By Andra Bryan Stefanoni
JOPLIN, Mo. —
No one knows how the red-tailed hawk became trapped in the rubble of a building that was destroyed by the May 22 tornado.
No one knows what building, exactly — just somewhere in the path of the tornado.
About a week later, the hawk was found by someone who was clearing debris. It was alive.
That person took the bird to the Joplin Humane Society, where dozens of volunteers were busily processing hundreds of animals displaced by the storm.
One of those volunteers saw the hawk and thought of Bob Waters, a retired Webb City resident who had been a falconer. Waters was unable to help, but he thought to call naturalists at the Wildcat Glades Conservation & Audubon Center who had worked with injured birds before.
They, too, were unable to help. But they, in turn, called Delia Lister at Nature Reach, an animal outreach program based at Pittsburg (Kan.) State University.
Nature Reach has rehabilitated numerous raptors in the past, but, like the others in the chain of calls, it does not hold a permit for possession of a red-tailed hawk.
But Nature Reach has a part-time naturalist, Meagen Duffee, who does have such a permit.
Duffee, a Nevada resident who plans to graduate from PSU in December with a degree in biology, is a falconer who recently raised a red-tailed hawk she called Autumn. She released Autumn to the wild in March.
After giving it a lot of thought, Duffee agreed to take on the injured hawk for rehabilitation.
“We knew he had a broken wing, and it’s hard to rehab a bird with a broken wing,” Duffee said. “It often heals funny, and most of the time the bird has to be euthanized.”
Lister said about 95 percent of the calls the center takes for injured birds result in the bird being euthanized.
But after consulting a veterinarian, Duffee was optimistic about the hawk’s chances.
“I couldn’t believe he survived so long,” she said. “They can go without food for a while, but not water. I think his saving grace was the rain.”
The injury was a broken radius at the wrist. Because the ulna was not broken, his chance for future flight looked good.
Duffee began fattening the bird up while keeping him stable and confined.
“Whatever Autumn caught last year, I had a lot left in the freezer,” she said. “I fed him a lot of rat, which is high in fat and protein, and is a really good diet for an injured red-tail. I also had quail, and that helped him build up muscle.
“I had to help him exercise it once the vet gave me the go-ahead to begin working with him more. Then, I put him outside at my old hawk’s house and let him stretch his wings. On our final visit to the vet, I put him on a training line, which keeps him attached just in case, and he took straight into the air.”
The hawk, estimated to be 4 or 5 years old, was ready.
On Thursday morning, under blue skies with a slight breeze, Duffee, her boyfriend, Eric Yates, also of Nevada, and Lister gathered with the hawk on the parking lot of the Hollywood Northstar theaters near Northpark Mall in Joplin.
A wooded area with a nearby open field borders the parking lot. Duffee had hunted with Autumn there.
“I wanted to release the hawk as close as possible to his territory as I can, and seeing as how I can’t release him where he was found — because no one knows exactly where that was, and likely there are no trees left there — it’s best to do it someplace close to where he’s familiar,” said Duffee.
“Hawks are very territorial, and they mate for life. He probably has a mate somewhere, if she survived, but they probably were unsuccessful with offspring this year because the tornado came in right about the time they would have had eggs hatching.”
Lister likened the hawk’s survival to that of the people of Joplin.
“The fact that animals — whether birds or people — can survive those kinds of circumstances … well, it’s pretty astonishing how we can heal and become whole again given the right circumstances,” she said.
About 8:30 a.m., Duffee took off the hawk’s hood and cast him skyward.
He never looked back.
“Holy cow, he did really good,” Duffee said as she watched him disappear beyond the treetops. “It’s a good feeling, a really good feeling. I think he’s going to be just fine.”
It’s not typical to name birds that are in rehabilitation, Duffee said. But, at the encouragement of her boyfriend, she did name this hawk.
“I named him Phoenix,” she said. “I couldn’t pass up the name. He’s rising out of the ashes.”