Of all the billions of things that keep wildlife rehabilitators from sleeping at night, public releases are one of the big ones. Ideally, we like to release birds where they came from (as long as it’s not a dangerous area), and with as little fanfare as possible. Releases are magical, of course, and they’re what make our insane way of life worth it, so you want to share the feeling … but not with too big a crowd.

You might include those who rescued the bird, possibly a couple of completely fried fellow rehabbers who need a lift, and one or two like-minded friends who realize that letting a bird go isn’t as easy as it sounds. This is the trick with public releases: not everyone understands the extent to which luck is involved.

You plan the release for a gorgeous day, and suddenly a hailstorm arrives. You schedule it for 1:00, and key people don’t show up until 2. You open the door, and your fit, strong bird flaps once and plummets to the ground, overcome by the stress of the car ride.

Bird people understand this. Regular civilians, maybe not so much.

But every once in awhile, there’s a reason to do a big public release. My latest Red-tailed hawk was one of them. The starving young male had been rescued from the side of a road, recovered at my house, then went to my rehabber friend Lisa’s for live prey training, where he sharpened his skills until he was a mouse-killing machine. We were ready to release him when Lisa received a phone call from her high school friend, Cindy, whose 5-year-old son had been battling brain cancer for the last two years.

The hawk had made a miraculous recovery. Ty needed one, too. Was there any way … ?

The day of the release was perfect – cool and clear, with brilliant sunshine and the trees just starting to turn. Word had gotten out, the event had turned into an inspirational fundraiser, and over a hundred people gathered in the parking lot of a rural firehouse. Ty was home in bed, his mother by his side; but his father and brother were in the crowd, with photographers and videographers stationed at strategic spots.

Lisa had done her homework. One of the area’s resident hawks had recently been killed by a car (“I know this,” said Lisa, “because I’m the one they called to pick him up”), which left a possible territorial spot open for a young one. Hedging her bets, she convinced the fire department to let her release him from their cherry picker, over the heads of the crowd and closer to the sky.

The pastor said a prayer, the cherry picker rose, Lisa opened the crate, and the redtail barreled out. For a heart-stopping second he lost altitude, then he raised his wings and rocketed up toward the far trees. Suddenly he changed direction and flew across the parking lot, directly above the gathered crowd. In an instant, he was gone. There were cheers, applause, and minutes later people were pointing upward, swearing that the tiny speck in the sky must be Ty’s hawk.

That night Ty and his family looked through the photos. Cindy described the event and posted photos on the blog she had been keeping since Ty was diagnosed, on the home page of the Ty Louis Campbell Foundation, a non-profit organization she and her husband Lou set up to spread awareness and fund research for pediatric cancer. Cindy wrote on her blog that from now on whenever she sees a hawk in flight, she’ll wonder if it’s Ty’s.

Ty died peacefully at home yesterday, on October 17, 2012. Cindy wrote, “Our baby is finally free.”

Please see http://www.superTy.org/

Photo by Bob Wallace

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Written by Suzie
Suzie Gilbert is a licensed wild bird rehabilitator whose shameful secret is that on one occasion (well … maybe more than one) she has received a little brown job, 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 runs Flyaway, Inc. out of her home, and has been caring for injured and orphaned wild birds for 20 years. Why go birding when you can just stroll through the house? Honestly, though, she is wildly envious of birders and their trips to exotic locales. She is the author of Flyaway, her bird-rehabbing memoir, and Hawk Hill, a children's book, and is the sole parent of two teenagers. Never a dull moment.