The Black Sparrowhawks
A few weeks ago a female Black Sparrowhawk, originally brought in from Njoro in 2020, suddenly re-appeared at the place we feed “Lordy”, a juvenile male Black Sparrowhawk at hack. She stole some food and we all wondered where she had been these many months. When the juvenile male appeared for his food he met the adult female and was not very pleased. There ensued some fast flying and he, although being much smaller and younger, chased her away. We light-heartedly concluded that they were flirting, though the likelihood for that was slim because of their age difference.
These Black Sparrowhawks are at “hack”, a soft release method designed for releasing young and inexperienced raptors. It is rarely used in the release of older raptors that come in as successful hunters, but it can sometimes be useful in the conservation management of rare species.
Both Sparrowhawks were nest-fallen chicks and fortunately both were raised with their own siblings, but years apart. During their rapid growth to fledglings we specifically distanced ourselves from the feeding process and never socialised in any way. As soon as they could feed from a bowl they were left alone to play and sleep together with their respective siblings. They were brought up not to fear humans but to respect them. There’s a subtlety here that would take a book to explain, but in short there’s the world of difference between a human imprint, a sibling imprint, a parent reared (normal) imprint and a terrified-of-humans disorder (1).
When it comes to rehabbing extremely fast pursuit raptors such as accipiters the rehabber is well advised to train them to fly to the lure for fitness prior to letting them hunt. This is infinitely superior to the confines of a cage where self inflicted damage is almost inevitable. Unless the cage was the size of a football pitch there is little additional fitness benefit to cage managed birds when physical exertion (and exhaustion) are literally mandated in order to increase muscle mass to the point whereby successfully capturing prey is possible. “But surely” one may ask, “if you train a hawk it will be a human imprint”? No; and this is not a fine point with grey borders, it is an emphatic no. “Training” is entirely separate from “taming”.
As I’ve explained many times, “hack” is the heart of raptor rehab. Ignoring it for young raptors is an act of abandonment. The adult female Sparrowhawk had returned after many months of absence. Has the hack/soft release been a failure? No, if anything it confirmed success. The least assuring thing would be if she had vanished on the day of release. “Never to be seen again” releases are an euphemism among the falconry community when being condescending towards some rehabbers: it means being dead. Seeing them again is confirmation of it still living and that is good.
The Gabar Goshawks
Early October I picked up three 11 to 14 day old Gabar Goshawk chicks that came down with their nest after their nesting tree was cut down. The nest, being held together by colonial spider webs, saved their fall. One of the chicks had dark grey down feathers and dark scales on the feet.
A few weeks later I had an urgent problem. The three young Gabar Goshawks, raised together in near isolation in their shed, were ready to go at hack. With the two huge and very predacious Black Sparrowhawks at hack outside their shed their liberty would be short lived. But one cannot delay hack for there is a sweet spot, a short window, in which it must be done for naïve non-hunting fledglings. There is a period of just a few weeks when they transition from branchers to accomplished fliers, when they pursue everything in an almost innate ritual aimed at making that first kill.
Normally they chase their parents that carry food, but in the absence of parents they chase each other, ibis, dik-dik, leaves and sometimes things that resemble their prey. They pack into their tiny brains the basic skills for survival very quickly. Miss that period of rapid information assimilation and you have a dullard. A delinquent for life. One can turn around these now slow learners but it can take months of hard work. So the race was on to bring back the Black Sparrowhawks who had learnt their basic hunting lessons in order to hack out the Gabars that had not. When the Gabars were proficient I’d hack back out the Black Sparrowhawks. It sounds like being an air traffic controller, and indeed this constant shuttling of raptors outside the confines of the rehab centre is a major part of a raptor rehabber’s work. It doesn’t end after release, it only begins.
I caught Lordy, the young male Black Sparrowhawk, and put him temporarily in the shed with the adult female from Diani with no flight feathers. But I had to get back the adult female too. That was easy and within two hours I had trapped her as well and put her back on her perch. On that same day I put the three young Gabars out at hack.
A week after his release, the male Gabar Goshawk was seen sitting on top of an active weavers nest pulling away at the material to get at the young. No one taught him this yet it is a hunting strategy well known in Gabar Goshawks. Interestingly neither of his two sisters did so.
The adult female Black Sparrowhawk, once a companion of mine on long walks through heavily infested buffalo country, had about her an unhappy look. None other than a falconer well acquainted with their bird would pick up on the very subtle facial expressions of a hawk that shows happiness or sadness. And she was sad and crestfallen. The moment I trapped her I hooded her and put the jesses back on and belled her. Whilst handling her I noted two sharp cactus pins in her elbow and hand and a large hole in her mid thigh. She had been in the wars. She had the intelligence to return home. She “sliced” (the austringers term for defecating), and it was a nasty mix of urates and faeces. She was ill too. I changed gear into rehab rescue mode and treated her wounds. The cactus pin injury alone could have crippled her and that’s a significant message to us in conservation as exotic cactus takes over vast landscapes throughout Kenya. The hole in the thigh was large and bled profusely when cleaned out and sutured. It was possibly a wound from a hawk eagle or a jackal as it was bruised too. I put her on antibiotics and placed her on her old perch. There she sat happy with being looked after. Her shoulders literally collapsed and she went to sleep. That night I put her in a dark box lined with towels and there she slept lying down. I smiled and said a few kind words before turning out the light.
Another reason to rid exotic cactus from invading our landscape - this cactus pin was firmly lodged in the cartilage of the proximal condyle of the humerus. This is not the first incident by any means. Over the years we have had at least 15 raptors brought in with cactus and sisal injuries. In falconry we never fly our birds near invasive cactus as birds and other prey know very well to escape into it and impale predators.
It’s no surprise to any falconer that a special affinity or closeness is always the case with their bird. This isn’t always appreciated by rehabbers who have large volumes of physically distant birds flapping about in a cage. It’s even less understood among those raptor biologists who distance themselves from any association with captives and I always feel concerned for them as they have lost out on a fundamental understanding of raptors. They are on shaky ground if they aspire to know anything about wild raptors when they know little to nothing about their domestic behaviour.
Over the next few days the Gabars careened about the forest with glee chasing everything. The juvenile male Black Sparrowhawk sat rather despondent about his temporarily enforced captivity with another bemused female and the rescued adult female recovered quickly. She hadn’t missed a beat. She was even more amiable towards me than ever before, and had that aloofness we associate with haggards (or old birds that follow their own immaculate behavioural decorum).
In time the Gabars will disperse and when they do we will hack out again the two Black Sparrowhawks. It is understanding raptors, their needs and the potential dangers, during that vitally important transitional period between captivity and “the wild” that is the most important aspect in raptor rehabilitation. It takes time, sometimes years.
(1) Some rehabbers have been known to “negatively reinforce” young raptors by frightening them by rough handling or even hitting them with a towel. Shouting at or hitting such chicks is useless because it will reinforce an attachment to humans at the same time creating extraordinary unnatural fear and aggression to humans. Such atrociously badly raised young cannot be released, nor can they be kept in captivity.