Wildlife center releases red-tailed hawk

Ed Clark, president and co-founder of the Wildlife Center of Virginia in Waynesboro, releases a female red tail hawk Thursday morning at Shenandoah County Park in Maurertown .Rich Cooley/Daily

MAURERTOWN — A captivated audience watched a female red-tailed hawk soar over Shenandoah County Park on Thursday following what wildlife experts called a miraculous recovery from lead poisoning.

When licensed rehabilitator Curt LeVan, of Fort Valley Wildlife Center, rescued the hawk in a Page County field in January, the bird’s chances appeared slim.

The bird could not move its feet, was unable to fly and could barely move its head or wings. LeVan said he was easily able to pick up the bird – which is usually a bad sign.

“If you can walk up to a raptor like that, and pick it up, you know something is seriously wrong,” LeVan said.

In this case, the bird suffered from a life-threatening case of lead poisoning, which the Wildlife Center of Virginia determined stemmed from a lead bullet fragments that the hawk could have ingested from another animal.

Ed Clark, president and co-founder of the Wildlife Center of Virginia in Waynesboro, holds a female red-tailed hawk on Thursday morning at Shenandoah County Park in Maurertown as he prepares to release it back to the wild. .Rich Cooley/Daily

Dr. Kelli Knight, the center’s assistant director of veterinary services, said the bird — based on LeVan’s observations — was exhibiting the classic symptoms of lead poisoning.

After two days of treatment administered by LeVan in Fort Valley, the bird was transferred to the Wildlife Center of Virginia in Waynesboro, where it stayed in rehab for another seven months.

Knight said the center detected .46 parts per million of lead in the bird’s system system — which she said should have been enough to kill it.

“Very few animals are going to be able to survive with a lead level that high,” she said. “It can cause permanent damage, including blindness.”

“We were willing to give her a chance and do the best that we could, but we had a very guarded prognosis. We did not have high hopes for her,” Knight said.

One of the few promising signs early on in the bird’s treatment was that it was able to eat a few mice the first night it spent in LeVan’s care.

After detecting this high level of lead, Knight said the staff immediately began chelation treatment on the hawk by giving it calcium EDTA to take the lead out of the blood stream.

“It was a really tough-and-go process with this bird. It had to go through multiple rounds of chelation therapy to try to get the blood-lead levels down,” she said.

Knight said that it took the bird until March before it was able to stand and walk on its own power.

Part of the reason for this was that, because of the severe poisoning, the hawk’s claws were clinched up to the point where its talons were digging into the skin and causing self-inflicted wounds.

“We had to put bandages on the bird, ball bandages to basically give it like a stress ball to grab on to — to keep it from injuring itself,” Knight said.

Once the bird could stand, center staff began the even longer process of physical therapy to get it back flying, hunting and feeding on its own.

The final stage of this therapy was a trial-by-fire live prey testing where the hawk has to fend for itself and prove that it can see and hunt live mice for five days without any additional food source.

If the bird is not keeping its weight up or is struggling, staff would intervene, help the bird and then give it another shot in a week or two.

“She passed right from the beginning, from day one, and never needed a second chance,” she noted.

Ed Clark, the center’s president and co-founder, said, “This particular bird is suffering from something we are … detecting increasingly. And it’s coming from the ingestion of lead shot and bullet fragments.”

To illustrate this trend, Clark said they have received 33 cases of lead poisoning in bald eagles within the last five years. Only four of those birds survived and were reintroduced.

“Every single one of those was preventable” by changing the hunting ammunition that is used, he said.

Clark noted, “If people like Curt [LeVan] out there are not willing to go get [the birds] when it’s inconvenient to do so, the chances of their survival are very, very, very low.”

Knight said, “It’s always amazing to see one of these patients survive and fly away. Gives me chills every time, and this bird is truly exceptional, truly a miracle.”

Contact staff writer Kevin Green at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or kgreen@nvdaily.com