A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

How Not to Help a Hawk

Let’s leave rehab to the professionals

By Liz Stelow, D.V.M.

“There’s a woman named Judy here with a red-tailed hawk,” our receptionist told me. I thanked her, and my colleague and I headed out to meet Judy in the lobby.

We were expecting to see a sealed cardboard box with a bemused hawk in it. Instead, we found a woman sitting with a hawk on her lap as if it were her pet. While my colleague took the hawk to the exam area, I asked Judy for some background information. As we chatted, I learned that Judy’s family had found the hawk several weeks before. She explained that the bird had got “something” stuck in her flight feathers that caused her not to fly well. So Judy’s father, a “raptor expert,” had trimmed her primary wing feathers, kept her in their barn and fed her a diet of KFC and hamburgers – an extremely unhealthy diet for a bird that eats primarily fresh rodent meat!

After examining the bird and finding her to be slightly underweight and dehydrated, we transferred her to a professionally-run raptor rehabilitation center to recover (and wait for her feathers to grow back) before being released.

I’m always touched when I meet a “good Samaritan” who goes out of his or her way to help sick or injured wildlife. But it’s also possible to get too close, like Judy and her family did. Here are three things they should have considered before taking in this hawk:

It’s illegal. All native birds of prey are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. Thus, possession of a wild hawk (or, in fact, any of its feathers, eggs, body parts, or nests) without a permit is illegal throughout the US.

Someone could get injured. Hawks have sharp beaks and talons, against which humans have no natural protection. Even the owners of captive-bred falconry animals take great care in handling their birds.

Wild hawks shouldn’t get used to humans. No one wins when an animal like a hawk becomes reliant on, and comfortable around, people. If they approach unsuspecting people, who will naturally feel threatened, one or both parties might get hurt. The birds, too, can suffer by being fed inappropriate foods. And, when the humans stop caring for them, they may have trouble adjusting to fending for themselves.

It appears that Judy and her family were legitimately trying to help this bird – but their response was misguided. Instead of keeping it, they should have taken the hawk to a reputable raptor rehabilitator for treatment. The family is fortunate that neither they, nor the hawk, seemed significantly harmed by their time together. But their story still serves as a textbook example of what not to do.


To locate a licensed wildlife rehabilitator in your region, check out www.wildliferehabber.org. Or Google “wildlife rehabilitator” and add the name of your state. Or call your local humane society or city/animal services department. Your veterinarian may also have a list. Best of all, keep the name and phone number in a handy place.