One fine spring day back in the mid 70’s I heard a terrible racket over at the three story apartment building right behind our house. I looked over towards the parking lot where the noise was coming from, and saw a bunch of kids yelling and screaming and slapping at something on the ground with sticks.
The noise included a fierce, high-pitched scream which was very strange, so I jumped the back fence to go see exactly what was going on. It turned out to be a raggedy looking gang of neighborhood youngsters, maybe five to 10 years old, complete with dirty bare feet, torn play clothes and Kool-aid rings around their mouths.
They had surrounded a young hawk and were taking turns whacking and poking at it with sticks. The poor hawk was putting up a good fight. He had his back against the apartment building and was clawing and pecking for all he was worth. His feathers were all ruffled, mangled and bent every which direction. Judging from all the feathers on the ground, they had all been at it for a while.
I immediately grabbed a stick out of one of the kids hands and, waving it around like a sword, pointing at each one, threatened them all with immediate bodily harm if they didn’t stop at once. There may have been some colorful language used as well.
They started yelling back that the wicked hawk was trying to kill their poor cat and they were just protecting it from certain death from the sharp beak and talons of the hawk. The cat was still sitting there watching, blinking and taking a swipe at the bird now and then from between the kids legs.
I suspect the baby hawk fell or was pushed out of the nest high up on the building and the cat had found it hopping around on the ground, unable to fly yet. The kids had noticed the commotion of the hawk and cat fighting and joined the fight.
As things calmed a bit I explained it was just a poor baby bird that fell out of it’s nest and couldn’t even fly. I told them to guard the bird and keep the cat away from the hawk and then ran to the house to grab some towels and a cardboard box. The kids instantly went from beating the hell out of the bird to becoming a ring of protectors to prevent any further harm.
I figured I could at least keep him free from more harm and maybe let it heal up before letting him go…totally oblivious that it was protected by state and federal laws along with the US Migratory Bird Act.
I arrived back on the scene, tossing towels on top of the bird to try and calm it down. That didn’t work very well…the little guy was fired up and going to go down fighting after the thrashing he had already suffered.
Staying wary of his talons, I tangled him up in the towels and maneuvered the box up close to him and pushed him into the box. I’m pretty sure I saw a disappointed look on the cat’s face as I headed to the house looking like the Pied Piper with the motley gang behind me.
Getting him back home, I carried him into the garage and closed all the doors, as I knew mom would not welcome an angry bird into the house. While we had quite the menagerie over the years, she drew the line at snakes, wild rodents and anything else that might bite her.
We had an old bird cage from the days when we had parakeets, so I managed to dump the wad of towels and bird into the cage and shake him out, using a stick to get his talons out of the towels. He was one pissed off chicken hawk! I didn’t see any bleeding, just a lot of torn up feathers.
I chased everyone out of the garage to let him calm down and immediately went to the set of Encyclopedia Britannica in the house to read all about him (there was no internet to Google anything back then). From the bright red tail I had already determined he (or she) was a Red Tailed Hawk. I had seen them many times perched in the trees watching for mice in the large grassy fields of White Villa.
I discovered they were frequently used by falconers, as they adapted easily to training. While it sounded very cool to have my own hunting hawk, I decided it was best to return the hawk to the wilds…even if it was a suburban neighborhood filled with houses, apartment buildings and wild gangs of cats and kids.
First though, I had to rehabilitate the poor little thing so he could mend his feathers, fly and fend for himself. Of course, he needed a name, so I named him Bahala Na, from an adventure novel I was reading and fascinated with at the time, I think it was one of Trevanian’s novels of international intrigue, maybe the Eiger Sanction or Loo Sanction.
The novel said Bahala Na was a Filipino saying that meant “Come what may”, which I felt was appropriate at the time. Googling it today, it can be translated to mean “whatever happens, happens,” or “things will turn out fine,” or as “I’ll take care of things.” All of these were perfect for this little guy’s life at the time so I think I chose a pretty good name since I had no idea if he would survive and be released.
I had seen enough National Geographic Specials and other nature shows to know that I shouldn’t turn him into a pet if I was going release him. I didn’t want to be imprinted as his parent. Hoping to keep him in a somewhat wild state, I made a feeding prop out of cardboard and painted a hawk on it, glued some feathers on it with a hole where the beak was so I could use a stick to offer food to him indirectly and not from my hand.
Then I had to figure out what the hell I going to feed this dude. I wasn’t going to try trapping field mice every day so I checked the basement freezer to see what might work. We always got a full side of beef from my Aunt Shirley’s farm, there had to be something in there.
There were always odd bits and pieces from internal organs…some were given to our grand parents, as Papaw loved the brains, liver and tongue as well as oxtail soup. But the heart, no one ever seemed to claim that. Perfect! It was huge, could be cut into little bloody strips…just what a hungry little hawk would love to see on his menu!
However, as with most youngsters, Bahala Na turned out to be picky about his food. He refused to eat anything. I would open the cage door with fake daddy bird (the males do most of the hunting while they are in the nest with momma protecting the babies) and he would go nuts, screeching and scrambling to the back of the cage. I would leave a chunk in the cage and leave, but he wouldn’t touch it.
After several days of refusal I thought there might not be any hope for the little guy, but one day I opened the door, stuck the “beak” in with a bit of bloody heart meat on it and he inched forward and took it. Success! He ate it up and screeched for more! I fed him until he stopped feeding and felt like there was hope for the little dude.
I learned later that hawks should only be fed whole animals to maintain their health, including their blood, guts, organs, bones and everything else. They need this yak or more properly “casting” as the casting material cleans their crop before it’s expelled, like an owl pellet.
Luckily I had enlisted the neighborhood kids to be on the prowl for mice, small snakes and other critters for additional chow. It was practically a religious experience for them to bring me roadkill of all descriptions, like they were the family cat bringing a mouse home for master. Today I cringe to think of them scouring the neighborhood killing any small critters they could find.
Melody and Paul in particular were still very young and fascinated by Bahala Na and I would often find them standing in the garage with some kind of offering and a screaming bird begging for dinner. I don’t know for sure, but they might have also been charging their neighborhood friends for a peek to get money for candy.
I then discovered the next issue…food going in meant nastier material coming back out. This consisted of the previously described casting from his crop and something called a mute, which is a poo containing a combination of fecal matter from digested food, urine and urate, which is crystalline uric acid.
Now, parakeet messes as bad as they are were mostly just a bunch of seeds and petite little seed poos. A hawk eating raw meat leaves a hawk size pile of poo and yak, and if not cleaned up in a timely manner becomes a spa yak-bath for a crazy little hawk to roll and flap around in.
Luckily the cage was one of the types that had a slide-out false bottom for cleaning, although sometimes the yak piles were too large to fit through the narrow slot and I’d have to go in through the door with a heavily gloved hand being pecked at by that sharp beak.
Feeding him and cleaning his cage in the mornings and afternoons became a major part of my summer schedule. After a while just opening the side door to the garage meant the dinner bell had rung and Bahala Na would start screeching immediately at the top of his lungs until fake bird daddy fed him.
I fell into a pattern of feeding, watering and cleaning and Bahala Na continued growing, as the main cow heart food supply kept shrinking. His feathers started coming back in and he started making the cage look smaller. I gave up on the cardboard prop after a while and just used a long stick since it didn’t seem like I was fooling him…as soon as I walked into the garage he knew dinner was nigh.
As summer was drawing to a close and fall started I worried a bit as I had read that Red Tails migrated south in the fall, so I wanted to make sure he had time to fly south. he was looking very healthy. He had grown quite large and his feathers were mostly back in place. The cage was growing smaller and messing with his tail feathers.
After school started back up, I discovered dad had been feeding Bahala Na extra meals while I was at school. No wonder his size seemed to be doubling! I caught him hand feeding him like he was a little puppy. He had even bought some meat at the grocery store so he wouldn’t get caught. As much crap as he gave me about keeping the bird in his garage, he was nothing but a big softie after having him there all summer.
Eventually, the day came when it was time to set him free, for better or worse. The family gathered outside as I carried his cage to the back yard. I set the cage down, opened up the door and stepped back to let him leave on his own. He didn’t seem to know what to do at first, but eventually he inched to the door and hopped out.
He flapped his wings around like he was stretching them out and hopped on top of the cage. He flapped a few more times and then managed to fly a few more feet up to a grapevine trellis. He did some more flapping and stretching and then did a big jump off the trellis and off into the sky he went. We all watched him fly until we couldn’t see him anymore and we thought that was it.
The next morning I looked out and he was perched on top of the telephone pole in our back yard, waiting for breakfast. He stuck around for a few more days and suddenly he was gone…until the next spring.
He would come sit on that same spot on the telephone pole every now and then for the next couple of years, probably until he developed his own territory and had a family of his (or her) own as they reach maturity at two years and begin breeding at three years old.
I think of him every time I see a red tail perched high in a tree or sitting on a fence post along the highway.