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Red Tail Stare-Down


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While walking my dog Chuck in the Arcata marsh and wildlife sanctuary last Thursday evening we came suddenly upon a juvenile red tail hawk. Practically stepped on him before we noticed him. Perched on a fallen branch just inches off the path, the striking raptor stared unflinchingly up at me, then Chuck. After recovering from what must have looked like a cartoonishly exaggerated double-take, I sat cross-legged not four feet from the beautiful creature and stared right back.

His left wing hung low with an unnatural kink -- clearly broken. I spent the next hour trying to reach someone via cellphone who could come to the poor raptor's aid. Two messages left at the Humboldt Wildlife Care Center were not returned. A friendly woman working dispatch for the Arcata Police Department tried to find someone at HSU who could assist. As I snapped photos, the hawk waited patiently, glancing inquisitively at the rotating cast of astounded passersby and nuzzling his beak into his downy chest feathers, apparently napping. A man and his son walking a handsome pair of airedales hoofed into town to seek help. A young man approached, then doubled back to see if the Marsh Interpretive Center was still open. (It wasn't.) I'd been warned against handling the bird myself, though he would have been easy to catch. By 5, no professional help had arrived, and it was getting dark.

Eventually, the red tail seemingly got fed up with me and Chuck, who by this point was quite restless, and started hopping down the trail. By jumping awkwardly from branch to branch, he made his way up into a tree where he perched for a few minutes before flying/falling into the underbrush. Dusk had settled, and I could no longer see him. Back at the office, I searched for more info on the Humboldt Wildlife Care Center, but their old Web address had been taken over by a Japanese company selling dental implants.

When I finally reached Executive Director Amanda Auston on Tuesday, she explained that the organization is volunteer-dependent. There's no government organization to deal with wildlife rescue, and the local group does what they can with its limited resources. "Some days we have 20 volunteers to do one thing; other days we have one volunteer doing 20 things," Auston said. They had received my messages, she said, and a volunteer looked for the injured hawk Thursday evening and again Friday morning but found no sign of him.

Sometimes there's just nothing you can do, Auston said, though she added that she feels a responsibility to respond to human-caused injuries. Humboldt Wildlife is permitted through the government but receives no public funding. "We don't have the money [to do more]," Auston said. "It's not a big enough issue for people."

I'm not sure what became of the red tail, though imminent death is probably a good bet. What I was left with, then, was an amazing hour spent up-close with a stunning wild creature. Auston said I followed the correct procedure, which was nice. But watching the grainy video on my cell phone I can't help but see the hawk's strange behavior as a call for help.

The Humboldt Wildlife Care Center's correct Web address is Their hotline number is 822-8839. Keep it handy.


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