Nesting Season

When you’ve been married as long as I have, there is a tone of voice your spouse occasionally uses that you know means trouble long before sentences are exchanged or completed. When you hear its decreased volume and subtle waiver, your heart races and attention pinpoints while you wait to hear the subject of whatever potential emergency that is about to redirect your day. In the 25 years I’ve been married to my husband Brett, this voice has announced rebounding cancer, car crashes, broken collar bones, lost contracts, and any number of other calamities that thread their way through a physical life.

Most recently, alarming phone calls involve the daily crises that are associated with running a restaurant alongside my oldest son and husband. In the past, I frequently heard the hushed voices of partners calling about laboring mamas, working as a midwife. These were happy calls, but always required nimble thinking and revised plans.

Today, I don’t like this voice. At about 8 AM on May 18, 2017, my beloved telephones when I know he is supposed to be returning from taking our daughter to work in Oak Glen. When I answer, he calls me “Jessica” instead of my nickname and begins to talk in this tone of dread. I demand that he spit out the bad news loudly enough, that my son Ashton overhears and immediately comes to my room to help.

The morning is supposed to be unfolding with scheduled precision, as my teen’s charter school representative is coming to facilitate this year’s standardized tests. The house is company tidy and my home-made breakfast and lunch are both warm on the stove to ensure our day is smooth and hospitable for the kids and teacher taking her time to help out my homeschoolers. In my bathroom, where I’d answered the phone, my hair is half curled, but I am right on track to make everyone’s day seamless and productive. Our conversation is about to change this day and all the days that follow.

With Ashton commanding me to “please stop freaking out”, time slows while I listen to Brett and realize that his tone is not because of some nauseating catastrophe. Instead, his muted volume is actually because he is holding a taloned beast that, if completely healthy, could scalp him. He says “Honey, I found a juvenile Red-Tailed hawk on my way home from dropping off Alexis. It doesn’t seem hurt, but it’s weak and needs help.” I tell him to hold tight and get off the phone swiftly, making Ashton swear not to tell his raptor loving, sister Audree until I make some calls to figure out what in the world to do.

I call Fish and Wildlife but can only leave a message at this early hour and also call the teacher that’s on her way, to beg forgiveness for needing to reschedule. In the ten minutes that follow, I struggle to figure out the legal next step to find care for the bird. They are a highly protected species with both federal and state laws ensuring their safety and protection. You can’t just take home a hawk and turn it into an exotic pet for good reason.

While I wait for returned phone calls, I beckon Audree into my room and tell her that dad found a young hawk that seems to have left its nest too soon. I attempt to quickly finish my half-done locks, with hands shaking, while Audree races around grabbing supplies. She finds some gloves and packs a helmet. Yes, her adrenaline-fueled mind thinks that we might climb a tree and put the bird back with its mom. The helmet will protect us while we invade her territory. I didn’t know this detail until much later and it still cracks me up every time I envision the story she had to play out in her head to think up these details.

While we hustle around, BRETT LOSES THE BIRD. Now I’d already told the girl, and wheels are turning in a new direction, far away from the seamless agenda I had once awoken to direct. When he tells Audree the bird has hopped out of reach, I snatch the phone from her and say, “You go get that damn bird!”

I decide that since I haven’t heard from Fish and Wildlife and we have no idea if Brett will even be able to get to the hawk again, that the most logical thing to do is tell the teacher to go ahead and come, though my heart (and now Audree’s) is still with the bird. The very second I hang up from organizing the day’s second change of plans, Brett rings and says he has the bird safely captured and to “HURRY UP”. Ughhhh!

Audree and I decide to leave Ashton for the standardized testing and take off, figuring out the right plan on our way. Now Mrs. Bennett will know rather than wonder if we are crazy as she passes us driving up the street to our house. Audree and I rush up the hill, hoping for the phone to ring, listening to Sia sing Angel By The Wings… because, why shouldn’t you give your wacky life the proper background music? The chorus says, “You can, you can do anything, anything…You can do anything” over and over. I have no idea how much I’ll need this mantra in just a few minutes.

My family and I haven’t always been enthralled with raptors. Nature, yes. Animals, for sure. We’ve trudged through muddy rain forests, blanketed with insects to see Capuchin monkeys and sloths in Costa Rica, and had close encounters with gentle-eyed, giant bison and tiny foxes in Yellowstone. I adore hummingbirds and would rather spend the night sitting with the kids watching and hand feeding them, than at a 5-star hotel. We’ve discovered that we need nature as fuel and have had so many awe-inspiring, hilarious, and dangerous moments enjoying the innumerable wonders that exist on our planet.

It wasn’t until we moved to our home in Beaumont that hawks and other raptors captured our fascination. Very soon, after settling into our new residence, I realized that a mating pair of Red-Tailed hawks nest in the electrical pole directly across from our backyard. With almost no effort, we could watch them hunt, mate, and raise their young each year. It is really like having a National Geographic documentary happening right outside every day. Once we started watching, we noticed them everywhere. They are on freeway light posts no matter where you go in this country, and often swoop in front of our (and anyone’s) car, showing off their impressive skills. The more we watched, the more they seemed to be showing up all the time. And because I always look for life messages in nature, I thought they might have something essential to share.

Red-tailed Hawks are large raptors with broad, rounded wings and a wide, short tail; Buteo jamaicensis to be more scientific. They use invisible air currents to travel and hunt by soaring and hovering over their prey. Once they are aligned with the natural flow in the sky, they can travel at incredible speeds with very little effort.

This example of surrender to external circumstances to progress at the greatest possible pace became an imperative message for my daily life. As I enjoyed them coming incredibly close to the yard or noticed them circling, and soaring overhead while we hiked or enjoyed a day outside, it seemed like they were constantly reminding me that resistance and worry are useless and even counterproductive. On a particularly challenging day, I would send out some hawk vibes and they would appear almost magically, swooping and swirling above, giving their bird sermon on surrender when I needed it most.

One summer, the Hawks showed me a lesson about what to do with fear. I guess this could be called chapter two in the Hawk Instructional Manual for Humans. This fourth of July, I was totally dressed and ready to leave for work at our restaurant when my oldest son Andrew, the chef there, called and said I didn’t need to come in. Fourth of July is a BBQ holiday and people don’t really come out to malls so it was an especially quiet day at N7 Creamery. I firmly resisted his suggestion because I really like to show up when I’ve said I’ll be somewhere, but he said he’d lock me out if I tried to come to work. He can be bossy like that. When I finished our conversation, I went to sit on my balcony and rethink my day’s plan.

Outside, I noticed that this year’s three Red-Tail juveniles were perched on some identical, track home chimneys just across the golf course fairway. We’d been watching them, enthralled with their rapid development for several weeks, and noticed that they could really hop and glide with style now. Although, what they’d been doing certainly couldn’t be called flying yet. I wondered how they had gotten down here, so far from the nest, and wondered how in the world they would get back, given the lack of skills I’d observed just the day before.

As I watched and worried a little (like there was anything I could do to help), a huge raven started dive-bombing the babies. Within seconds, their mother came out of nowhere to save the day. She flew, barreling with feet tucked, torpedo style toward the raven at top speed. Mrs. Raven decided it was best to take her leave but moved toward the fledgling instead of away, to avoid a collision with the angry hawk mama. Just before the juvenile was toppled off the chimney by the raven, it lifted up, caught the air stream its mother was in and SOARED right alongside her. Its two siblings immediately followed as I watched their first real flying and hunting lesson. Observing the whole scene was extraordinary, especially since I would have been in the car driving had Andrew not called to say I wasn’t needed at work just minutes earlier.

Upon reflection, I realized that this hawk and its nestmates had taken flight for this first time as the result of getting into a pickle, plus a generous measure of fear. And isn’t that how life often goes? Difficulties, discomfort, or fear are often the impetus for us to make a great leap into something new. And when we are willing to just make the smallest shift forward, afraid or not, we are soaring.

Brett and Audree really caught the raptor bug with me and eventually, we got to visit a place in San Diego called Sky Falconry where we could free-fly Harris’s hawks with seasoned falconers. Harris’s Hawks, Parabuteo unicinctus, were named by John James Audubon, the most famous nineteenth-century ornithologist, after his friend and fellow naturalist Edward Harris. Called wolves of the air, they are often seen in groups of three or more, perching on cactus and hunting collaboratively, rather than the more solitary behavior of most other raptors. Their relatively calm nature and pack behavior make them wonderful falconry birds. They are absolutely stunning animals, who seem to have so much going on in their raptor brains behind their warm, chocolate eyes.

During our first visit, it made a great impression on us that these birds choose to stay with the humans they hunt with. They retain all of their wild instincts and abilities but decide that the falconer is a good hunting partner and come back to live in the mutually beneficial relationship. Audree solidified her previous notion that she wanted to start to study falconry and raptor rehabilitation after our visit. She sees that close encounters with animals can have a great impact on how people think about nature and chose to behave on this spectacular planet and starts to dream about carrying on our family lineage of working with animals directly instead of just being an enthralled observer. Since I can turn nearly anything into a homeschool learning opportunity, I immediately started putting together a course for her to get high school credit studying something she loves. We order books and make hundreds of flashcards to begin learning the facts and laws… all things raptor.

The day before Brett found the juvenile Red-Tail on the ground, while Audree and I were working on school, we heard tiny squawks coming from the electrical pole across from our house that can only mean one thing! This year’s eyas had hatched and were telling their parents they were hungry. We jumped in the car to get a closer look. At the nest, we could see at least two, if not three eyas bouncing around and making an incredible racket. We sat and watched as their parents delivered a meal and they struggled to get the biggest bite for themselves.

Several times, they got very close to the edge of their enormous nest, looking like they might fall out. Audree laughed and said, “Hey hawk babies… If you tumble out of there, I know some people who would love to take you home and take care of you”. She knew this was not only illegal but that we also had very little idea of how to care for a young hawk. We laughed and dreamt of how cool it would be someday when we had the right contacts for training and licensure to make something like that possible. We had no notion that someday would turn into tomorrow!

Driving up the familiar, twisty road to Oak Glen, we both think that we are just going to go sit with Brett and the hawk until the proper authorities arrive to take the juvenile to a rehabilitation center. Even though we had flown the hawks at Sky Falconry, we had never touched a hawk before since they sit on your arm covered by a thick glove. This was going to be a huge honor to participate in getting this bird to the right people to care for it and just flipping awesome to be so close to an animal that we are so captivated by. When we arrive, we wrap the bird in a jacket and start trying to make phone calls again to figure out what to do.

Licensed rehabilitators are very careful handling the animals they work with. Different than education and falconry birds, who benefit from having a rapport with their handlers, rehabilitated animals are returned to the wild. In fact they are still considered wildlife by the state. This is why it is essential that they not become habituated to humans in any way while we help them. So let me make a little disclaimer about these pictures. I LOVE THEM! Audree’s dream was coming true before our eyes. She wasn’t a rehabilitator yet though! This kind of contact is not appropriate in a rehab setting. We just didn’t know that yet.

It is absolutely surreal to observe all of us handling this bird with some degree of confidence even though we’d never done anything like this before. I find that there is always a measure of grace in extraordinary situations like this that give us the ability to do things we never knew we could. Adrenaline doesn’t hurt either. The hawk is an absolutely dazzling animal. The baby down that still remains on her head is incredibly soft and her taloned feet are much more supple than one might expect and toasty.

She smells like warm leaves in the summer sunshine, looking us right in the eye as if to thank us for helping her. She isn’t in shock or frozen from her natural fear of humans. I’ve seen plenty of animals with that paralyzed deer in the headlights look. She is inspecting us just like we are her, and none of us are afraid.

Brett finally has some success at getting Fish and Wildlife on the phone and they provide the name of the local raptor rehabilitator who happens to be just up the street. When he rings her, he is disappointed to learn that she doesn’t have space for another rescue because it’s nesting season and she is already full. There is no room in the inn. As he gets off the phone, he mentions that Audree and I are working on our falconry license and, though he doesn’t want to impose, that we might offer our help to her if it would allow her to work with this bird. He also shares that my dad is a veterinarian and that I’d worked as a midwife so we have some grit and minimal skills to offer. She says she doesn’t usually invite people to her house, but that we should buzz up the road and meet with her so that she could asses the hawk’s condition.

The equipment that Audree didn’t think of when she was packing her bike helmet, was a box! The hawk is weak so it’s easy to get Audree seat belted in, with the bird secured in her lap, but this is nowhere near ideal. Thank God we only had a few miles to travel to the rehabilitator’s farm. With this most precious cargo in the back seat, I gently pull out onto the narrow, winding highway.

When we arrive at our destination, we make quick introductions and get straight to checking out the bird with the rehabilitator Kandie. She handles the bird with grace and ease that really impresses Audree and me. Audree thinks, “Someday I want to be able to do that. What an amazing lady”! The hawk’s keel (a ridge along the breastbone of raptors to which the flight muscles attach) is poking way out, indicating that it has been a long time since she’s had a meal. Other than this, she has no injuries or broken feathers and seems to be healthy. She is just starving.

It is common during nesting season, to find raptors who just accidentally leave the nest a little early. If they can’t quite fly, they can’t get back to their parents where the food is served up all day. In some cases, the parents will continue to feed them on the ground but it is clear that had not been the case for this girl. We wrap her back up in the jacket that we’d brought her in and start a long chat with Kandie to decide what to do. She shows us a barn owl and some great horned owls that she is working with and we realize that her granddaughter-in-law is a good friend and even someone I had done births with. The threads of connection between us seem divine rather than just “small world” coincidences.

After much discussion, Kandie asks if we would like to learn to rehabilitate this bird under her license and start working to become rehabilitators. This is a two-year process that can only work when an individual finds someone to proctor them. We had every intention of starting this journey at some point and had already started researching who might help us while simultaneously studying for the falconry exam. Now, with no effort of our own, someone was offering to be our mentor. Wasn’t my biggest hawk lesson that when you surrender and align to the natural flow, the greatest possible progress can be achieved? As Kandie talks about how we might go forward together, Audree reaches behind me and squeezes my hand HARD, saying “Holy crap mom. I can’t believe this is happening right now”, in mother-daughter sign language.

Kandie gets us all loaded up with supplies and food. She provides us giant, stainless-steel tweezers, gavage tubes, netting, electrolytes, potty pads, and a box to get the hawk home in. We seat belt the bird into the back seat next to Audree and travel home totally stunned and soooo nervous, but ecstatic. I say my silent prayers that I will be adequately equipped to support both my girl and this bird in this unexpected miracle.

When we get back to casa Bingaman, Ashton and Mrs. Bennett are expecting some super cool pictures and a great story, not a box with a bird inside! What a nutty life. Audree eats the beans and rice that I’d prepared for the day I thought we’d have and does as much testing as she can squeeze in while I figure out how to get the bird settled.

The first thing I do, as directed by our new mentor, is give the hawk some electrolytes with a little glucose syrup added. Just like it’s too hard on the human body to feed a child a steak first thing after they’ve had the flu, animal’s bodies also need fluids and a tiny bit of energy before they can start digesting food. Using a special tube, we can deposit the fluids right into the bird’s crop and avoid getting them in or around her airway. Practicing neonatal resuscitation and tubing babies helped prepare me with some skills to do this pretty easily. I just have to add a healthy dose of courage and get on with it.

The next thing I need courage for is cutting up the meat that we will offer later in the day. I want to get as much done as possible while Audree finishes testing so that we can get to helping this bird with four hands instead of two ASAP. Let me preface what I’m about to write by saying that I don’t label myself as girly or wimpy. I love nail polish, and fashion, and bubble baths, but if there is a nasty job to take care of, I just go after it. I have gone to the bathroom in cockroach-infested huts in Africa, cleaned milky coffee sludge out of the drain of my restaurant, and been barfed on and sprayed with amniotic fluid more times than I can begin to count. I don’t gross out easily.

This is why I am so very humbled when I find myself retching over a half-cut up rat on an old cutting board at my laundry room sink. The smell, the sounds, and the newness of it all of take me DOWN. I pray my silent students can’t hear my travail in the next room. I hope that I will learn to prepare the hawk’s food quicker and that I will eventually grow desensitized to it. Audree and I will definitely have to take shifts on this particular task. Wow.

The house is still while the kids finish up and the intensity of what has just occurred finally catches up with me. I look at this massive, pitiful bird peering at me from its box and feel all of the pressure of keeping it alive. This coupled with the idea that Audree’s very first rehab experience should be positive, hits like a ton of bricks.

What in the world have I gotten myself into? My brain races in every direction to see if there is a way out of the responsibility. I question whether I have taken my love for these birds and my desire to help my kids follow their dreams one step way too far. It’s so hard to know when things just fall into your lap if they are an incredible gift of grace, or an opportunity to exercise clear thinking and self-control. But here we are. I say my silent prayers for guidance and give thanks for the fact that there is a HAWK IN MY HOUSE.

After more fluids and getting an indoor rehab space prepared, we get this hawk that Audree decides to call Finnick into a safe spot for the night. *I feel it necessary to add a little side note here for my reader – Many if not most rehabilitators band or tag animals they work with to keep track of them instead of naming them. There is much controversy around whether a name creates an attachment for the rehabber or makes us more apt to anthropomorphize. I will remind you here and maybe many other times throughout this work that I am telling the tales of brand new, baby rehabilitators. What I share is in no way intended to be the definitive guide on wildlife care. This season our animals got names. In the future, many will not. If you are a scientist or involved in wildlife management in some capacity, I encourage you to enjoy the optimism and naivety of some very new individuals finding their way in your world rather than critiquing anywhere you think we went wrong. All experts start as novices.  

Right before bed, we offer a few small bites of the cut-up rat. The hawk doesn’t have the strength to bite them off the tongs yet, so we wrap her gently but firmly, like a giant bird burrito, and pull her mouth open, depositing the food inside. She gulps them down into her crop and then perches when we let her go. We find her in exactly the same place when we check on her later. It looks like she is using all of her energy to digest the food.

In the morning, we start off with more fluids which she opens her mouth for and drinks down herself. After a bit, we try some more rat and she takes it easily off the tongs. Now that she has the tiniest amount of energy, she is hungry! As Audree feeds her, she squeaks between bites like she is saying “more”. We haven’t heard her vocalize yet so this little peep is the sweetest sound to hear. The iconic eagle and hawk sound in every commercial and movie EVERYWHERE is the screeching call of a Red-Tail, but we’ve never heard these quieter communications.

We also find lots of mutes (poop) in the space where we have her. It looks like a normal color and volume so this means that the food we are offering is getting digested. We just bubble with joy that she has made it through the night and all signs seem to be reassuring. This all just might work out.

Throughout this second day with us, we continue to offer Finnick food every few hours and bring a water pan out to her in case she wants to drink or bathe. Hawks don’t require extra water in nature since they get much of their necessary fluids straight from the prey they ingest. They enjoy bathing and drinking though, and look as silly when they take a dip, as they do majestic when they fly.

We see her preen a little and perch with one foot tucked up into her downy abdomen. These are both such reassuring signs that she is doing well since one of the first things a sick bird stops doing is preening. Perching on one foot is a sign of relaxation and contentment. We feel that since she is eating heartily and exhibiting signs of wellness and relaxation, maybe we can take a couple of enormous, deep breaths. Even the dreaded rat preparation is getting a tiny bit easier once Kandie explains how to remove the intestinal tract whole which really helps the smell. The next important step is getting her into an outside enclosure.

Finnick spends one more day inside the space Brett prepared in the garage while he and Audree build a mew (hawk enclosure). We still haven’t seen a pellet, but there is so much mute that we have to clean her indoor space twice a day. When the new structure is finally ready, it feels great to get her outside. When we release her in the mew, she runs the perimeter, checking out her boundaries.

We also see her drink from the water pan so it seems safe to stop the fluids now. We continue to feed her the cut-up rat three times a day and she eats until her crop looks like it will burst. She is already plumping up a tiny bit and it’s only her third day with us. It seems like she is coming around really fast.

On Monday, day four, the weather is incredibly hot. Audree and I sit outside most of the day to watch her, partly because she is so magnificent and partly because as beginners, we are a bunch of nervous control freaks. As the day heats up, Finnick starts to pant. At first, I reason that it is just because of the balmy temperature but as it continues, I start to fret since this is also a sure sign of stress in raptors.

I text back and forth with Kandie for more information (It’s a good thing that we don’t have to pay per character!), but she can’t be sure that it’s not a distressing sign either.  I feel panicked that after we have come this far, things might be going badly all of a sudden. I’m having the most intense “What have I gotten myself into?” doubts again. I am certain that if Audree rehabilitates birds for any length of time, that some of them will not live. They will come to us for every variety of reasons, and some will just not pull through. But not THIS bird, and not her very first experience. She is a mature kid who can handle pretty much anything life deals out, but I want so badly for this to go well for her. Plus, I have let this bird have my heart. I know it’s not very scientific of me, but I have, come what may.

I have already tried misting Finnick with water but when Kandie brings it up again, I wonder if I got her wet enough the times I tried before. I change spray bottles and really douse her this time. She snatches water in her beak and swallows while I spray her, squeaking happily. She also stops the panting the very second her head is soaked. I laugh wishing I would have tried that three hours ago. She was just hot!

Audree and I keep spraying her throughout the day whenever she pants. She is as well taken care of as a bird princess in a children’s movie! Finnick is such an incredibly sweet animal though, you just can’t help it. In the days since she has been here, she has not exhibited one single aggressive behavior in our presence. We know she has it in her because she mantled and put her hackles up when our husky first came around to inspect the mew. She is just never like that for us.

This hawk has felt like she was half-hawk/half-angel from the minute Brett found her. Or maybe more correctly, all-hawk/all-angel.  Even as she heals and gets stronger, she never shifts to being either aggressive or timid with us. She would make the absolute best partner for a falconer but fate has decided that she will be released to enjoy life as a wild hawk very soon. Maybe too soon for us.

The next step in Finnick’s rehabilitation is to leave her food to find for herself instead of tweezer feeding. We put some meaty pieces on a tray and leave her alone to see if she will find and eat them independently. When we return, every scrap is gone. Success! In the following days, we offer an entire rat, broken open at first, and then whole. She passes each milestone with flying colors.

On the sixth day, we find our thriving babe sitting on the cozy nest Brett put together for her, just like a chicken. She continues to sleep here each night until her release. We see her attempt to fly more every day, practicing gliding between perches on either side of the mew. She has already lost much of the downy fluff on her face and her tail feathers seem like they lengthen nightly while she sleeps. She is looking more like a majestic, full-grown hawk every single day. She is also doing a great job bathing and preening. Her feathers glisten in the sunshine, a great sign that she is healthy and flourishing.

Although things are going even better than well with Finnick, neither Audree or I have any concrete notion that we will be trusted with any additional birds. Since we leaped into this situation rather serendipitously, she and I haven’t had any expectations about what should come next. We just do our best each day and give thanks when it works out.

It feels a little like being a brand new parent. I remember getting my oldest son ready to leave the hospital after he was born. Brett and my mom were coming to get us so I had him dressed in his adorable “going home” outfit, with matching pacifier and a fresh diaper. While I waited, I looked down at him, all buckled into his car seat, and had the most visceral thought. “It is up to me to keep you alive”. This is the same thought I had about Finnick during my mini-breakdown while the kids tested. We have been so busy keeping this winged beast growing, we’ve thought nothing about the future!

On May 27, While I’m, working away at N7 Kandie calls about another juvenile Red-Tail who has fallen from its nest in Redlands. Since Audree is home caring for Finnick, Brett and I decide to keep our plans to pick it up on our way home a secret and surprise her. She calls me off and on all day to check in so I have to tell a hundred little, white lies to keep from revealing what I’ll really be up to after work. I’m so excited that I feel like a kid who can barely wait to go to Disneyland in the morning while I try to pay attention to my tasks and customers. It’s hard to surprise kids once they get older, so this is going to be super fun.

Brett and I make our way up the apple tree-lined highway to Oak Glen the minute we get our work finished. Kandie gives instructions and encouragement, and we get this new bird situated in the car, knowing immediately he is not Finnick. This hawk screeches and squawks at us if we even look toward the crate in the back seat to make sure we are abundantly aware that he is not a friend of humans.

When we pull up to the house, Brett puts the pet carrier, with its secret occupant inside, at the front door and rings the bell before hiding around the corner. We’ve called ahead to make sure none of the other kids open it and ruin our fun. When Audree answers, she laughs and exclaims, “I knew it!” This new rescue, we come to call Rue, repeatedly screams back his answer. Audree says, Oh my! This is NOT Finnick.”

We hustle the carrier through the house avoiding the canine and feline welcoming committee and go about trying to introduce Finnick to Rue. We give them lots of time to inspect each other through the door of the carrier and eventually let Rue out to see if they will get along. Rue pops up onto Finnick’s favorite perch and she unceremoniously plinks him right off, sending him tumbling to the ground. After we get them some dinner, whole rat for Finnick, and cut chunks for Rue, we put him back in the carrier so that they don’t tussle in the early morning before we get up.

Finnick and Rue do a little more posturing the next morning but work out their business early in the day, deciding they will get along. We try offering a whole rat to Rue as well since he seems so feisty, and he eats it easily sitting next to Finnick on the nest. They mantle a little to protect their meal but there is no longer any competitive behavior going down.

Rue is much, much smaller than Finnick (suggesting a male hawk) and is covered with the cutest fluffy down. When he rouses, little bits of it poof off of his body and fly into the air, sticking in the mew. Several times I notice that hummingbirds are coming and grabbing the stuck down, taking it to a nearby tree where they nest. It’s maybe the sweetest, little example I’ve ever seen of the perfectly designed, cycle of nature wasting nothing and working seamlessly.

Rue is growing stronger every day but still isn’t flying. Finnick, on the other hand, looks full-grown all of a sudden with new, sleek feathers and is flying overnight; and I don’t mean the expression “overnight”. I mean she is actually flying overnight. Yesterday she was hopping and gliding and today she is pumping her wings between perches. It’s bittersweet because, after some more practice and another milestone or two, she’ll be ready to release.

The next test that she has to pass is capturing her own food. This will be a test for Audree and I as well since it’s obvious that we prefer to be in the business of keeping beings alive, not setting up their demise. Nature doesn’t apologize for being equally beautiful and grisly though. The perfect symbiosis of life and death is what keeps our world spinning.

It would be inhumane for us to release Finnick or any raptor without knowing that they can kill their own food, so we take off to get the needed supplies as directed by Kandie. Once home, we set Finnick up with her live prey and wait. She wastes not even a second, capturing her meal and eating it up hungrily. Audree punctuates the whole scene with an utterly appropriate curse word, lightening the mood and making us laugh.

Now that Finnick is both flying and a successful huntress, we are all pretty overcome with emotion. We are proud of ourselves and her. So proud. But we are also sad because she is ready to go. In the weeks prior, we haven’t noticed her trying to break out of the enclosure very often. In the last few days though, she calls out to our local hawks when they pass over the yard at maximum volume and flies toward the ceiling to test if it will hold her inside. We know it is time.

We eat dinner outside this night so that we can spend the last few minutes saying long goodbyes. Brett puts Sia’s other bird song, Bird Set Free on Spotify, maybe to be a little silly, but it makes me bawl like an idiot. So much for mom being a pillar for the children. These releases will get much easier, but letting this first angel-hawk fly free is rough.

In the morning our neighbor has caught another live specimen. He brings us regular offerings over the fence like “Tim the Tool Man’s” neighbor now. Finnick successfully captures and eats the mouse with Rue watching her dexterity. We let her eat her fill of other food and get her ready to release.

In true Finnick form, she doesn’t streak away once she free but stays close to us for a good while before she flies to a fence and then a high tree. It feels easier on our tearful souls that she doesn’t disappear into the distance instantly.

We watch her for a long time while she acclimates herself to the new, wide-open, space. She preens and vocalizes, and even sits in her chicken pose, leg dangling like a kid on a church pew.

Eventually, we feel that it’s necessary to give her a little extra nudge to move farther away and find a good space to hunker down. Her connection to us is special, a miracle really, but it will not help her to be a successful wild hawk. Her instincts and natural abilities are what she needs to guide her now. We’ve done our part. She finally takes off and flies far out of our sight. Over the next few days, we check in to see that all is well. Audree and I observe her flying strong and Brett even sees her hunt. We did it. And she did it. I say my silent prayers with my whole heart that she thrives, finds a mate, and makes new, little baby Finnicks during next year’s nesting season.

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