The great black hawk whose unusual presence in a Portland park drew visitors from across the country had to be euthanized because of extensive frostbite damage to its feet and legs, the group caring for the bird announced Thursday.

The rare hawk, native to the tropical climes of Central and South America, was first seen in Biddeford in August and later took up residence in Deering Oaks park in Portland, where it hunted squirrels and other critters as bird watchers gathered around with binoculars and cameras. The bird’s death led to an outpouring of grief and disappointment on social media, as well as gratitude for those who rescued and tried to save it.

The hawk was found on the ground in Deering Oaks during a snowstorm on Jan. 20 and rushed to Avian Haven, a wildlife rehabilitation center in Freedom, where it was treated for frostbite to its legs and toes.

Diagnostic testing that included infrared thermology and doppler ultrasound revealed no circulation at all in the feet or lower legs, Avian Haven said in a Facebook post Thursday morning. Underneath the bandages that covered its legs, both feet were discolored and beginning to decompose. By Wednesday, the bird was lying down during the day and was not eating as well as it previously had.

The decision to euthanize the bird was unanimous, “but tinged with regret, sorrow, even heartbreak,” Avian Haven wrote on Facebook. “Although greatly saddened that this beautiful hawk could not be saved, we take some comfort in knowing that she or he touched a great many lives, bringing people together and inspiring a greater interest in the natural world. Although this was an extreme case of species displacement, with changing climate and increasing destruction of natural habitats, it is likely that we will see more and more animals dispersing from their homelands into territory they are not well adapted to.”

‘WOULD NEVER … ADAPT TO CAPTIVITY’

Based on how rapidly the condition of the hawk’s feet deteriorated, Avian Haven believes the initial frostbite damage occurred well before the bird was found on the ground in Deering Oaks. It was at that point that frozen feet and pain likely made it unable to perch, Avian Haven said.

“Although he may not have appeared to be in distress in the days prior to his rescue, any injured wild animal will hide discomfort until unable to compensate,” Avian Haven wrote.

The great black hawk sits in a tree in Biddeford Pool on Aug. 9.

The people treating the bird at Avian Haven had hoped the frostbite damage would be minor and the bird would be releasable. After the extent of the damage was obvious, they discussed at length the possibility of using prosthetics and captive placement, but decided neither was realistic in this case, Avian Haven said.

“None of us could even remotely imagine a reasonable quality of life for a wild bird having two artificial legs that would need frequent adjustment, and that would likely never be completely comfortable,” Avian Haven wrote. “The wildlife professionals who met yesterday all agreed that the Great Black Hawk would never successfully adapt to captivity, especially without even one foot that could be used in a natural way to perch, grasp food, or land successfully after flight.”

A decision about what will happen with the hawk’s remains has not been made, though several scientific institutions are being considered, according to Avian Haven. Genetic testing may reveal the original home of the hawk.

Bird watchers still are not sure how it ended up in Maine, but every year birds like this one – called vagrants by ornithologists – fly outside their geographic range. When it first appeared, Maine Audubon called it the most unusual bird sighting in Maine in 2018. It was only the second time that a great black hawk had been seen in the United States.

Doug Hitchcox, a staff naturalist with Maine Audubon, spent many hours in the park after the great black hawk arrived, controlling crowds and talking to people about the rare visitor.

“It’s been such an all-star,” Hitchcox said of the hawk, which was similar in size to the red-tailed hawks frequently seen in Maine. “When something is labeled as extraordinary, people are drawn to it. The ice disk in Westbrook is the best example of that.”

RAPTOR’S SURVIVAL IN MAINE WAS UNLIKELY

Within an hour of the post announcing the decision to euthanize the hawk, hundreds of people left comments on the Avian Haven Facebook page. Many thanked the group for its work and lamented the loss of the unusual visitor to Maine, while others questioned why wildlife biologists hadn’t relocated the bird to a warmer climate.

Hitchcox said that from the beginning he knew the hawk was unlikely to survive in Maine, as is the case with most vagrant birds, and tried to be “brutally honest with people in the park that we didn’t expect it to survive the whole winter.” Despite that, the hawk seemed to be doing well until the frostbite set in and there was no reason to intervene, he said.

“This is an unprecedented event. There’s no history of tropical raptors trying to overwinter in city parks this far north,” he said. “The hawk really chose to be there. It flew thousands of miles out of its normal range.” During its time in Portland, the hawk established its territory in Deering Oaks. Each time a red-tailed hawk chased it out of the park – including once into a window – the great black hawk would return within 24 hours, Hitchcox said. The great black hawk also adapted to finding food in Maine.

“It should have been eating snakes and lizards in the tropics. Here it was eating squirrels, city rats and even pigeons stolen from a cooper’s hawk,” he said.

Though its fate may not have been a surprise, Hitchcox said it is still devastating to find out the hawk could not recover. Avian Haven echoed that sentiment, noting the emotional impact on the thousands of people who followed the hawk’s activities in Maine.

“For us, and many of you as well, today will be a day of grieving, but also of imagining this extraordinary Great Black Hawk flying free again in some realm other than our own,” Avian Haven wrote on Facebook.

Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6315 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: grahamgillian


Comments are not available on this story.

filed under:

Augusta and Waterville news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.