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WildCare Heals a Gunshot Red-tailed Hawk

02/20/2014 09:49 am ET | Updated Apr 22, 2014

Who would shoot a Red-tailed Hawk?

WildCare's Wildlife Hospital treats nearly 4,000 injured and orphaned wild animals every year, from more than 200 different species. This Red-tailed Hawk arrived as a patient with a shattered left leg from a gunshot.

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In this video WildCare's Director of Animal Care, Melanie Piazza reads this Red-tailed Hawk's radiograph (x-ray) and shows where the gun pellet entered his leg and where it lodged in his muscle.

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A gunshot nearly killed this hawk

How this beautiful bird survived more than a week after being shot with a pellet gun is a mystery, but when he arrived at WildCare it was obvious he wouldn't have survived much longer.

The fact that the shattered tibiotarsus and fibula bones had started knitting themselves back together indicated that, not only had this bird survived the shooting, he had carried on for more than a week before finally succumbing to hunger, exhaustion and dehydration.

Because the bones had already started to heal in their crooked and broken position, Medical Staff in WildCare's Wildlife Hospital knew that even with splinting, the odds of the hawk regaining enough use of his foot and leg to successfully hunt and catch prey was slim. But this valiant young bird had already survived so much, they knew he deserved the chance.

The hawk was placed on pain medications to make him comfortable and reduce stress, and Clinic volunteers provided him with plenty of food to build up his strength.

Over the next few weeks, the bird's overall condition improved dramatically as demonstrated by his improved blood work and weight gain. This was one resilient raptor! But the broken leg still stuck out at an odd angle and, more importantly, the bird couldn't grasp with the toes of the foot. A raptor catches prey with his feet. He also uses his strong toes to perch and hold his prey while he eats. A bird of prey without two functional feet would starve to death in the wild.

WildCare's Medical Staff began a regimen of daily physical therapy (PT) to see if they could help the bird regain use of his foot.

Physical therapy on injured birds is not all that different from the same procedures on people (except the therapist has to dodge the patient's incredibly sharp talons and beak, of course!) In this hawk's case, the leg needed to regain extension and flexibility, and whatever was inhibiting nerve transmission to the foot needed to be overcome.

In the video below, after two weeks of twice-daily PT, the bird has just been transferred to a large aviary with perches that move and swing for the first time. Medical Staff was eager to see if the bird could land successfully and grasp a perch with the toes of both feet.

Trouble viewing the video? Click here to watch it on YouTube.

As you can see in the video, the bird was not yet able to use the left foot effectively. You
can watch him attempt to perch, but with limited success, as the toes of the foot on the injured leg can't grasp. However, compared to his condition upon intake, and given the horrific nature of his injuries, Medical Staff was pleased with his progress.

The fact that the hawk was now able to stand on the leg meant that he was responding to the physical therapy. Over the next weeks, the twice-daily PT sessions were reduced gradually as the bird gained strength in the injured leg and proper use of the foot.

In the video below, Melanie Piazza, WildCare's Director of Animal Care demonstrates some of the physical therapy technique used on this bird that allowed him to regain use of his leg and foot.

And it worked! The bird regained total functionality of the injured foot, and he is able to perch and grasp without difficulty.

Trouble viewing the video? Click here to watch it on YouTube.

Finally, after nearly two months in care, this Red-tail had demonstrated
that he could perch and hunt, and that he had regained the skills necessary to successfully survive in the wild. He was ready to go!

In the video below, you can see him glaring balefully at Melanie as
she readies him for his flight to freedom.

Then watch him fly free and perch with confidence -- a wild Red-tailed Hawk again at last!

Trouble viewing the video? Click here to watch it on YouTube.