A female red-shouldered hawk with a deformed wing that once struggled to survive — and can’t fly — now nurtures orphaned babies.
The bird, Fiona, is a rare surrogate mother to baby hawks, according to Kelly Vandenheuvel, a volunteer with the Pacific Wildlife Care center.
Vandenheuvel has cared for Fiona at her Cayucos ranch since 2007, after the disabled bird was found in Cambria and taken to the Morro Bay center that rehabilitates injured and orphaned animals.
“She easily could have died, but she has really found her purpose in life,” Vandenheuvel said.
Vandenheuvel said the bird is an educational ambassador of Pacific Wildlife Care for showcasing to school and community groups.
In 2009, Vandenheuvel also discovered that Fiona instinctively sat on her infertile eggs, and she would treat the orphaned birds as her own if they were carefully planted in her nest.
It was then that Fiona became a quintessential surrogate mom.
She grooms them, feeds them, envelopes her body over theirs and affectionately pecks at them. She even teaches them how to catch mice — pouncing on planted mice from the ledge of a large, galvanized tub that Vandenheuvel sets up so the birds can practice hunting. The baby hawks learn from their mother how to catch prey.
Eventually, they are released into the wild, though the door is left open for them to return to the coop if they’re not ready. Some return multiple times before embarking into nature for good.
Since 2009, Fiona has raised 13 baby hawks.
Vandenheuvel said that she replaces Fiona’s infertile eggs with cracked eggs, simulating hatches, and then slides orphaned baby hawks into her nest for her to sit on. Vandenheuvel said she’ll sneak the baby birds in before sunrise while Fiona is still sleeping or when she leaves her nest for a drink of water.
Orphaned or sick birds are often found by people who bring them to rehabilitation or wildlife centers.
At the moment, Fiona is taking care of two hatchling red-shouldered hawks brought to the Ojai Raptor Center from Los Angeles.
“I have a webcam set up in my room and watch them all the time,” Vandenheuvel said. “She is so happy to have the babies.”
If you find a distressed bird or mammal
Pacific Wildlife Center requests calling their hotline at 805-543-WILD. They ask the public to return baby birds to the nest whenever possible and keep people and pets away from the animal. Rescued animals should be put in a well-ventilated box, and placed in a warm, dark, quiet place away from drafts. Do not feed the animals, the center notes.