Friday, October 10, 2008

Go Big Red

I get the call a couple of times a year: "A hawk flew inside the building, and now it can't find its way out." Usually it's a small bird-catching hawk that entered a structure in hot pursuit of some English sparrows, and I've trapped a number of sharp-shinned hawks, Cooper's hawks, and American kestrels from commercial locations such as a lumberyard, a metal-plating shop, a brick factory, a warehouse-style furniture store, a document-storage facility... Today's job was slightly different: the bird turned out to be a haggard red-tailed hawk, and the building was the Nebraska Cornhuskers' indoor training facility at, yes, the Hawks Championship Center (named for a major donor, not in anticipation of visiting raptors). Fortunately the football team has an away game this weekend, and so the field house was emptier and quieter today than usual.

The Hawks Center is huge, comparable to an aircraft hangar—well, of course there's a football field inside, which should help to define the scale. Five national-championship banners (1970, 1971, 1994, 1995, 1997) are displayed prominently at one end of the field house; another banner hanging from a catwalk commemorates dozens of Nebraska football conference championships dating back to when they played in the Missouri Valley Conference (but omits a few conference titles in the pre-Cornhuskers era when they took the field as the Bugeaters). Everything in there is red and white, with the exception of the green portions of the field itself and two John Deere "Gator" UTVs.

Why the redtail flew in I'm not sure—the sparrow-chasing scenario doesn't really fit—but she had been there three and a half days and the athletic department, to their credit, called Raptor Recovery Nebraska, who in turn called me. How the redtail got in was more obvious: Visible in the photo above (borrowed from are several large garage doors which open onto an outdoor practice field. Once inside, however, hawks have a tendency to stay in the upper reaches of a building, flying among the rafters and ignoring the garage doors as a potential exit. Which is why I get the call...

Artificial turf makes poor habitat for wildlife, and a sharpie, Cooper's, or kestrel would be nearing the starvation point after several days in a building with no food, but a redtail in good condition could conceivably go a week without eating in warm weather such as we've been enjoying (or experiencing, at any rate). Hoping for the best, I deployed a bal-chatri, loaded with two white mice and an English sparrow, at the 45-yard line between the hash marks, then hid myself behind an enormous stack of red gym mats and settled in to wait.

And wait.

And wait.

A hungry hawk would have slammed the trap right away, but nearly an hour passed before Big Red deigned to circle overhead. A few minutes later, she landed on the turf three yards away—not an estimate, thanks to the specifics of the location—and walked around the trap peering at its inmates. (A friend of mine, also a falconer, calls this the "kicking the tires" routine.) Eventually she hopped on top and began footing half-heartedly, then flew off dragging the trap, a middle toe caught by a single noose—which promptly broke. The trap, of course, flipped upside-down, so even if she hadn't been made trap-shy by her brief entanglement...well, let's just say it's hard to casually saunter up to a bal-chatri, turn it over, and continue on under the watchful eye of an adult hawk without her getting just a wee bit suspicious of the easy meal.

On, then, to Plan B.

I returned in the late afternoon with Ellie and a dark grey mouse, hoping that Big Red wouldn't make a connection between the suspicious, enclosed white mice and this more natural-looking offering. The facility manager opened one of the garage doors, we tethered the mouse near the cavernous opening, and once again settled in to wait.

And wait.

And wait.

Ellie's got a pretty good attention span for a nine-year-old, and enjoys hawk-craft to a degree, but eventually got bored and started asking when we could go home. I pointed out how lucky we were to get an insider's look at the NU facilities, and I reminded her that Big Red had been stuck inside for days, and therefore could make a much better case for boredom. Soon Ellie was rolling in the soft grass laughing at mock journal entries:

Day 4 of my captivity. Starting to hate the music here, but the weather remains consistent. Food appears at last—pallid and strangely uncooperative. I forgo eating, and instead fly to the other end of the building. Looks much the same from this perspective. I fly back, then turn and fly to the other end. Then turn and fly back...

Finally, though, the hawk forsakes her habitual perches at either end of the field house for a beam above mid-field. She seems interested in the grey mouse, but perhaps a bit suspicious. At least she's looking now... Suddenly she's stooping toward the mouse. But wait—she's landed short of it by about...five feet? This is well out of bounds, so it's harder to tell. At last she strides over to the mouse, pins it to the artificial turf with a bright-yellow, nicely-taloned foot, and goes to work with her beak.

As Big Red eats—and fortunately, she takes a leisurely approach—Ellie skirts the far sideline until she is directly opposite the hawk, framed in the sunlight streaming in through the garage door. Then she rushes the hawk, sixty-odd pounds of nine-year-old girl blitzing three pounds of hollow-boned, feather-clad raptor; Big Red decides to take the hint (and what's left of the mouse) and flies through the doorway, free at last. She finishes her repast atop a chain-link fence outside the Hawks Center and then, at my approach, flaps out over the North Bottoms neighborhood where two crows rise from the trees in protest as she resumes her life out of doors.

Go Big Red.


Remchick said...

What a wonderful post! Thanks for the description!

Matt Mullenix said...

Our "first catch" of the year this season was a piegon trapped for several days in LSU's very similar indoor football facility. I got the call during the aftermath of Gustav, when I didn't have anything better to do anyway.

Hunting in a hangar was a new experience for Ernie the Harris but not a flight for the record books... :-)