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Hard-Luck Harrier Nursed Back to Health at the Cape Wildlife Center

Northern harrier listed as threatened in Massachusetts

  • When researchers found her, the young harrier couldn't fly. The HSUS

  • She was taken to the Cape Wildlife Center, where veterinarian Roberto Aguilar healed her injured shoulder. The HSUS

  • After weeks of care, she was able to move her wing again in the safety of an outside enclosure. The HSUS

  • Towards the end of her stay, she was clearly ready to take to the sky again. The HSUS

by Julie Hauserman

One of the most beloved raptors in New England got a new chance at life this fall on Nantucket Island, thanks to veterinary care at The HSUS’s Cape Wildlife Center.

A young female Northern Harrier was found on July 30 by three researchers on conservation land. “They saw the harrier on the ground, and she didn’t try to fly; she just tried to walk away,” said renowned ornithologist E. Vernon Laux, who was involved in the rescue.

“Nobody had high hopes”

It didn’t look good, Laux relates. “Nobody had high hopes that the bird would survive.”

A quick flight from Nantucket on Cape Air brought the bird and her rescuers to the Cape Wildlife Center in Barnstable, where veterinarian Dr. Roberto Aguilar performed X-rays and diagnostic tests, determining that the bird had a shoulder injury and couldn’t fly.

A first for the clinic

“This is the first harrier we have ever had at the clinic as far as I know,” Aguilar said.

Not knowing much about the care of harriers, Aguilar consulted with veterinarians Flo-Tseng and Mark Pokras at Tufts University for help reading the X-rays. He sent the pathology lab results to a laboratory in Seattle, and he called the Raptor Center in Minnesota to find out more about a harrier’s preferred diet.

"I’ve never seen a rehabbed bird do that before."

“There were a lot of people involved in the care of an animal that we knew very little about,” Aguilar said.

After that, the rehabilitation was fairly straightforward: “We put this bird in a bandage for a while. It started healing. It didn’t require too much other than rest for a few weeks,” Aguilar reported. When the bird seemed well enough, “We put her in our outside enclosure, and she started flying really well.”

The importance of Nantucket

Northern harrier populations have plummeted during the last 50 years, as development chipped away at their habitat. The birds are now listed as a threatened species in Massachusetts.

This bird of prey is unusually vulnerable: harriers nest on the ground, so raccoons, foxes, coyotes, skunks, and opossums dine on harrier eggs and chicks. Nantucket has none of these predators—although dogs and domestic and feral cats can disturb nesting adults and prey on eggs and nestlings if they are allowed to roam freely through nesting areas.

Harriers require extensive acres of undisturbed habitat to nest and raise their young. With almost half the island protected by conservation interests, Nantucket is ideal. And the harriers have a ready supply of their favorite prey, meadow voles.

“A miracle”

Eight weeks later, Laux was astounded when Aguilar told him the harrier was ready to be released. “I don’t know how he fixed it, but it was a miracle.”

On September 20, the harrier was again flown by Cape Air back to Nantucket and taken to the spot where she was rescued. “This bird was trying to break out of the box,” Says Laux. She “leaped into the air, went up about ten feet, then flew straight away for about a half mile. I’ve never seen a rehabbed bird do that before. I think that bird is totally rehabbed, and she's going to survive.”

Learn more about harriers and habitat conservation on Nantucket


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