A red-shouldered hawk peered cautiously through tree branches and uttered a distressed chirp. He had his beady eyes trained on Melanie Cain-Stage as she fidgeted with the cage latch.
“This guy has been in here for seven months waiting for his flight feathers to grow in,” Cain-Stage said. “I think someone plucked them out and severely damaged the follicle.”
The hawk ruffled his feathers indignantly as if adding his own non-verbal opinion.
“Without wings, a bird is as good as dead in the wild,” Cain-Stage said.
The hawk is just one of several injured or starved animals rehabiliting at the Humane Association of Wildlife Care and Education (HAWKE).
Thanks to endless hours of dedication by Cain-Stage, the founder of HAWKE, he’ll also be one of the few animals to make it back home alive.
“They’re not all that lucky,” she said. “First year birds have an 80 percent death rate in the wild.”
According to Cain-Stage, HAWKE is one of the last hopes for injured wildlife in the St. Augustine area. Veterinary clinics, community members and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission are constantly flooding the nonprofit organization with critters in desperate need of extra time and attention.
But Cain-Stage isn’t sure she can keep up with the heavy load much longer without donations and volunteers.
“Right now I have around 60 animals and to run each month, we need about $3,000 to feed and maintain the area,” Cain-Stage said.
River otters, kestrels, swallow-tail kites, owls and several other animals reside at HAWKE. A few are permanent residents, unable to fly, hunt or see in the wild.
The otters and a bobcat also remain full-time, waiting to play step-parent to abandoned and orphaned babies.
Cain-Stage said she started the organization in 1979 and every year, the number of injured birds grows a little more.
“This year alone I’ve seen a 25 percent increase in birds,” she said. “A lot of them have to be put down.”
Many of the birds have head trauma from cars, falls and other bird attacks, but Cain-Stage speculates land development and global warming are the biggest culprits in cases of displaced and injured animals.
“No one tests to see if there are birds in the trees before they start cutting them down,” she said.
The HAWKE facility is in Stage-Cain’s wooded backyard and has special enclosures for animals, including a 40-foot flight cage to provide room for hunting.
“They all learn to hunt here. We feed live mice and chicks to the juvenile birds,” Cain-Stage said. “None of the animals are tame here, the point is to get them ready for the wild.”
But that kind of preparation is costly, Cain-Stage said. Every juvenile red-shouldered hawk currently residing at HAWKE eats nine times a day.
“It costs us some serious money,” Cain-Stage exclaimed as she pointed to a handful of squawking juveniles. “They’re like teenage boys with how much they eat.”
And while the influx of injured wildlife is unwavering, Cain-Stage said volunteer help and donations are hard to come by.
As Cain-Stage set two young barn owls free, she said she worried about the future.
“The animals will keep coming in,” she said. “I can get them at any time.”
That means more mouths to feed and more cages to house.
One of the owls stared down from his high perch, hooted softly and swiveled his head. The gesture was seemingly close to a “thank you.”
“If we quit, there won’t be another wildlife place,” Cain-Stage said. “Think of those animals then.”
For more information on volunteering or donating for HAWKE, contact Cain-Stage at (904) 692-1777 or P.O. Box 188 Elkton, FL 32033.
“A lot of these guys are just babies,” Cain-Stage said. “They’re better off being raised here, because they get fat and learn how to hunt. It’s a second chance.”
Story Credit – Emelia Hitchner