My imagination can picture a pair of red-tailed hawks circling, sky dancing and talon grappling 25 years ago over Arizona. This pair was preparing to mate, and their nest would hold three eggs.
All three hatched. One nestling, a fairly large female, would be kidnapped by humans at under 10 days of age. These folks wanted a “pet”. They took her home to their kitchen, and knowing that raptors eat meat, proceeded to feed her trash food by human standards: hotdogs, hamburgers, and bologna. Never mind the healthy hawk food: rabbit, rodent, snake and song bird.
She imprinted on them, of course. According to Merriam-Webster, imprinting is: a rapid learning process that takes place early in the life of a social animal (as a goose) and establishes a behavior pattern (as recognition of and attraction to its own kind or a substitute).
Once imprinted, always imprinted. There is no going back. This juvenile hawk became permanently mentally confused about her species.
At approximately 9 months of age, the hawk was rescued by AZ Game and Fish officials and the Tempe Police Department, and taken to the Wildlife Center at Adobe Mountain in Phoenix. She was treated for her health conditions caused by the inappropriate diet, and eventually a falconer took her home to work with her. She was trained to the glove, and handled daily to find out more about her temperament.
The imprinting on humans was obvious, and some emotionally difficult decisions had to be made. This bird could not live in the wild. She considered humans the source of food and the correct species with which to breed. The choices were to euthanize her, or find placement with an educational center.
Reptile Gardens in Rapid City was allowed by the US Fish & Wildlife Service to care for this bird, Elise, as one of the first members of their avian ambassador program. The bird would be part of their free-flying bird shows. Her arrival date in Rapid City was April 5, 1990.
Elise has become quite an icon in Rapid City. She did fly at the Gardens in the summer shows for a few years, and then transitioned to being a school program presenter. We have never taken the time to count, (even if we could find all the records), but we know she has presented more than 2000 educational programs.
Twenty-five years of life is quite a stretch for a red-tailed hawk. In the wild, she might have lived twelve years.
To honor her remarkable life as an avian ambassador, we are holding a 25th Bird-day party on April 26, 2014 at Main Street Square. It will be part of their Earth Day celebration. Please join the Raptor Center for a celebration of Elise!