lined with newspaper or a towel. Do not use straw or sawdust, and do not place water in the box. Do not try to feed the raptor; keep the raptor cool.
Take the raptor to your local wildlife carer/rehabilitation group (e.g. WIRES in NSW) or to the RSPCA. If you do a lot of raptor rehabilitation, keep hoods available as they sedate the bird and prevent it from injuring itself (see below).
If you keep raptors for any length of time, consider properly designed non-wire pens.
Returning raptors to the wild is rewarding, a way of redressing the balance. After all, most were injured by humans or human-built structures in the first place.
This information is an excerpt from Australian High Country Raptors by Jerry Olsen (Appendix 2 Sick and injured raptors).
Further information on rehabilitating Owls can be found in Australian High Country Owls by Jerry Olsen (Appendix B Rehabilitating injured and orphaned owls).
Anita Corbran is the captive raptor advisor for the BirdLife Australia Raptor Group (firstname.lastname@example.org).