There are many compelling and heartwarming stories about dogs nursing motherless tiger cubs, cats nursing motherless puppies, and other cross-species examples of surrogate animal parenting. It’s special to witness this behavior in animals.
For the last couple of years, I’ve made a small yearly donation to the Wildlife Center of Virginia (WCV) to support the care of one of their non-releasable hawks named Keeya, a female red-shouldered hawk. In the last few years Keeya was given a chance to be a surrogate/foster parent to young hawks who somehow got separated from their parents and were brought to WCV. When I read about Keeya’s story and the chance that WCV gave her, I wanted to help.
Keeya was found by a road in Hanover County Virginia in September 2013, possibly hit by a vehicle. When she was first admitted to the WCV, she was extremely thin and dehydrated. She had been unable to hunt and care for herself for several days. Radiographs revealed two fractures in her right wing but WCV vets couldn’t pin the broken bones in surgery. Keeya also had an injury to her left eye, leaving her with a significant blind spot.
Raptors, like Keeya, generally must be able to have superb vision to hunt and survive. Just some blindness in a raptor can mean death – and not necessarily quick death either. It can also mean immediate euthanasia when brought to a wildlife rehabilitator or vet that can detect a raptor is blind.
WCV was able to give Keeya a second lease on life and she became an education bird at the center in 2014. In that role, Keeya was shown to the public for educational purposes in different settings and environments. Sadly, despite training efforts, Keeya remained nervous around people and never settled into her education role.
Despite her handicaps, Keeya still had a vital purpose in her. In the summer of 2016 WCV found a new opportunity for Keeya as a surrogate to several young red-shouldered hawks who were brought to the center after being found without parents. In this role, Keeya serves as an adult role model, or a visual surrogate, for young releasable wild hawks helping them to develop natural hawk behaviors.
See this photo from WCV of Keeya and one of her adopted hawks in their enclosure (https://www.wildlifecenter.org/critter-corner/patient-updates/red-shouldered-hawk-17-1097-update).
This kind of same-species surrogacy/fostering is critical to avoid human imprinting among young birds that may be or are releasable (http://www.apa.org/monitor/2011/12/imprinting.aspx). Imprinting on its own species – not human caretakers -- allows baby birds to understand appropriate behaviors and vocalizations for their species, and also helps birds to visually identify with other members of their species so they may choose appropriate mates later in life (https://www.wildlifecenter.org/news_events/news/human-imprinting-birds-and-importance-surrogacy). A young bird deprived of the sight, sound, and touch of conspecifics (others in its species) during this developmental stage will be unable to interact with its own kind in a normal manner.
Given the good outcomes that can result from having surrogate/foster raptor parents, ideally, wildlife rehabilitation facilities would want to have non-releasable adult raptors available for fostering. During the breeding season, these foster parents are typically allowed to build nests and lay unfertilized eggs.
Here’s links to other examples of raptor foster parenting and saving others.
California Raptor Center https://lindsaywildlife.org/hospital-stories/great-gray-owlet-parented-by-a-visual-surrogate/ (Great Grey Owl).
Owl Moon Raptor Center: https://owlmoon.org/home/blog/ (Black Vultures).
Florida Red-Shouldered Hawk