Health & Injuries
Flying a hawk on game is an unpredictable business, and from the moment your hawk leaves your glove, until the moment the hunt ends, anything could happen. It's best to go into the field prepared, because field triage on an injury can be the difference between stabilizing an injured raptor so that they make a full recovery, and leaving a hawk in a situation where they cannot recover. As always, it's best to contact your licensed avian veterinarian or rehabber before you need them, but absolutely consult them with any injury you're not sure how to treat.
Please note: this section contains photographs of injured raptors for educational purposes only. Intentionally harming a raptor is a federal offense subject to stringent fines and imprisonment, and NYSFA condemns any intentional harm or neglect to raptors in the strongest possible terms. Injuries pictured were sustained in the field, and through the actions of falconers and rehabbers these raptors were able to return to normal health and activity.
Recommended First Aid Supplies
Here is a list of recommended first aid supplies to keep in your vehicle or game bag at all times during the season. The rest of this section assumes you have access to these.
- Gauze pads
- Rolled gauze
- Cotton tipped applicators (Q-tips)
- Cotton balls
- Antibiotic ointment
- Burn cream
- Kwik stop (styptic powder)
- Tongue depressor (popsicle sticks)
- Surgical scissors
- Isopropyl Alcohol
- Hydrogen peroxide
- Chlorhexidine solution (or F10)
- Eye wash
- Vet wrap
- Waterproof tape
- Syringes (Large syringes)
- Distilled water
- Abba (casting jacket)
So let us start with one of the biggest and perhaps the most common injury we encounter, lacerations. No matter how it may occur or where on the body, most lacerations are able be treated almost the same way across the board. Start by prepping all of your supplies ahead of time in an area that you can easily work. You do not want to be fumbling for gauze in the back of your vehicle while your bird is bleeding. Once you have an adequate area to work, use a syringe with distilled water (warm soapy water in a pinch) to flush the area clean of any dirt and gunk. After you have flushed it out, use the gauze to blot it dry. If bleeding continues, apply Kwik stop to the area until you are confident bleeding has stopped. After that, you can then clean using either Chlorhexidine or Peroxide. Once you are sure that the area is sufficiently cleaned and disinfected, apply an antibiotic ointment to keep it clean and moist. Continue to clean and reapply ointment as needed for a few days. This is also a great opportunity to keep a close eye on the wound to make sure that there is no signs of infection. Depending on the severity of the laceration, your vet may need to apply a stitch or two to the area to ensure proper healing. Regardless, a few days rest will have your bird back on track!
Similar to lacerations in many ways, the most common punctures will be bites on the feet caused by prey, or impact injuries on thorns or other debris in the field. The major concern here is infection, since a puncture is not as easy to clean, and when the occur on the bottom of the foot can easily lead to bumblefoot. They also frequently do not bleed as much, and therefore there is no natural flushing action on the hawk's part.
Best practice is to flush the injury as soon as possible with a light saline solution or other antibacterial agent, such as Chlorhexidine dilute solution or similar. After flushing, if there is no bleeding, apply an antibiotic ointment to the wound site to prevent further bacteria from entering the wound track. If the injury is anywhere but the bottom of the foot, daily monitoring and cleaning is advised. If infection should set in, consult a veterinarian immediately - catching an infection early is typically treatable with an oral or topical antibiotic. Letting it go can lead to surgery and permanent disability, so as always, watchfulness on the part of the falconer is of utmost importance.
Punctures and other injuries on the bottom of the foot may require wrapping of the feet to properly heal without infection.
No one ever plans on this happening but when it does, it is best to get the bird to a licensed individual (vet or rehab) as quickly as possible. Bone injuries calcify extremely fast in raptors, so even if the hawk is in stable condition, they can be sustain non-recoverable injuries if not treated immediately. To ready the bird for transport, it is important to ensure that the injured wing (or leg) is properly stabilized to prevent any further damage. If you are not confident in this, reach out to the club's director's or your sponsor for help - members of this organization, generally, will drop what they're doing and jump pretty fast to aid an injured raptor.
For wing injuries, first articulate the wing so that it can be folded in naturally. Starting at the “wrist” area, begin wrapping around the joint and work your way several inches down from there. Once secure, articulate the wing into its normal position against the body. Wrap several more layers of rolled gauze around both the wing and the body of the bird. It should be snug to prevent movement but not constrictive that the bird cannot breath. Lastly, a layer or two of vet wrap will ensure that everything stays in place. In the event your bird breaks its leg, begin by casting it while taking great care not to further damage the leg. Depending on the location (middle of the bone), you can use the tongue depressors to fashion a splint on either side of the affected area. If the break is near a joint, it may not be possible or easy to secure a splint. In either situation, use several rolls of gauze to wrap the whole leg. Be sure to go both above and below the fracture with several layers. Remember, the goal is to immobilize the appendage to prevent further damage. Lastly, a few layers of vet wrap will help make sure that everything stays in place during transport.
Despite this being rare occurrence, there have been birds out there that have found themselves at the wrong end of a pointy object. Sometimes this is a field injury caused by a raptor plunging into brush and putting a sharp branch or scrap metal through a wing, sometimes it is malicious damage done by poachers.
Should this happen, the number one and most important rule of all is DO NOT REMOVE THE OBJECT! Doing so can cause further internal injury to the bird as well as increasing the chance for them to bleed to death. Instead, cast the bird and secure the object to prevent shifting by taking the rolled gauze and position a roll on either side of the object. Then begin wrapping additional rolls around the bird ensuring that you cover both the object as well as the rolls on either side. Be sure to make it snug but not too constrictive. Next, using either vet wrap or stretch wrap, cover all areas with a layer and secure using tape. During transport to your veterinarian, make sure that the bird is casted and cannot move further.
Crashing into heavy cover will drastically increase the odds that eventually something is going to get into their eyes. Due to the intricacies and sensitivity of raptor eyes, this is something that should not be attempted without proper training. However, should your bird come up with an eye issue, you can attempt to flush it out using a saline solution. You can find an over the counter eye flush at any pharmacy store. Cast the bird and gently open the eyelid, looking for any dust or debris. Be sure that you do not rub the object into the eye, further damaging the lens. Flush with copious amounts of the solution, using the flow to wash out any debris. At no time should you attempt to remove it with gauze or a cotton applicator!
If you cannot get the object out of the eye, place the bird in a giant hood and transport to your veterinarian who has additional tools to remove objects lodged in or around the eye. Do not hood them or cover the affected eye, keep them in the dark and quiet.
One of the sometimes inevitable problems falconers run in to is a broken feather be it from improper husbandry or equipment or an uncontrollable field event. As a falconer it should be your highest priority to keep a good condition bird, and as such imping is a part of that. Imping is the process of repairing a broken feather by severing the damaged area and re-affixing the remaining feather or replacing it with a new one all together. Repairing damaged feathers is part of the level of respect that you should hold for the bird, and the NYSFA affirms that imping is the best practice for both the hawk's ability to hunt, and out of respect for the condition of animals in your care.
An Introduction to Imping
When the Audubon Center for Birds of Prey posted a recent Facebook update on Bailey—the internet-famous Osprey recovering at the Florida facility after a Bald Eagle attacked her—they used a term familiar to few people beyond falconers and raptor rehabbers. Bailey was having a hard time flying in a rehab barn, the post explained, possibly because of wing and tail feathers broken during and after the eagle attack. “Since there is a possibility that these broken feathers are the reason she is unable to sustain height while flying,” the update continued, “we imped Bailey's wing and tail feathers today.”
You did what now?
Imping, it turns out, is a centuries-old technique to replace a broken feather with a close match from a previous molt or from another bird, usually—but not always—of the same species. Basically, the process involves joining the broken feather to its replacement by inserting into the shaft of both feathers a thin piece of bamboo, metal wire, or other material, known as an imping needle, fixed with a bit of adhesive.
Imping is a challenging process, that can be stressful for the hawk. It is always best to have an experience falconer or rehabber show you the process in detail before you attempt it alone for the first time. This is also one of the areas of falconry where an extra set of hands is almost a necessity. If you don't have a spouse or a friend who can help you, contacting your NYSFA Regional Director is an excellent place to get help with imping! They will be able to assist you, or recommend a local falconer with the experience to help.
Therefore, this page is not devoted to explaining all details of the process, but merely outlining the process and suggesting the tools you should have on hand prior to attempting it.
It's best to have at least these on hand, plus any other gear your experienced falconry helper may deem useful.
- Imping pin (The imping pin material can be made of many thing such as other feather stalk, bamboo, pins, wooden dowel, roll pins, and even guitar wire in the case of some small birds. Again, always consult an experienced falconer about the best material)
- Exacto / hobby knife
- cements and glues of various types and speeds
- A cutting board
The process for imping a feather at a high level is as follows:
- Prepare and clean the replacement feather inside the stalk and outside
- Measure and cut feather
- Prepare imping pin – Some falconers will put the pin in the bird side and then slide the replacement feather onto it, and others will work opposite.
- Apply adhesive and set pin on leading side
- Apply adhesive on exposed side and insert feather.
- Orient appropriately and allow to set
Leave the raptor hooded after the process is complete to reduce any stress and give the glue a chance to set properly.
Credits & Citations
Portions of this page were written by Gregory Miller of the Pensylvania Falconry and Hawk Trust, Andy McGlashen of the Audobon Society, and members of the NYSFA.