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Chester's flight

Red-tailed hawk released at Kendall Lake

Posted: December 30, 2010 2:08 p.m.
Updated: January 3, 2011 5:00 a.m.
Martin L. Cahn/C-I

Wood watches with children from Lyttleton Street United Methodist Church as Chester perches on a rail fence.

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Clouds covered the sky.

Turkey vultures and other black birds cawed one morning just before Christmas, loudly protesting the new arrival’s intrusion into their feeding grounds. But Chester stood his ground or, rather, his perch on a rail fence near Kendall Lake. The caws soon faded, the other birds flew higher and away, and the young red-tailed hawk felt comfortable enough to fly across the lake.

Chester’s flight is something of a holiday miracle. Early this year, probably soon after he hatched, the baby bird was found on the side of the road by a family in Chester County, hence his name.

“They thought he must have been hit by a car,” explained Rachel Wood, whose grandmother, Ruby Wood Kelly, lives in Camden.

Wood, 24, works for the Carolina Raptor Center in Charlotte. It was she -- thanks to gifts from her grandmother and other family members -- who was able to arrange for Chester’s release at Al and Sara Reed’s home on Kendall Lake. There, family and friends, about a dozen children from Lyttleton Street United Methodist Church’s Learning Place and members of the Kershaw Conservation District gathered to listen to Wood and watch Chester fly away.

Due to red-tailed hawks’ nature, Woods said she and her colleagues at the Carolina Raptor Center aren’t even sure Chester is a “he.” But with the name Chester, “he” stuck.

“He had a broken wing,” Wood told the children. “Birds’ bones are hollow, so we put a metal pin right down the bone. When we took the pin out about five weeks later, you couldn’t see anything wrong. The bone grew back like nothing ever happened.”

Wood said Chester was at the raptor center for a total of 163 days, time that included therapy where he was sedated so his wing could be exercised. If even the most inexpensive of veterinarians had worked with the bird, the private costs would have totaled $4,700, Wood said. The release itself cost $150, and the raptor center is funded entirely by private grants and public donations.

Even with all the therapy, Wood explained, raptors -- including red-tailed hawks -- are easily stressed.

“It would be too stressful,” she answered when an adult asked why Chester was sitting in a box instead of on her arm waiting to fly. “I tried to keep it quiet on the way down here. It sat in the box, which is dark, and I couldn’t turn the radio on.”

Wood asked the children why hawks like Chester might be attracted to roadways.

“Was he lost?” one of the kids asked back.

Wood explained that hawks eat mice and rats.

“People driving down the road throw things out of their cars like apple cores on the side of the road. Mice are attracted to them, so they learn to stay by the road. So the hawks learn to hunt the mice there, too,” she said. “They don’t know to look both ways when crossing the road like you do.”

She urged adults and children not to throw things out of their cars. One of the children suggested keeping a trash can in the car. Wood agreed.

Another child asked what Chester might do when the box was opened.

“He might fly off into a tree -- that’s what I hope he does, or might just sit in the box and stare at us thinking we’re crazy,” said Wood.

She said Chester may migrate with other hawks to South America.

“But he might come back here or go back to Chester, but I doubt that because he was a baby when he left,” Wood said.

How could they ensure Chester would come back to Camden, one adult asked. Wood suggested making sure song birds in the area were fed, because the seeds would fall to the ground attracting the mice Chester would likely hunt.

Wood explained that some raptors at the Carolina center never get released. If Chester had been one of those -- especially one who imprinted on a human so long that it thought it was a person -- he would have likely been used for educational purposes.

“We train them to sit on a glove and teach them to fly over crowds,” Wood said. “We also take some birds into schools.”

Finally, it was time. Wood walked over to the large box sitting on the ground several yards away. Squatting down, she carefully removed tape from the top of the box.

“Everybody ready?” she called. “Three … two … one!”

With that, she opened the box’s flaps. Chester jumped out and up, flapping furiously for a second or two and then flew out toward but not quite to the water, tracing a low, long arc to the other side of the Reeds’ property to come to rest on the rail fence.

Chester sat there, amidst the raucous calls of the black birds, for about a half-hour, occasionally turning around to get a look back at the humans staring and pointing at him. Then, cautiously preening at first, he unfolded his wings, leaped and took off across the lake.

The sun came out.

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