North American Falconers' Association Journal, 2004
by Kate Davis, Executive Director of Raptors of the Rockies

Contact Sport Calamity

We are often reminded that falconry is a "contact sport", and unfortunately our birds occasionally suffer from injuries in the field that could halt our passion abruptly. Here in Western Montana my friend Randy Scanlon and I fly Harris’s Hawks together, even in frigid weather. Randy’s expert rabbit hunter suffered a devastating wing break that brought together veterinarians and advice from around the country, with a happy ending all around, we hope.

Gabby is a three year old Harris’s Hawk that has proven herself well on Western Cottontails, blasting through the thick brush with a quick talon grab to the head. Randy has taken her to a local field near the Missoula International Airport for years, an area they both know down to the very thickets and hiding places for game. Gabby has taken scores of bunnies and is fearless in her pursuits, occasionally coming up with a foot full of brown hair after plunging from a T-perch or tree into the brush, but more often with a rabbit to bring home. This summer Randy acquired an eyass male Harris’s from the Colson’s breeding project, Milo arriving in a kennel on the airplane. My three year old Harris’s Deja took objection to this smaller version, and they had a few disputes over who really rules. Deja nailed Milo in those thickets once, and then the little tiercel got his revenge when Deja was hooded, smacking her off the glove an hour later. They never forget a thing, these birds.

This winter Randy and I piled all three hawks and my Peregrine in his "BAYWING"-Mobile Suburban and headed to the Big Hole Valley and Dillon, Montana. There we were met by my friend Leaf Magnuson, who assured us she could guide us in to some rabbits and maybe hares. We were anxious to explore new country. The first day all three hawks hunted together along Grasshopper Creek, chasing Mountain Cottontails that had elaborate systems of burrows to elude the birds. This continued the next day as we hunted the open sagebrush west of town, with a few close encounters with fur. This is open, treeless country so we carried T-perches as we tramped through the brush, hawks riding high over our heads. What a sight it must have been to the local traffic; some kind of religious cult. Leaf had a great time, and she finally admitted as we were leaving that she had been rooting for the rabbits all along.

Later, in February, Randy had his two birds flying in tandem as they had been learning to do so well, when a flurry of activity caused him to run to the scene of what could have been a kill. Gabby was perched about ten feet up in a tree, and wasn’t about to come down. He was forced to climb up and retrieve the bird by hand and to his horror discovered a wing injury. X-rays revealed a mid-shaft fracture of the ulna, an injury that could ground Gabby forever. Our veterinarian is Dr. Scott Bovard of Missoula Veterinary Clinic, and although he doesn’t have a lot of experience with birds, he is an excellent surgeon and researcher. Scott immediately contacted Dr. Mary Ann Nieves at Iowa State University for medical advice and Randy spoke to Dr. Redig at the Raptor Center in Minnesota. After a series of phone calls and e-mails a strategy was decided upon and Gabby was in for surgery the next day. Fortunately she took to the gas well and we plucked the dorsal coverts on the left wing. It was decided that a steel intramedullary pin should run the length of and inside the ulna. Dr. Bovard first inserted the threaded rod in at the break and wound it past the end of the elbow . He matched the broken bones together and ran it back distally towards the body, then cut off the excess pin. We were amazed to see that the seven-inch pin now held the bones in place. Two cerclage "wires" of 2-0 PDS thread wrapped around the oblique fracture made it even more secure, and Scott routinely closed the skin incision. Vet wrap bandage was placed around the wing and body to hold everything in place and finally the gas was turned off after a 40-minute surgery.

We nervously waited to see how Gabby would come out of the anesthesia, and recalled that my Harris’s Hawk had a very bad reaction to the gas the year before. Deja had ruptured her crop, an inch and a half opening in her throat from which food spilled. We guessed that she had been kicked by a squirrel. After similar phone calls and advice from around the country and the Raptor Center, Dr. Bovard surgically repaired the damage. Deja had seizures halfway though the procedure, resulting in a few nervous moments. But now, fortunately Gabby came around like a pro. We watched her try to get her balance on unsteady feet and a full body wrap. After hearty congratulations and thanks to our doctor, Randy put his patient in her giant hood in the truck for the ride home. Two minutes of chatting in front of the clinic and a quick peek in the hood revealed Gabby on the perch and the vet wrap on the floor. Oh well, and it was decided that the fracture was stable enough to allow her to go home with out a support wrap. She spent the next three weeks in Randy’s living room; healing, getting fat and growing back those plucked covert feathers.

When it was finally time to remove the pin, no one voiced it but we were all nervous about the outcome. More gas, and the pin was wound out without a hitch. The new x-ray showed a straight bone, healed perfectly with reinforcing calcium along the old break. This was a combination of great advice from seasoned bird specialists around the country, expert surgery from a budding bird professional, and optimism from everyone involved. More than anything we hope that this fall Gabby will be back out there with her friends, striking fear in the hearts of rabbits across Big Sky Country.