Lees-McRae love story: Captain and Cloudfeather

It’s possible to find your true love anywhere, at any time, and for the college’s resident red-tailed hawks that is certainly the case.

Captain and Cloudfeather are two of the animal ambassadors who work with Wildlife Rehabilitation and Wildlife Biology students at the Lees-McRae May Wildlife Rehabilitation Center to educate the public on the natural history of their species and their important role in our ecosystem. Both hawks experienced traumatic injuries in their past that make them unable to survive in the wild, but despite the tragic circumstances that brought them together, the two share a deep connection that rivals the greatest love stories of all time.

Cloudfeather was transferred to Senior Instructor and Director of the May Wildlife Rehabilitation Center Nina Fischesser in 1997, seven years before the center was even built. Her original rehabilitator found her after she was hit by a car, and a radiograph showed bullet fragments throughout her body. The damage was severe enough that Cloudfeather was no longer able to fly. She couldn’t be released back to the wild, but she also couldn’t stay at her current location because a territorial older hawk at the facility was making her life miserable. Her rehabilitator reached out to Fischesser, who agreed to take the young Cloudfeather in.

At the time, Fischesser had another red-tailed hawk named Ladybird who was quite a bit older than Cloudfeather, so there were some concerns about how the two hawks would get along, especially considering Cloudfeather’s previous experience with an older bird. Luckily, Fischesser didn’t have to worry for long. The two female hawks struck up a quick and powerful friendship.

“I remember the two of them sitting on a perch together, actually so close their wings were touching, talking constantly, like two women sitting on a park bench,” Fischesser said. “They were the best of friends for many years until finally Ladybird passed away.”

After Ladybird passed away, Cloudfeather was alone for a few years until Captain was brought to the May Wildlife Rehabilitation Center. Fischesser realized that Captain was blind in one of his eyes and not likely to survive in the wild, so the team at the center started working to train Captain as a non-releasable educational animal ambassador. Once training started Captain was showing a lot of progress, and Fischesser decided that she would try to introduce the two hawks.  

“When you introduce hawks for permanent placement together it's best to put them in a neutral space so nobody gets territorial," Fischesser said. "We placed them in a 16x8 enclosure together. Both of them eyed each other, then Cloud raised her hackles, standing up tall, while Captain dropped his head in submission, as is the way with male and female red-tailed hawks. She was older and a female. She jumped over to him and knocked him off the perch. This was her way of setting the tone of dominance. As soon as that was established, the love affair ensued.”

Captain and Cloudfeather have now been with each other for several years and have developed a strong bond. Even now with Cloudfeather being mostly retired from her duties as an animal ambassador, you can find them together in their enclosure at Fischesser’s home in Jonas Ridge, North Carolina. Many of the students who work with Captain for educational presentations say that they have seen him giving Cloudfeather her mice before he goes and gets his own to eat. Students also think Cloudfeather and Captain are really protective of each other, and have noted when they go get Captain for public presentations Cloudfeather will get upset that they are taking her mate away from her. The students who work with Captain also say he knows he’s lucky to have a girl like Cloudfeather and that he treats her like she is his goddess. With how beautiful she is, it isn’t hard to see why he feels that way. 

Cloudfeather is so beautiful that Fischesser believes this is the reason she was shot from the sky before even reaching a year old. Unlike most red-tailed hawks, who have rich brown feathers on their head, back, and wings, Cloudfeather is predominantly snow white. Her unique coloration is due to a condition called leucism, which causes her to have reduced melanin production. Her distinctive and striking color make her a valuable target for hunters looking for a prize, and because of the permanent damage from her early injuries, she would be unable to protect herself in the wild. Thanks to the work of Fischesser and other rehabilitators, Cloudfeather has not only been able to live a long and happy life filled with love, but along with Captain has served as an important ambassador for her species.  

About red-tailed hawks

Red-tails are the most common hawk species in North America, and the second-largest hawk species in the United States. They can be found soaring above any open field or perched in a tree on the field’s edge. These hawks mainly feast on small mammals such as voles, mice, and squirrels. Their amazing eyesight allows them to scan the ground for potential prey from high up. Their eyesight would allow them to read a newspaper from a football field away, or even spot an adult rabbit a mile away from a high perch. Not only do they see in color, but they can see within the ultraviolet range as well. Once they spot their prey, they glide down and pounce on it with powerful feet that can squeeze with up to 200 pounds of pressure per square inch. As a comparison, humans have a maximum grip strength of 40 pounds per square inch.

Adult red-tailed hawks can be identified by their characteristic copper red tail with a single bar going across the bottom, their belly bands, and their dark brown eyes. Juveniles have a brown tail with multiple bars, more white on their head, and yellowish eyes. They are sexually dimorphic, meaning the female is larger than the male. Like in the case of Captain and Cloudfeather, many red-tailed hawks mate for life. The species has a distinct mating ritual where the male and female lock their talons in the air and fall to the earth, letting go before hitting the ground. Although Captain and Cloudfeather haven’t had the chance to perform this particular mating ritual since they are not fully flighted hawks, they have found other ways to show their affection, including sharing food and preening each other.

Red-tailed hawks are majestic raptors that play an important role in our local ecosystem. Although they aren’t endangered, human behaviors can have a detrimental impact on red-tail populations. The two most common risks posed to these birds by humans are being hit by cars and gunshot wounds. The easiest way to prevent collisions between cars and hawks is to avoid throwing trash on the street, including food waste. Littering attracts prey animals like small rodents, which attracts hawks in return. Hawks often get tunnel vision when swooping down to their prey and don't see oncoming vehicles. Additionally, many farmers try to shoot hawks because they believe the raptors will go after chickens, which has earned red-tails the nickname "chicken hawk." However, when farmers see red-tailed hawks swooping, they are likely going after the mice eating the chicken scratch, making them excellent pest control. It is also illegal to shoot Red-Tailed Hawks, as they are a federally protected species under the 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

In spite of their past injuries, Captain and Cloudfeather are thriving as a mated pair under the care of the professional and student workers at the May Wildlife Rehabilitation Center. Along with serving as ambassadors to the public, the hawks provide an opportunity for student rehabilitators to learn about the care needs of this particular species and prepare to treat other hawks in the future.

Captain and Cloudfeather have a special place in the hearts of all the aspiring rehabilitators who get to work with them while attending Lees-McRae. On this Valentine’s Day, may they also be an inspiration to you and a reminder of the important role we all play in protecting the natural world.

By Makena VosbergFebruary 14, 2023