Patient of the Week: Red-tailed Hawk on Path to Recovery after Being Hit by a Car

By Ashley Lema, Wildlife Rehabilitator

Back in December 2020, we received this first year Red-tailed Hawk from Woodland, WA. The good Samaritan that rescued her found her by the side of the road near I-5. It was clear she had a broken wing, and wasn’t able to fly.

Upon examining her here at our Wildlife Care Center, we found a freshly broken ulna, which is one of the bones in the wing–similar to having a broken forearm–and she also had some blood in her mouth. These clues, along with the location in which she was found, led us to believe that this hawk was likely hit by a car.

Vehicle collisions are common, especially for Red-tailed Hawks, who often hunt along roads and highways, looking for prey hidden in the open green spaces next to these human constructs. Many raptors, including younger Red-tailed Hawks, scavenge when the opportunity presents itself, and can also be attracted to busy roads by road kill. As the hawk swoops down with incredible focus on the prey, or takes off from a low point after eating, they can sometimes fly too low through a dangerous area and be struck by a car.

We were able to stabilize the hawk with fluids, pain medication, and antibiotics, and after radiographs and attention from our experienced wildlife veterinarian, we determined that we could treat the bird’s fracture with a specially designed therapeutic wrap instead of surgery. It took several weeks of wound care, physical therapy, and supportive care, but eventually a callus formed at the fracture site. At this point we were able to slowly transition her to larger spaces so she could rebuild her strength, but at the same time, limit her mobility so as to not stress the fracture site too much. Now, she is in our intermediate flight enclosure, where she can practice short low flights. 

Red-tailed Hawk perched on natural branch in its enclosure.

This hawk was extremely lucky, because the location and type of broken bone is one that can heal well. Wings are complex and delicately balanced mechanisms, and we know from experience that many types of fractures can prevent a bird from ever regaining the ability to fly. Although the bird has been with us for many weeks, and will be with us for many more for physical therapy and flight conditioning, we are hopeful she will return to her rightful place in the wild.

Red-tailed Hawks are one of the most common hawks in North America, and are our most common raptor patients here at our Wildlife Care Center. They are large birds, with broad rounded wings, and a short wide tail. They are highly adaptable birds, and have managed to do relatively well near urban environments, but more naturally, prefer open land. Red-tailed Hawks can be seen soaring overhead in circles, or more prominently, perching on poles along the highway, or at the tops of tall trees. These hawks spend the majority of their active hours perched and scanning for prey below. They have a wide variety of prey options, but mainly hunt small mammals such as rabbits, squirrels, voles, and rats. They can be opportunistic as well, and can eat birds, reptiles, amphibians, insects, and carrion (or dead animals). You may think from the name that a red tail is the perfect identifying mark, however, Red-tailed Hawks do not develop their red tails until they’ve reached full adulthood. Also, with most raptors, the females tend to be larger than males, which is how we know this patient is a young female. 

How You Can Help

Roads are dangerous places for wildlife, and wildlife on roads can put drivers at risk as well. Yet it seems we often view this as an unavoidable side-effect of our modern transportation system as opposed to a problem we have the power to influence. It’s true that many of the ways we can reduce and prevent vehicle collisions involve planning and infrastructure decisions, such as where roads are placed, incorporation and placement of wildlife crossings, and design and use of fencing and other barriers. But in addition to advocating for mitigating wildlife impacts at this higher level, we can also make a difference individually. Most importantly, slowing down and heeding speed limits gives you and the animal more time to react. Avoid attracting animals near to roads with food; for example, tossing an apple core out the car window might seem harmless but that food source could attract animals into danger. And when it is safe to do so, moving existing roadkill away from the edges of the road can protect scavengers from falling victim as well.

Red-tailed Hawk perched on astroturf in its enclosure.

What to Do If You Find an Injured Raptor

  • If you’re driving and see an injured animal beside the road, remember safety first! There are many places where it isn’t safe or legal to stop or pull over. Chasing an injured animal on the side of a busy road can also sometimes end up spooking the animal into traffic. When stopping to help would be dangerous, take detailed note of where the animal is (eg. a mile marker or landmark) and find a safe place to stop. Then reach out to the State Police, who can respond to freeway hazards and are able to safely manage traffic. Stick around to show where the animal was, help capture, and/or transport the bird if you can.
  •  Be cautious of raptors’ beak and talons! These birds have defense mechanisms that they can and will use when threatened. We always recommend not touching the animal if possible–some people will use a large blanket to throw over the bird, some will simply place a box or can on top and slide cardboard underneath, etc.
  • Contain the animal in a securely closed (but ventilated) box and keep the animal quiet and undisturbed until you can transport it to your closest wildlife rehabilitation facility. Do not offer food or water.
  • It is particularly important that you get the animal professional help from a permitted rehabilitator as soon as possible – prompt medical treatment makes it more likely an animal will recover, and these animals are often in pain. After all, you’d want to get the hospital right away if you had been hit by a car too! 

Here at Portland Audubon’s Wildlife Care Center, we accept new patients from 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. every day. You can also leave a message on our Wildlife Hotline at (503) 292-0304 or email wildlife@audubonportland.org and one of our solutions counselors will get back to you and provide advice for your specific situation. 

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Unfortunately due to COVID-19 we had to operate our Wildlife Care Center this past year with about 20% of our normal staffing and with about a 25% increase in our annual patient admissions. We were left with the difficult but necessary decision to discontinue providing follow-up updates on patients brought into our center so that we could focus on the daily care of the animals. And while we simply cannot write a story about each animal, our goal for this fresh and bright new year is to show you what we can: in the form of a weekly patient update! Check in every Thursday for our “Patient of the Week”; with information on the species, the circumstances that brought the animal in, and preventative advice so you can be a better steward for our wildlife!

If you’d like to contribute to the Wildlife Care Center, please consider making a donation here. Your work helps us to save lives.