I’m not a big fan of bird banding. When I see a band I imagine something slipping beneath it and trapping the bird, I’ve seen photos of birds with so many bands it looks like they’re wearing stockings, and then there’s the awful story of Violet, whose band eventually killed her. Yet I realize banding is a very valuable tool, and gives us information we could not otherwise gather.

And to prove it, there’s The Queen.

Just before Thanksgiving, 2010, a driver spotted a Red-tailed hawk sitting on a dead rabbit in the middle of the road. When she didn’t fly off, he stopped his car and approached her. She wasn’t about to leave her rabbit, and the driver figured something was wrong, so he picked her up. He put her in the back of his van, where she perched on a mop handle.

The driver took her to a local nature center. The maintenance man declared that his father was a falconer, and that he would take her home so he could care for her. He then – I kid you not – tied her legs together with green tape so she “wouldn’t struggle,” and put her in a box. However, he neglected to shut the top of the box, and off she flew, her legs bound with green tape.

The following morning the naturalist from the nature center was driving to work and spotted the redtail, once again sitting on the same rabbit, green tape trailing from her legs. The naturalist got out of his car, picked her up, took the tape off her legs, and took her to a local zoo. One of the animal keepers brought her to me, and I put her in my clinic.

She was tired, thin, and had several medical issues. She was clearly not a young bird and was banded, so once she was warm and fed, I called the Bird Banding Lab in Washington, D.C., to find out her actual age. The very excited response was that she had been banded as a fledgling in 1983, which made her, at 27 years and 9 months of age, the second oldest living wild Red-tailed hawk ever recovered in all of North America.

This filled me with both glee and dismay. On one hand, I wanted to simply bask in the glow of the Great Matriarch. On the other, she sounded like she might have a respiratory infection, I didn’t have the right drug on hand, and I was scared to death that I might go down in history as the killer of the birdie Methuselah. I wanted to put her in the Mayo Clinic. Instead I called my friend Cathy at the famous Raptor Trust in New Jersey, where they have a fully equipped hospital and full-time veterinary technicians on staff. “Bring her down,” said Cathy.

The plot thickened. When director Len Soucy went through his records, he discovered that the redtail had been banded by one of his own apprentices on the Kittatinny Ridge in northern New Jersey back in 1983 – coincidentally, the very year that Len and his wife started the Raptor Trust. The old hawk was an instant celebrity. She received the best of care, and made a full recovery. The following spring, the battle began.

Should they keep her? Should they release her? She had lived her life as a wild bird for 28 years, and there were impassioned arguments for both sides. She deserved her freedom. She deserved to retire in comfort and luxury. She was flying well, and caught her own food easily. Finally, the decision was made to release her in the summer of 2011.

A group of us gathered to release her near the spot where she was found. When she was launched into the air, she was not the same strong bird who flew around the Raptor Trust’s flight cage. She flew several hundred yards, losing altitude and clearly struggling, and eventually landed on the ground. A second try produced the same result. She was rescued, put back into her crate, and returned to the Raptor Trust.

Later that summer, injured or starving fledgling redtails began arriving at the Raptor Trust. Once they were strong enough, they went into the big flight cage with the Queen, who took them under her wing. When staff members walked by the flight they would see her on a high perch, surrounded by adoring youngsters. She taught them how to hunt, and when they were released in the fall she stayed on her perch, dozing in the sun.

This spring, the Raptor Trust received three orphaned nestling redtails. The grand old bird became a surrogate mother, and raised them herself. Most wild redtails don’t make it out of their teens. Nowadays her meals may be hand delivered, but at the age of 30, she is still doing what she was born to do.

Written by Suzie
Suzie Gilbert is a wild bird rehabilitator whose shameful secret is that on more than one occasion she has received a female LBJ, or a fledgling whatever, and has been completely unable to ID it. Luckily she has birder friends who will rush to her aid, although she must then suffer their mockery. She is the author of her bird-rehabbing memoir Flyaway (HarperCollins) and the children's book Hawk Hill (Chronicle Books). Her recent suspenseful, bird-filled adventure novel Unflappable (Perch Press) was selected by Audubon Magazine as one of their Three Best Summer Reads of 2020. She lives in New York's beautiful Hudson Valley and is always up for a good hike.