A flightless red-tailed hawk was brought to the Gladys Porter Zoo recently. It appeared to have been caught in a fire and looked more like a porcupine than a bird of prey. All of its primary feathers and most of its tail were badly scorched, leaving only the shaft. Knowing that it might take a year or more for the bird to go through a natural molt and grow new feathers, the Zoo’s Animal Health Department staff went to work. The goal: restore this magnificent animal’s ability to fly.
Another rescued red-tailed hawk (brought in blind in both eyes and subsequently euthanized) provided donor feathers. These were carefully removed and laid out in proper order. The patient was then put under anesthesia. Using a process called “imping,” the ancient art of feather replacement used by falconers for centuries, each donor feather was meticulously dowelled and glued with epoxy onto the existing feather shaft.
After two sessions lasting two-and-a-half-hours each, the hawk is sporting a complete complement of plumage. Its first test flight was a success. To top it off, on its first, newly-flighted, night, it captured its own prey.
With a new lease on life, the hawk, affectionately named “Rakowski” after a local Texas Game Warden, is scheduled for release in two days.
The Animal Health Department at the Gladys Porter Zoo is the principal wildlife rehabilitation unit for the Rio Grande Valley of Texas. Its wildlife rehabilitation involves caring for injured, ill, and orphaned wild animals with the goal of releasing each into its natural habitat. Animals are brought to the zoo by private citizens, animal control officers, or Texas Parks & Wildlife Department Game Wardens.
Photos by Alex Olvera, Vet Tech