WESTMINSTER — The Bellows Falls Union High School’s popular mascot is a cute black and white Boston terrier.
But for an hour last week, the most popular animal on the rural campus was a red-tailed hawk, which was rehabilitated at the Vermont Institute for Natural Science in Quechee, after the raptor crashed into a large glass door at the school last month.
The bird suffered a concussion, amid other injuries, and spent almost three weeks at VINS, much of that time in intensive care, before it was ready to be released back to the wilds — or at least the playing fields surrounding the high school. The bird was also suffering from parasites, and it had a minor skin wound as well.
Grae O’Toole, the director of VINS’ center for wild bird rehabilitation, did the honors of releasing the young hawk with a large group of students watching.
VINS takes in all kinds of birds that need treatment and recovery, she said, including hundreds of song birds during the course of the year. The most common songbird brought to VINS appears to be baby robins, she said.
BFUHS science teacher Patty Murray had previously been a volunteer at VINS, when she taught in the Hartford school system and she played a key role in the bird’s recovery.
When the bird flew into a window off the parking lot in the back of the school, Murray’s first thought was to take it to VINS, which has a large facility in Quechee, a village in the town of Hartford. Murray is in her third year at BFUHS, teaching biology and chemistry, and lives in the Hartford area.
Murray had put the injured bird in a cardboard box in her car and drove to Quechee, a bit uneasy with the idea of a hawk loose in her car.
“I thought, ‘what would I do if all of a sudden it started moving around?’” she recalled, as O’Toole got ready to give the bird its freedom back — in the same rear parking lot at the school.
Murray said the bird crashing into the building had made a large sound, and others came to its aid. A school custodian quickly got the bird a box, Murray said, but it was stunned and not moving.
When the hawk arrived at VINS, it had a little blood in its mouth, a sign of head trauma.
The bird, which was not named but was known as 22-7-12, was treated with avian medicine, O’Toole said, and as she gained strength, she was put in the VINS flight cage, so the rehabilitators could gauge whether she was ready to return to the wild.
“I’m so happy she’s made it,” said Murray, who watched closely. Students watched intently, but more at a distance.
When O’Toole reached into the bird carrier, and held her up, the hawk eyed the surroundings.
The hawk’s crop was full, O’Toole said, from a big chunk of chicken she had eaten that morning. That, and a dead mouse, O’Toole said. VINS orders frozen dead rodents from a special company to feed its birds.
The hawk easily took off and flew to an oak tree on the edge of the field, which adjoins the parking lot. The bird waited, and appeared to gain its bearings, and stayed on the tree for a while, looking around.
Murray said the students and teachers often see hawks in the trees surrounding the school, and O’Toole said that was likely because of all the open — and mowed — fields. The birds can easily pick up the movement of something it would like to eat, like a mouse or a vole.
O’Toole, who has worked for VINS for about six years, said VINS is by far the largest bird rehabilitation center in the state, and it cares for birds as far away as Newport and Bennington, as well as Burlington. She said the VINS center treats between 10 to 20 hawks in a year.
“We see a lot of barred owls,” she said, and broad-winged hawks are more common than the red-tailed ones.
VINS treats a lot of songbirds, she said, noting that in the past year, VINS treated more than 100 robins alone, mostly young birds but some adults.
“We’ve had 826 patients so far this year,” said O’Toole. As of last Thursday, VINS had 21 birds currently in care.
O’Toole said the number of injured birds varies year to year.
“In 2021, we received 49 hawks with 26 of them being red-tailed hawks. So far this year, we have received 57 hawks with 11 of them being red-tailed hawks. Red tails tend to be one of our more common raptor species that we receive in care,” she said.
This hawk weighed 1,096 grams upon arrival and was in very good body condition, she said.
“In our care, she only gained a little bit of weight because she was already very healthy with a release weight of 1,153 grams,” she said.
O’Toole said she and others weren’t completely sure of the sex of the bird.
“We aren’t completely sure the red tail is in fact female. We think she potentially is more likely female because of her weight and overall size, but we are not 100 percent certain,” she said.
The most common injuries for hawks are broken wings, head trauma and soft tissue trauma, and the cause of these injuries varies, she said.
“Some are hit by cars, some hit windows, some get tangled in objects, trapped in buildings, emaciated, and rodenticide poisoning,” she said.
“Many of those causes are primarily due to a human-related issue. One of the most common cause for injury in hawks is being hit by cars. Roughly 35 percent of our intakes for hawks are due to collisions with vehicles. For the most part, though, we don’t know what happened to many of the birds that are brought in. They are found unable to stand or fly and are brought to us and we are left filling in the blanks, treating their injuries, and hopefully releasing back into the wild,” she said.
O’Toole said the bird was juvenile. “We could tell she was in her first year because she didn’t have the classic ‘red tail’ yet,” she said.
“As juveniles, red tails have a brown and striped tail. It is during their second year they grow in the red tail,” she said.