Have raptors met their match? 

In Montana, eagles, hawks and other birds are hitting a lead wall.

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This hawk exposed at Pruyn today likely has a mate. Like eagles, red-tailed hawks mate for life. They are, in fact, known for their elaborate courtship rituals, in which the male flies high and dives repeatedly, eventually rising back up to touch the female. It's clearly time to nest when the pair links talons midair, pausing only for a moment before spiraling in free fall, then separating with impeccable timing before safely hitting the ground. This bird at Pruyn today likely left a family behind.

Tanner found the hawk grounded on a golf course next to Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge. Someone shot it with a BB gun. The pellet remains in its shoulder, but that's the least of the hawk's problems today. He fell, presumably from a perch or flight. Tanner surmises he dislocated the elbow in the landing. Today's vet visit—Dr. Shoni Card at Pruyn is attempting to put the joint back in place—will shape whether the hawk flies again and, more importantly, if he lives in the wild again.

Tanner, 32, realized she wanted to be a wildlife rehabber when she was in sixth grade and found a raccoon with an open wound on its back leg. "I knew I had to do something," she says, "so I was out there with a box...I was on a mission."

click to enlarge A golden eagle regards educator Rob Domenech. - PHOTO COURTESY OF RAPTOR VIEW RESEARCH
  • Photo courtesy of Raptor View Research
  • A golden eagle regards educator Rob Domenech.

She started professionally rehabilitating birds in 2006, when the Grounded Eagle Foundation in Condon hired her. Tanner smiles when she remembers the first raptor she released. It was a red-tailed hawk, on a sunny day near Brown's Lake, in Ovando. "Once I released a bird, I was like, nothing is ever going to be that fulfilling...It immediately just started circling and soaring—and then it just went so high that we couldn't even see it anymore."

Tanner and Domenech care for birds at their house in Missoula, a white home with chipping paint on Trail Street west of Russell. Dandelions, dog toys and cardboard boxes dot the yard. Pigeons coo in a wooden enclosure attached to the garage. Crows call from a fenced-in corner of a storage shed. "We're just making due with what we have," Tanner explains.

Tanner gets rescue calls from Fish Wildlife & Parks, 911 operators and local veterinarians. She's on call constantly, ready to run and pick up a bird at a moment's notice. People bring birds to her, too. The Trail Street house is tricky to find, so she meets people at the Good Food Store, a few blocks away. They hand over winged creatures packed into dog kennels and cardboard boxes with holes in the top.

Tanner's commitment to—and love for—birds is branded on her skin. She has a blue outline of an eagle tattooed on her left forearm. An owl perches beneath a golden eagle on her right biceps. The tattoos might make her look tough, but it becomes clear as she talks that she's anything but when it comes to birds. She doesn't name the animals she rehabilitates because that would make it even harder to let them go. As it is, she can't help but to get to know the animals, especially those that she performs physical therapy on. Every species has a different personality. Crows, for instance, are mocking. They're also smart. The young crows Tanner is housing elicit a jubilant chorus of squawks when she arrives home to feed them dinner.

The fledging crows are healthy and fun to be around. Sick and injured birds wear more heavily on Tanner. They get depressed. They sulk. And the rescue calls keep coming.

click to enlarge Brooke Tanner knew in the sixth grade that she wanted to rehabilitate animals. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • Brooke Tanner knew in the sixth grade that she wanted to rehabilitate animals.

Rehabilitation success is far from a given. Knowing the animals makes it very difficult to euthanize them—that's the hardest part of the job, she says. "You can't save them all. It just doesn't happen."

'Raptors have always been maligned.'

American Indian religious tradition holds that eagles take prayers to God. The wide-winged raptor also plays prominently in creation stories among indigenous people across North and South America. The animal's plumage is considered a conduit of sacred energy.

The American Eagle Foundation estimates that when European settlers first came to North America, at the dawn of the 17th century, 100,000 bald eagles dotted the continent. Other estimates run higher. In 1776, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson set about finding a suitable animal to represent the fledgling country. Adams thought the eagle admirable. Jefferson saw it as a "free spirit, high soaring, and courageous." Franklin, however, thought his peers bad judges of character, at least in this instance. The eagle, Franklin told them, is a coward. He's a scavenger and a thief. Franklin made a case for the wild turkey instead. In 1782, Congress adopted the eagle as the official emblem of the United States.

As a child, Rob Domenech learned about the bald eagle's place in American culture, as a symbol of the country's fierce strength and courage. He also grew to understand that Americans have always had a love-hate relationship with birds of prey. Raptors are predators. Because of that, people who worked the land—and the sea—persecuted them to protect their interests. European arrivals in North America shot the birds. Bounty programs offered by governments provided additional incentive to kill raptors. The Alaska Territorial Legislature in 1917 placed a bounty on the bald eagle in response to concerns about its impact on salmon. At least 128,000 eagles were killed under the Alaska program between 1917 and 1952.

"Raptors have always been maligned historically," Domenech says. "Big birds that kill things, particularly if they're killing things that we keep, whether that be chickens or fancy pigeons or sheep—if you're a golden eagle, there's a hysteria I think."

click to enlarge Dr. Shoni Card of Pruyn Veterinary Hospital tries to fix a red-tailed hawk’s dislocated elbow. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • Dr. Shoni Card of Pruyn Veterinary Hospital tries to fix a red-tailed hawk’s dislocated elbow.

In the 20th century, Congress passed laws to protect birds from the cumulative effects of deforestation, the feather trade and aggression, among other threats. The Lacey Act, The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act expressly forbid pursuing, hunting, buying or selling raptors. Those found guilty of molesting or killing any migratory bird face misdemeanor charges punishable by a fine of up to $500 and six months in jail. Selling or bartering is a felony; those found guilty face fines of up to $2,000 and two years in jail.

Despite increasing federal protections, American raptor populations in the mid 20th century continued to decline. The pesticide DDT, used widely in the Unites States between 1940 and 1972, further decimated the birds. Bald eagles were especially hard hit: By 1963, barely 400 nesting pairs remained in the continental U.S. On July 4, 1976, the bald eagle was listed on the federal threatened and endangered species list. The population has recovered since then. The federal government estimated that 10,000 bald eagle nesting pairs lived across the continental U.S. when it was delisted in 2007.

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