A lot of people were rooting for Tuffy. But the baby hawk who was abducted — and then adopted — by a family of bald eagles has died.
The young red-tailed hawk captured the hearts and minds of birdwatchers and nature lovers when she joined a family of eagles that originally intended to eat her for lunch.
But her life in the eagle’s nest proved to be tumultuous and short. The mother eagle who once cared for Tuffy as her own turned on her and drove her from the nest and left her to die, says wildlife photographer Doug Gillard.
Gillard, who gave Tuffy her name and spent the last few months documenting her story, says the little bird’s demise has hit him hard, bringing him to tears.
From dinner to daughter
Tuffy — who onlookers originally believed to be male — ended up in her cross-species family more than a month ago when a mother bald eagle in Santa Clara County, Calif., snatched her from her nest and brought her home, most likely to feed to her eaglet.
But Tuffy somehow survived the journey in the eagle’s powerful talons.
When the mother eagle saw a baby bird in her nest, squawking for food, her hormonal instinct to feed it likely kicked in, said David Bird, a professor emeritus of wildlife biology at Montreal’s McGill University.
From the start, the hawk struggled in her new home. Her adoptive mother fed her, but also pecked at her periodically. Her much bigger eaglet sister also acted aggressively towards her.
Still, Tuffy grew big and strong enough to fledge — meaning she left the nest and started learning to fly.
Soon after, the mother turned on her, Gillard said, at one point refusing to let her return to home, and later violently flinging her from the nest.
That’s when Bird says he knew Tuffy was doomed.
“As soon as I heard that, I said, well, there’s no way that she’s going to bring food to him. So unless he finds a way to catch his own food, he’s going to starve to death,” he said. “And that is exactly what happened.”
‘An absolutely terrible ending’
On Monday, Gillard says he was looking for Tuffy when heard a familiar peep coming from high up in an oak tree, far from the eagle’s nest. He recognized Tuffy’s cry right away.
He watched as the mother eagle brought home a squirrel, and he expected to see Tuffy return to the nest for a piece of the action.
But Tuffy didn’t move. That’s when he knew something was very, very wrong.
He called Craig Nikitas from Bay Area Raptor Rescue, who, after some wrangling, got federal permission to mount a rescue effort for Tuffy.
Gillard says he, Nikitas and a park ranger tried to retrieve the bird, but the mossy tree with its peeling bark proved impossible to climb. Attempts to lure and trap Tuffy proved similarly fruitless, as the little hawk was limp and weak.
A few days later, they found her body on the ground, bony and emaciated.
“What an absolutely terrible ending to this initially amazing story,” Gillard wrote on Facebook. “I’m an emotional wreck and physically drained. I can say I did my best under the circumstances to try and save the bird which I have grown to know and love so well — feels like part of my family.”
Nikitas did not respond to a request for comment.
Maternal bond not strong enough
It will take an autopsy to confirm Tuffy’s cause of death, but Gillard believes she starved.
Bird agrees. He says that when a bird of prey fledges from the next, it needs parental support to survive.
“They’re not able to catch food for themselves right away,” he said. “That period of about three weeks after they leave a nest is the most dangerous period of their lives.”
While there been other examples of baby hawks surviving in eagle’s nests, Bird says it doesn’t seem like the female eagle formed a strong enough maternal bond with the hawk to see her through to adulthood.
Had a rescue attempt been made sooner, Bird says Tuffy could have been raised in a wildlife rehabilitation centre, taught how to hunt, and released.
But Gillard says there was red tape every step of the way in trying to help Tuffy, and by the time he and his colleagues secured necessary green light to rescue her, it was already too late.
He says people in California birdwatching community were deeply divided about whether to rescue Tuffy or leave her be.
It’s a debate Bird says he’s seen play out before when he advocated — unsuccessfully — to tag and track a hawk in Sidney, B.C., that was similarly raised by eagles in 2017.
“There were lots of … people saying, ‘Don’t interfere, Don’t interfere. Let nature take its course,'” he said. “And those people won the day with Tuffy…. But they didn’t, because Tuffy’s dead.”