After an Injury, Maine’s Famous Great Black Hawk Faces an Uncertain Future

[Updated] Rehabbers helping the stray raptor from Mexico now face an ethical dilemma: Where to release a bird thousands of miles from home?

Update: 1/31: Today Avian Haven announced in a Facebook post that it had to euthanize the Great Black Hawk. The damage from the frostbite was too severe and the bird had lost all circulation in its feet and lower legs. You can read more about the decision here

Update 1/28: According to a post on Avian Haven's Facebook page today, the skin on the Great Black Hawk's feet has seen "significant deterioration" in the past two days. Caretakers continue with treatments and hope to assess the severity of the damage later this week. 

The phones have been ringing more than usual at a Maine bird hospital ever since a new patient arrived at the end of January. Callers check in on the bird’s recovery, offer medical advice, and beg to visit the unusual patient. What could be causing such a stir? A Great Black Hawk that took up residency in the state late last year, thousands of miles north of its native range in Central America, and that is now in treatment for frostbite. 

The hawk gained celebrity status over the past few months for its unlikely stay at a park in southern Maine, attracting spectators from across the country. “This bird is certainly our most famous patient,” Diane Winn, the executive director of Avian Haven, where the hawk is being treated, wrote in an email to Audubon.

From its usual haunt at Deering Oaks Park in downtown Portland, the hawk occupied itself by hunting squirrels and rats and fared well despite the snowy conditions, according to its many attentive onlookers.

Then, the mercury dropped. 

On an icy Sunday morning, with temperatures hovering around 8°F, a man strolling through the park discovered the hawk on the ground, unable to stand. He was soon joined by a skier who recognized the famed animal from signs hanging around the park, which also advertised Avian Haven’s phone number in case the hawk appeared in distress. She brought the bird home in a cardboard box, called up the rescue, and arranged for its transport through a volunteer-run shuttle. The drive usually takes an hour and a half; on January 20 it took almost four hours on the sleet-covered roads. 

The hawk was unresponsive when it left Portland. But along the route, in the car’s welcome heat and shelter, it began perking up. The bird opened its eyes at a handoff between drivers, and was active by the time it arrived at the hospital in early evening, according to a Facebook post by Avian Haven. Hospital staff bandaged the bird’s feet and by morning it was alert and standing.

After a full exam and initial bloodwork, a staff veterinarian said the hawk will lose part of its outer toe to frostbite, but is doing well and eating meals of mice with gusto. Now, the big question looming over the recovering bird is what happens next.

The hospital is giving no answers. “No one is thinking that far ahead,” Winn says. But experts say hospital staff have a few options—and all will likely draw criticism.

“Whatever they decide to do, there are going to people who are unhappy,” says renowned ornithologist Kenn Kaufman, who’s also a field editor for Audubon.

Generally, when a bird is found outside of its range and brought to a wildlife hospital, rehabilitators consult a species expert to figure out where to release it, says Beth Lott, who rehabilitates raptors at the Audubon Center for Birds of Prey in Florida. If the bird missed its migration window, hospitals will often work with other animal rescues and rehab centers to transport the bird to a better location for release. But the Great Black Hawk in Maine, many thousands of miles north of its typical range, is an extreme case. “It’s not easy when something is that far off track,” Lott says.

If the hawk survives, which seems likely, wildlife managers have three choices: release the bird in Maine, transport it across the United States to its native range, or keep the animal in captivity as an educational bird. All come with pros and cons.

“We get arguments like this practically every year with much smaller birds,” Kaufman says—a Rufous Hummingbird will show up for a Massachusetts winter, a Vermilion Flycatcher will appear in Montana, a Smew will emerge in Oregon. Even if it’s not injured, locals will begin discussing whether they should help and how. “Usually the bird winds up dying or disappearing while people are still arguing,” Kaufman says.

The Great Black Hawk, however, is already in captivity, necessitating some sort of plan. And whatever the decision, the bird is far too popular, rare, and large to escape public notice. (Great Black Hawks are about two feet long and have wingspans stretching more than four feet.) 

Releasing the bird in Maine is the best solution, according to Doug Armstrong, a conservation bioligist who studies wildlife translocation at Massey University in New Zealand. The bird can attempt to ride out the rest of winter or maybe try to find its way home. Doug Hitchcox, a naturalist with Maine Audubon, agrees that keeping the hawk in the area would be the best course of action. “The bird flew here on its own volition,” he said over email. “It was in good health despite the frostbite when it was captured, so I think we need to let nature take its course and relocate the bird to the park."

Other rehabilitators say the bird should be relocated closer to its natural habitat. “You have to think about the bird first and not worry about all of that [other] stuff,” says Lori Arent, assistant director of the University of Minnesota’s Raptor Center. Her goal is to release birds that are healthy and capable of breeding. In Maine, the hawk doesn’t have many dating prospects. 

Wildlife agencies could transport the bird to southern Texas, where it appeared last April, or drop it off across the Mexican border, in its home range between Mexico and Panama. But bringing the bird over international boundaries or even state lines raises its own set of logistical hurdles and ethical questions: Where along its range do you drop the bird off? How do you justify the cost? “I would not be happy if a wildlife agency were pushed into translocating the bird,” Armstrong says. “The money could be better spent elsewhere.”

The final option is to keep the troublesome hawk in captivity—its inevitable fate if it doesn’t recover well enough to survive on its own. But given its current injuries, a recovery seems likely. Missing part of an outer toe shouldn’t affect the hawk’s chance at survival, Arent says. “That’s probably the most expendable of any of the toes.”

If wildlife managers decide to keep the hawk as an educational bird, even if it’s able to make it on its own, there’s sure to be “a sizeable and vocal faction that will be angry,” Kaufman says. Many think if a bird is healthy enough to live in the wild, confused as it might be, that’s where it belongs.

Whatever the hospital decides, it will be in conjunction with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. Erynn Call, a raptor specialist at the state agency, isn’t giving any hints as to what direction the hospital is leaning. “Our message is simply focusing on the health of the bird and not speculating,” she says.

And who can blame them, given the public scrutiny. “People are watching, so you want to make sure that you make the choice that’s best for the bird,” Arent says.

Trouble is, what’s in the bird’s best interest is far from clear-cut.