In Memoriam: The Great Black Hawk

The news of the death of Portland’s Great Black Hawk on Thursday, January 31, hit our Great Black Hawk2family hard. This magnificent bird had flown, unintentionally, over a thousand miles beyond its range to brave a very different climate and ecosystem than the one it and its species are used to in the much warmer coastal regions of Central and South America. It actually seemed to thrive or at least find a way to meet its needs. The hawk’s main territory became the small, urban Deer Oaks Park of Portland, Maine, as well as the rest of the city and other hunting grounds within a 30-mile radius. The Great Black Hawk survived the early Maine snowstorms from November through December and showed no obvious distress.

Of course, there were many questions on whether it would continue to winter in such a harsh environment or even survive. And for that reason, we had made a pilgrimage to Portland to see this rare bird that we may never get a chance to see again. We had no great black hawk mapidea that after our successful second trip, which I was unable to make, that it would be one of the last times anyone in the public would ever see the hawk again, that it was, in fact, one of the last times the world would ever see this brave bird. In fact, we falsely assumed that it would survive and find more hospitable homes, bringing awe to other birders and non-birders alike. At the time, we were fascinated by the Great Black Hawk’s will to survive, its seeming adaptation to climate and geography, and, simply, its beauty.

Looking back at the photos my family took that day, including a squirrel feast and wings DSC_0170spread in glorious flight, there actually were signs of discomfort. Multiple photos revealed that the hawk often had one yellow leg pulled up against its body, while the other leg stood on the icy ground. Other photos showed its pair of legs switched in position. To us, after the fact, this was evidence of the hawk’s stress.

How much physical and mental stress this poor bird was suffering would be revealed a few days later during an especially cold arctic blast. When the Great Black Hawk was finally removed from the park and sent to Avian Haven, it was discovered through a variety of scans how deep the frostbite had crept into the bird’s toes, feet, and legs.

“‘Although he may not have appeared to be in distress in the days prior to his rescue, any injured wild animal will hide discomfort until unable to compensate,’ Avian Haven wrote.” (Portland Press Herald, 1/31/19)

And no matter how much Avian Haven attempted to save the hawk’s extremities, its condition continued to deteriorate until the feet and legs began to show decomposition and the bird had lost its appetite. No longer was there talk about prosthetics or saving the Great Black Hawk. The only choice was to end its suffering.

Like so many other animals caught in the effects of global warming and climate change, the Great Black Hawk drew crowds to witness a rarity, to view something they would otherwise have to travel hundreds to thousands of miles to see. Many humans, like us, thought this to be a special moment. But as is often the case, these moments are far from special. Nor are these moments rare. Increasingly, global warming is confusing migrational and breeding patterns of animals, forcing them to travel into regions unknown to them. Once there, these unwitting animal migrants often become trapped as the new territory reverts to its original climactic form, one the animal cannot adapt to quickly enough to survive.

The animal is sometimes rescued early on. If the animal is lucky and is in good health, manateesuch as the manatee off the shores of Cape Cod, there is the possibility of transport back to its own ecosystem. That is not usually the case. Too often, the animals are not healthy enough to live in the wild again and must, therefore, live in captivity. And even the transported animals are not ensured a safe return. Then there are the animals, like the Great Black Hawk, who were not rescued soon enough or could not be rescued at all, like the many whales, dolphins, and sea turtles that have been washing up on Cape Cod shores in the past years.

Stranded whales on the beach at Hamelin Bay

But we cannot fault the rescuers for the failures to save the unfortunate animals. The responsibility falls onto all of our shoulders. We have caused this rapid global warming and climate change. We are responsible for the stress, harm, and death we are placing on the natural world. According to the World Wildlife Fund, “Up to half of plant and animal species in the world’s most naturally rich areas, such as the Amazon and the Galapagos, could face local extinction by the turn of the century due to climate change if carbon emissions continue to rise unchecked.”

And though not every vagrant animal is an effect of global warming, it is speculated that species are beginning to search for more hospitable habitats (Scientific American), maybe even looking to colonize those new areas, though too often to their own detriment.

These new lenses of vagrant species and how we “flock” to see them will, from now on, forever affect how I view and experience birding and nature. The idea of global warming is evident in my mind every day and in so many ways, but now due to personal experience and an emotional connection, as well as an increasing understanding, I am even more dedicated to the fight. The Great Black Hawk was first seen by us as a symbol of the beauty of the world. But now it is one of too many symbols representing the ugliness of global warming and the selfishness and ignorance of much of the human race.



“The Hawk That Flew the Wrong Way” song, Troy R. Bennett


2 thoughts on “In Memoriam: The Great Black Hawk

  1. A very heartfelt post about a truly special encounter–and certainly much food for thought (my latest post echoes some of the sentiment you expressed here). The specter of climate change looms large over all of us, and we all have to take responsibility for where we are now and how we move forward. I hope that this hawk inspired people to care about the birds themselves and the environment in which we all live, and to take action to preserve both.


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