A hawk’s survival requires an exquisite ability to soar and maneuver. This is especially true of Red-shouldered Hawks. They are “masters of maneuverability,” often chasing prey through dense forest, says PWC’s Claudia Duckworth. A hawk with damaged tail feathers cannot do this.
At the PWC Rehabilitation Center, Red-shouldered Hawk #766 recovered well from the fractured wing that veterinarian Dr. Shannon Riggs had set, and he was creanced—exercised on a long line to strengthen him for release back to the wild. However, he still had broken tail feathers that Riggs describes as “kind of a disaster.” They did not allow for precise maneuvers.
The solution was “imping,” a centuries-old procedure used by falconers to attach donor feathers to a bird’s tail or wings. But imping is not taught in veterinary school. Riggs learned it from another veterinarian who was also a falconer. She now regularly harvests donor feathers from deceased birds, catalogs them, and stores them in a feather repository at the Center. The choice of feathers must be precise. Each imped feather is from a bird of the same species, size, age, and (usually) gender. Because of a shortage of Red-shouldered Hawk feathers, Riggs turned to Ojai Raptor Center for a set of feathers to imp #766.
On a sultry September afternoon, in the surgery room at PWC, Riggs set out the equipment to imp #766. Jeanette Stone, also of PWC, brought him in and soon had him anesthetized on the operating table.
Each donor feather was attached to a bamboo skewer, which Riggs cut with a cauterizing tool and inserted into the shaft of the bird’s own, broken feather. Bamboo skewers make an almost perfect fit. Riggs inserted one, found it was too tight, and shaved it down with a scalpel blade until it slid smoothly about an inch into the shaft. She applied a drop of 5-Minute Epoxy, placed a rectangle of cardboard between this feather and the next, picked up another donor feather, and repeated the process.
When she finished, she displayed the “new” tail. It was a thing of beauty. Imping, Riggs says, is “one of the most fun things to do. Instant gratification.” But Duckworth cautions, “You don’t know how difficult it is.” Riggs makes it look easy.
When Riggs came to PWC in 2013, it was to everyone’s relief and the good fortune of Red-shouldered Hawk #766, creanced one last time by Virginia Flaherty and released on September 17 in Atascadero, an event made possible by PWC facilities, donor feathers, Riggs’ expertise, and centuries of knowledge received from falconers.