It’s quiet on the back roads of Boyds, Maryland, where a small compound dotted with bird feeders breaks the monotony of the surrounding cornfields.
Suddenly, an upgraded Toyota Tacoma kicks up a cloud of dust as it comes into view on a gravel driveway. A figure steps out of the truck: a woman with a glove covering one arm and a hawk-tattooed sleeve covering the other. Reaching into the passenger seat, she pulls out a box, one that appears to be fighting her.
This one, he knew, would be headed to the ICU.
Nancy McDonald is a volunteer rescuer at Owl Moon Raptor Center, a Boyds-based organization that helps rescue and rehabilitate injured raptors, including hawks, owls, eagles and ospreys, before releasing them back into the wild.
The word “raptor” derives from the Latin verb “rapiō”, which means “to seize”. All raptors have four characteristics: a hooked beak, sharp claws, keen eyesight, and a carnivorous diet.
In some respects, raptors living among human populations have a fragile life cycle. Threats they face include rodenticides (pesticides that kill rodents), entanglement with string and fishing wire, car crashes, and window collisions.
In other respects, however, animals are incredibly adaptable.
Peregrine Falcons sometimes use high-rise buildings as nests; ospreys may occupy man-made platforms to raise their chicks; and committees of vultures sometimes take over dumpsters, said McDonald, a 62-year-old U.S. Army veteran who started as a rescue volunteer in 2017. (And yes, “committee” is one of the terms for a group of vultures.)
I first learned about Mrs. McDonald and the Owl Moon Raptor Center, whose main operator is suzanne cobbleran expert in animal behavior and ecology, when I was a college student in Washington, DC So, an aspiring wildlife photographer, I assumed I would have to travel to remote locations to find subjects to photograph.
And yet, on my way to and from classes, I often saw hawks soaring over the cityscape. I eventually began tracking the birds between conferences, looking for signs of broken branches or the carcasses of their prey. Spending so much time looking for signs of the birds led me to wonder about the threats they faced and who worked to save them.
When the pandemic hit in 2020, I moved back into my family’s house in the suburbs. But still intrigued by the birds, I posted a question on a local Facebook birding group and Mrs. McDonald responded. She invited me to visit Owl Moon and learn about the threats to urban raptors.
After my initial visit, I was hooked. For weeks I accompanied Mrs. McDonald as she went about her work: in rescues, on treks to the rehab camp, in freezers to pick at mouse carcasses. We even shared a bottle of whiskey when a bird we both loved had to be put down humanely.
Not all work was uplifting. On one occasion, a red-tailed hawk named Kean was found to be sitting on top of other birds and crushing them in the meow, a large birdhouse designed to house several raptors. (After colliding with a skyscraper in Baltimore, the bird suffered from neurological and behavioral problems.) In the end, Kean’s condition exacerbated the other birds’ injuries, limiting their chances of healing.
It was a race against time. Mrs. McDonald tried to find another home for the bird, calling other rehabilitation centers that she thought might want the falcon as an ambassador bird, or a bird used for educational purposes with students and other visitors. But no one else had room for what some saw as “another red-tailed hawk.” (Many centers may have made room for a more exotic bird.)
Having exhausted all other options and realizing that the bird’s condition was too dangerous for the other releasable birds, the Owl Moon Raptor Center had no choice but to euthanize Kean.
Euthanasia is an unfortunate reality of raptor rescues. In many cases, it is the only humane way forward after rodenticide poisonings or collisions with windows or cars. Still, for the distraught volunteers, every loss is painful.
Of course, it is the successes that drive raptor rescuers. Ms. McDonald still remembers one of the first tasks she was given when she joined the organization: releasing a rehabilitated red-tailed hawk in Crofton, Maryland.
“I opened the box and it jumped out,” he said. “The falcon sat there for about 10 minutes, getting its bearings, and then all of a sudden it took off.” That was the first time he knew he was part of something valuable, she said.
I spent much of my time at Owl Moon in and around the meow where many of the hawks are found. The wooden floor boards creaked as I passed, accompanied by the rustling of more than 20 birds of prey that were confined while rehabilitating.
I watched and photographed as rescuers carefully prepared for their daily rounds. They donned oversized Kevlar gloves and outfitted themselves with 12-foot nets. Then they prepared to crouch down. There was a flurry of feathers as they entered the room with the birds, the newly admitted red-shouldered, red-tailed hawks scattering to the top of their enclosure.
For those who work at Owl Moon, each bird’s journey is part of their own. Both the birds and their rehabilitators long for the day when raptors can fly free. But by giving the birds another chance, the rescuers themselves get something, too: lessons in resilience, adaptation, and recovery.
As a photographer, I’ve also learned something important from birds, namely that deep conservation stories don’t have to take me to the ends of the earth. They are all around us, in our cities and suburbs, if we are only willing to search.