The staff and volunteers at CLAWS Inc have raised injured and orphaned songbirds, hawks and owls.
But it’s the rare call that someone has an injured great blue heron that executive director Kindra Mammone says can push her panic button.
“They have so much power in their beak,” Mammone said.
“If you’re not super careful, they’ll go for the head. And they do go for the eyes.”
Lucky for CLAWS, the nonprofit released only three young hawks into the wilds of Duke Gardens on Saturday.
The birds were barely a week old when they were blown out of their nests during late spring storms. Four months later, full grown on a diet of frozen mice, the birds were ready to strike out on their own.
About 50 people, many birders with cameras, gathered on the garden lawn and watched as each bird was brought out of its carrier cage, gently lifted into the air and let go.
In seconds, they slipped high into the trees.
It’s a rare opportunity for regular folks. But it’s become a happy routine for the Orange County-based CLAWS, which releases about 450 animals a year and has received 300 songbirds this year alone.
Sean Kelley, 38, beamed as he held a red-shouldered hawk before lift-off. Later, the volunteer from Youngsville also held Tahgrid, a 6-year-old hawk with a permanent injury that keeps it from being released and is used instead for education.
The birds are predators and naturally afraid of people, but the licensed CLAWS rehabilitators handle them so carefully they become comfortable enough for people to approach and even offer a heavily gloved perch.
Those talons can apply more than 200 pounds of pressure per square inch, Mammone told the crowd Saturday.
But 14-year-old Reade McBride wasn’t afraid.
“I’ve never really looked a hawk in the face before,” he said, as Tahgrid grasped his arm.
“I know they take good care of them,” McBride explained. “So I know he knows he has no reason to be worried.”
Baby raptors can eat 12 to 15 frozen mice a day when they are small and growing most quickly. Just before they get released, CLAWS will switch to live mice to make sure they can hunt.
It’s not cheap; food alone can cost $800 to $1,000 for a bird raised, like Saturday’s hawks, from near infancy.
And once they’ve flown the nest?
“It’s one of the sad parts of what we do,” Mammone said.
The agency is not allowed to band the birds, and except for an occasional photo, the organization doesn’t really get to follow their progress.
“It’s like sending a kid to college, but they never write home.”