There’s something about Ruby, the red-tailed hawk, that brings a sense of wonder and awe. She is an exquisite bird, with dominating flecks on her breast and a soft, brown hue to her feathers.
But there is one defect in this creature’s alluring perfection. She’s missing an eye and this handicap is the reason she is a permanent resident at Wild Instincts, a wildlife rehabilitation facility just north of Rhinelander, operated by Mark Naniot and his wife, Sharon. “We believe she was hit by a car,” said Mark. “She was found by some people who thought they could keep her and then by the time she came to us, it was too late to save her eye. That means she can’t hunt for food, so out in the wild she would die.”
But Mark has found another way for this beautiful bird to inspire others. He’s been training Ruby to be an educational tool and she’s taking to her lessons like a pro. Mark built Ruby a special perch and made a set of leather leg jesses for her to wear while she is in the classroom showing students, or anyone interested in knowing more about hawks, the habits and ways of these magnificent birds of prey. “She is a young bird, not even a year old yet, so that makes it a little easier to train her for educational purposes,” said Mark. “It’s a long process, though, getting a wild bird like this used to people but she is coming along very well.”
In fact, Mark and Ruby just recently visited a classroom where Ruby made her debut. “There’s a lot of oohing and aahing when she visits,” said Mark. “She does a good job bringing awareness to the plights of not only birds of prey, but other animals as well.”
And injured and sick animals of every species are slowly starting to make their way to Wild Instincts. Mark and Sharon have worked diligently over the last couple of years to build and prepare their facility for these creatures that they know will be coming soon. In fact, already they have a bear cub, a porcupine, a squirrel, a couple of bats and some bobcats that are awaiting release once the weather finally breaks.
Last spring was a different story. At this time a year ago, Mark was busy rehabilitating many songbirds that had migrated to Wisconsin early due to the warm temperatures. Then, when April brought freezing temperatures and even snow, these bug-eating birds found themselves without a food source and were slowly starving.
This year is starting off a little slow, although the weather is presenting its own set of problems for many species of wildlife. “When we have these late springs, we don’t get as many calls right away,” said Mark. “The weather plays a big part in this because people hold off opening their cottages or doing much outdoors. But once people get outside again, or come back here for the summer, they find squirrel nests in boats or raccoon families living in their chimney, then things start to pick up.”
In addition, this year’s deep and unforgiving snowpack is causing problems for many creatures, in particular once again, migrating song birds. Wisconsin is the southern range for many bird species like pine siskins, some finches and red polls, and they are flocking here looking for open spots where they can find seeds. This is posing some devastating disease problems, in particular salmonella. “These birds fly here in huge numbers and flock to bird feeders people put out,” Mark said. “Of course, their feces mix in with seeds that fall to the ground, which many eat and then they contract this disease.”
Mark advises anyone feeding birds to clean and thoroughly disinfect bird feeders at least once a month, using a mild bleach solution that will help to keep this disease at bay, which is always fatal. He also advises to cover or clean up areas where seeds have accumulated. “I’ve had some calls already where people look out and see 20 dead birds in their yard,” he said. “The bad part is that even though someone might keep their birdfeeders and birdfeeding areas clean, these birds can contract the disease at other feeders and then show symptoms miles away.”
Another familiar sight along many Northwoods roads are eagles feeding on deer carcasses that are showing up when snow banks melt away. This is when many of these birds get struck by vehicles. “Eagles will gorge themselves on a carcass to the point they have a hard time getting airborne,” said Mark. “Then when they do try and fly, they can’t get high enough and get hit. I tell people if they aren’t squeamish, to try and drag a carcass back off the road. That lessens the chance of a bird getting injured by a passing car.”
And while that was most certainly the fate of Ruby the red-tailed hawk, she is finding a different purpose now, one where she can teach people up close and personal, that all creatures deserve respect and care when they become injured or sick, usually at the hands of man. “Almost all of the injured animals that make their way here are because of humans,” said Mark. “It’s only right we try and get them back into the wild.”
If you see a sick or injured wild animal, don’t touch it before calling Wild Instincts at (715) 362-WILD or (715) 490-2727.