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One cruel act that took seconds to do will take us over a year to fix

The usual MO of a raptor rescue comes via WhatsApp messages. And the rate of communication and speed with which things can be done takes me by surprise every time. On the 29th May Nick Trent received a report that a Black Sparrowhawk had been caught raiding turkeys. For inexplicable reasons its wing feathers had been cut off. Nick arranged for the bird to be taken to honorary warden Adam Tuller, who stabilised it before delivering it to Colobus Trust vet Dr Eric Onsongo of Africa Network for Animal Welfare.

We were sent a photograph of the Black Sparrowhawk, looking very bad, missing a large section of the left wing, dripping blood while it sat on the top of a box. Its right foot was so tightly tied that it was swelling and looked like it could possibly already be dead. All of our team knew that so sensitive a hawk as an adult Black Sparrowhawk will not survive anything but the most tender care. They self-destruct in hours and die of stress very quickly.

Dr Eric Onsongo sent me some pictures which placated my concerns as he evidently examined it very thoroughly. He took a picture of a big lesion on one ankle and a bleeding area on the opposing wing. This is the usual result of an electrocution and we crossed our fingers. We spoke regarding the need to stick the hawk in a completely covered box in a quiet cool place that was in perpetual twilight. No open sided cage, no cat box as these invite constant collision, face wounds, shattered feathers, even broken toes and legs. It’s the usual livestock vet practice, but Eric is no usual vet, being very well versed in the behavioural difference between a domestic cat and a wild hawk.

The feathers had been cut off mid way on both wings but mostly on the left. Nearly all of them. Pulling of feathers may have taken place as well, as there was blood near the tip of the wing. Pulled feathers, especially if pulled in a row, seldom if ever grow back. To the uninitiated, cutting feathers does not sound so dire a problem, like cutting fingernails or your hair. They will grow back. But for raptors this is disastrous. When all feathers are cut, a single feather that moults has to emerge alone and unsupported. It fractures and so will the next one and the next. This means the feathers must be “imped” so replacement feathers will have support and grow to full length.

Imping is so commonly used in crossword puzzles and falconry trivia that it may not require explanation. But simply put it is the act of sticking a shaft (of wood or metal) in the hollow of a replacement feather of exactly the same species and sex, and exactly the right one, in the shaft of the broken or cut feather of the living bird. The “repaired” feather will subsequently moult out as normal and a new feather will grow to replace it.

On a hawk the size of a Black Sparrowhawk, it’s best to do this about 1.5- 3cm from where the feather exits the base. Here the feather is wide and fairly inflexible, with a hollow that has a thick foam type centre distal from the base allowing a metal rod of some 1.5 to 2.5mm to be pushed into place. The rod is first ground on a stone grinder into a triangular shape to stop the feather rotating. If the fracture is beyond 3 or more cm, the metal pin had best be very flexible to bend with the spine and I’d found multiple sprung wire, as found in throttle cables, a good solution. Three of these in a bundle (see photo below), bend and spring back to straight very well. But this is for one or two feathers. If the feather is cut mid way, it needs to be cut back to where it is hollow. Obviously there is no pain. It's not a medical procedure but a common falconry procedure and can be done while the bird is hooded.

Eric and I talked and the days ticked on. We hoped for a lift after we had got KWS permission but that lift wouldn't be easy to find. Diani is a very long way from Soysambu. A car trip would certainly be very traumatic, even life threatening. With vultures we just have to fly because of their critical status and we have pilot friends all over Kenya willing to help. But with a Black Sparrowhawk, which remains one of Kenya’s commonest (though one of the most glamorous and specialised) raptors, it looked like we’d have to hang on until a convenient lift could take place.

By the 8th of June a week had long passed and if there was any fracture or infection, the situation would be dire. And then, from out of our pilot WhatsApp group, appeared Richard Hooper who offered to fly the hawk to us. Quickly Nick got the KWS paper work done and on the 10th of June the hawk was on its way. And by early afternoon the bird was delivered at Soysambu Raptor Centre by Richard and Clare Hooper who I had met before when they rescued a Rüppell’s Vulture in the Mara. Their plane has a large eagle painted on the tail and evidently they were keen on raptors. They spent the night at the centre, saw a Serval near the house and a martial eagle the next day on their way back to the airfield.

As for the hawk she had one wing brailled ( strapped to her side) by Eric before being put in the box, an old falconry way of making sure a bird doesn’t self-destruct. The photo of her in her new shed doesn’t show her looking very happy, but that’s not unexpected. She’ll have to get used to us. And there is no danger in a haggard being used to us. She can be trained and fly to those individuals she trusts but will always fear strangers. On inspection she needs nearly every wing feather to be imped. I have one complete set from a male but not from a female. So I will garner moulted feathers from the other females in our care and add a few others from other species and see how that works. I once gave a kestrel a complete set of crow feathers. It looked odd but flew fine. I may just use a crow now, for I saw one electrocuted outside my bank in Nakuru the other day.

To release a bird with a complete set of imped feathers is not possible. Just like a model airplane, bits fall off and have to be glued back on from time to time. The trick is to keep making sure she has a full regiment of feathers and if any one should fall out, we are there to stick it back in. For over a year, as it takes at least a year for the new complete set to replace the old.

One cruel act that took seconds to do will take us over a year to fix. But she will have a good life here among her cohorts and will have a good shot at being free once again.

I now look at our Trust and our wide network of supporters as a fully operational team. We are especially obliged to the swift actions of KWS and Dr Eric Onsongo and Richard and Clare Hooper. The rescue of this Sparrowhawk sums up one of our more important commitments. We do not discriminate one species from another when it comes to a rescue.


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Kenya Bird of Prey Trust

Understand - Protect - Restore

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