Opinion: Memories of Red the hawk

Published 5:04 pm Saturday, February 2, 2013

When the Jay C. Hormel Nature Center’s Julie Champlin picked up the phone on the other end of my call Wednesday I knew there was bad news on the other end.

The call was nothing so complicated as an update of a phone number, but her voice told me something different and from there the leap was easy. The news was that the time for Red, the Jay C. Hormel Nature Center’s red-tail hawk, had come to an end. The 33-year-old hawk lived through early years being raised by a private family, he narrowly missed a tornado, and he fought through liver and heart issues before he had to be euthanized this past week.

I never had the relationship Julie or executive director Larry Dolphin had with Red, but through a number of stories over the years with both Julie and Larry concerning Red, I felt like I came to a certain understanding of the hawk. Slowly, I became more and more interested in what Champlin so adequately termed, “the tough old bird.”

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And Red was tough. He fought through the liver and heart issues in 2009 — issues that ironically may have saved him from the tornado that struck Austin in 2009. Red was taken to the Raptor Center at the University of Minnesota a day before the tornado hit the Nature Center, damaging just his side of the shed he was kept in.

Red would later get over this initial onset of troubles, but the vets that took care of him at the Raptor Center were pessimistic about his chances. If he made it through 2009, they would be surprised. Like Red did with so many people — including me — he surprised them. The end of 2009 came and went, as did 2010, 2011 and 2012.

Most of 2012.

In late 2012, Red stopped eating and those things he battled so resolutely in 2009 came back. The vets asked for five days to get him to eat after Larry brought him to the Raptor Center on Dec. 27. The five days came and went and nothing changed. The time had come and the very difficult decision was made.

As Larry ran down the events, I started to wonder exactly why I was so keenly interested in the bird until I put myself in the shoes of all those before who came to identify Red as a true connection to the wild that could only be achieved in so few ways. Red was a true ambassador to the students who learned from him and those who peered in Red’s downstairs roost as he stared back at his territory.

Red wasn’t so special as a species in that on most any drive through the country, one can see a red-tailed hawk sitting on a fence post, wire or flying in lazy circles. But, as a subject and an individual Red was special and thinking back it was easy see why I — along with so many others — believed in what Red represented.

Each time, when I would go to the Nature Center for my job or just for a walk with my girlfriend, the first stop was always to Red’s window and yes, I always said, “Hi, Red.” I doubt I was the only one.

If my connection to Red was something to be believed, the relationship Julie and Larry had with him was stronger still. I remember a story I wrote about Red soon after his diagnosis in 2009. Julie was holding him on the deck of the Nature Center. In a moment, Red adjusted himself and spread his wings, and I saw the look of reverence and caring on Julie’s face.

Red was spirit and he was fight and Julie and Larry and so many others saw it each time he perched on their arms. I saw it each time I saw him on his perch, proud and resilient to the end.

Julie and I also on the day made preparations of our own. The Nature Center had a plan that when the time came they would take him on one last walk through the Nature Center. A time to say goodbye. Julie was going to call me when that day came so I could document the experience. Looking back it was more than a good story. I was hoping to say goodbye, too.

That day never came, but not because the staff went back on their word. Red showed, Red proved that he deserved a chance, even if it was a little one.

To some, this will be nothing more than a shrug of the shoulders with a passing thought, “It’s just a hawk.” Red was more than just a hawk, though. Red was the relationship that many have with a beloved dog or cat.

Red is gone, but to so many at the Nature Center, Red will always be there, in that window, looking out at the eyes that he helped open so many times before.

So, as simply as I said “hi, Red,” I say this.

Goodbye, Red.