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The Great Black Hawk: What Happens Now?

As you may have heard, Portland’s famous Great Black Hawk has been taken to a rehabilitation facility after being found on the ground in Deering Oaks Park during this weekend’s cold snap and snowstorm. The bird is receiving excellent care at Avian Haven in Freedom, though there is still much uncertainty about the hawk’s injuries and possibility of recovery.

Avian Haven has confirmed that the bird has frostbite. It would make sense: the long, bare legs of Great Black Hawks are ideal for chasing prey on foot, but are not made to protect the bird from bitter cold. Temperatures in Portland dipped to the low single digits this weekend, and even lower with the wind chill. If the bird indeed has frostbite, it’s possible that it may result in permanent injuries to its legs and feet.

Time will tell the full extent of the Black Hawk’s recovery. In the meantime, we should consider what happens next.

There are four likely outcomes for this bird now that it has entered human care. If the hawk makes a full recovery, it could be released in Maine. Or, it could be released somewhere in its native range. It could also be kept under human care, at an educational facility or zoo. Finally, if the bird has untreatable injuries it could be euthanized and sent to a museum to help understand what could have made it fly so far from home.

Let’s consider each possibility.

Release in Maine

The Great Black Hawk flew to Maine all on its own. Releasing the recovered bird back in Maine is likely the way to minimize the amount of human intervention and get this bird back into the wild as quickly as possible.

Of course, there are drawbacks to this approach. It’s astonishing that the Great Black Hawk has survived for so long, because it is simply not designed for living here. Many observers believed that it was just a matter of time before something befell this bird, whether cold or starvation. Releasing the bird back in Maine would not solve the fundamental problem that it is not meant to be here, and it would be unlikely to survive for long.

Release in its native range

However, the bird is supposed to be somewhere. Ornithologists have determined that this individual belongs to the northern population, ranging on the east and west coasts of Mexico and down into Central America. If it is determined the bird is able to survive on its own, it could be returned to its native range, where it has a better chance at long-term survival. Avian Haven has a history of returning Maine vagrant birds to their home range, including an Ash-throated Flycatcher to Texas and a Sooty Tern to the Florida coast.

It’s not as easy as it sounds, however. The bird faces an uphill battle for survival even if released in its native range. Great Black Hawks are territorial, and the bird would have to defend itself against native hawks in the release area. Identifying an appropriate release site, and the related issues, including stress to the bird and financial costs, of transporting the bird across international lines, would need to be dealt with as well.

Keep for education

If the bird does not fully recover, it could be used for education. Many injured birds serve as educational ambassadors, used to give the public a close look at birds they might otherwise never see. There are several places in Maine or around the country that could possibly use this bird as an educational tool.

The downsides of this approach are that we don’t know how the hawk might respond to becoming a captive ambassador, or where exactly the bird might end up. Some facilities in the northeast prefer to use native species for their education, and so the educational benefits of a tropical hawk might be limited. Still, options are limited if the bird does not recover enough so that it can be released.

Donate to science

If this bird does not survive, its body will be kept for scientific study. It’s possible that scientists could find something in this bird that could shed light into the reasons it came to Maine in the first place. Exactly where the bird could go is still undetermined. Euthanizing the bird to save it from suffering is also an option.

There is no clear and easy answer, here, so it’s important to understand all the factors at play. Given this, what do you think is the best choice?

Please stay tuned for more updates as the Great Black Hawk’s recovery progresses. We here at Maine Audubon wish full health for this incredible bird, and give our thanks to Avian Haven and the quick-thinking Portland citizens who recovered it.

If you’re interested in this story and what happens to wildlife after they are rescued, make plans to attend our event on wildlife and conservation medicine on Thursday, January 24, at 7pm, featuring Center for Wildlife Executive Director Kristen Lamb. Bring your questions about the Great Black Hawk!