For the Birds Radio Program: Ginger the Nighthawk Update

Original Air Date: Oct. 7, 1992

Today Laura gives a progress report on Ginger the Nighthawk. (Date confirmed)

Audio missing


This fall I’ve met quite a few “For the Birds” listeners here and there, and almost every one of them has asked me one question: How’s Ginger the Nighthawk doing? Ginger was found by a DNR wildlife manager on a roadside out at the Leech Lake Reservation back in June, and was sent to me via Northwest Airlines. It looked like she’d been clipped by a car antenna: her right eye was pierced and her skull was cracked, but there was no other damage to her body. She wasn’t in pain most of the time, and had a voracious appetite, but she kept developing bad infections and for a long time I didn’t know whether she’d survive from one day to the next. Sometimes the pain from the eye would get intense, and she’d suddenly press that side of her face down to the floor. Unfortunately, that threw off her sense of balance, and she’d start flopping all over, which damaged many of her feathers. There was a long time when I wasn’t sure that it was even in her best interest to keep her alive, but she ate with such gusto that I new she hadn’t given up on herself.

I’ve been managing Ginger’s pain with hot compresses on the eye two or three times a day, and she seems to be feeling fine almost all the time now. Her dead eye is still slowly sloughing off, but she’s adjusting well to monocular vision.

Although Ginger was eating well once the food was in her mouth, I had to open her mouth to put the food in for three months. It took Ginger longer than most of my nighthawks to learn how to be fed by hand, but now she’s snarfing down huge mealworms and crickets and wads of my basic food mixture with special enjoyment, as if she feels really proud to have mastered the new skill. And in spite of the fact that her feathers look so ragged, she’s even started to fly. At first she made tentative flights from one spot to another near by, but now she’s flying all over the house, sometimes circling a room near the ceiling a dozen times or more. She holds her head sideways and apparently can see in front quite well, because she hasn’t crashed into anything even when she turns sharp corners into hallways. She’ll never be able to be released into the wild, because nighthawks need to face forward to snatch flying insects while she has to face sideways to see them in the first place. Fortunately, she seems quite happy and at home here. Normally rehabilitators aren’t allowed to keep permanent cases, but since I’m focusing on nighthawks for my Ph.D. research, I have a special permit to keep up to five unreleasable birds permanently.

Ginger is special to me in many ways, but I think what I most treasure about her is how trusting and affectionate she is. When she was sickest, and no one seemed to now how to ease her pain, her trusting gaze kept me trying. Her first flights were to me, and now when I’m across a room from her, she often flies over just to sit next to me or even on my lap. It’s hard for an independent, wild adult bird to adapt to captivity—the loss of freedom seems to be painful. And many birds associate the whole awful experience of being injured with the people who pick the up and treat them, as if holding them responsible. But Ginger seems to know that I wasn’t driving that car back on Leech Lake, and that I’m doing my best for her. She’s a well-traveled bird—so far she’s been down to South America and back at least once on her own power, she’s flown on a Northwest jet from Leech Lake to the Twin Cities and from there to Duluth, and ridden in my car on two trips to and from Ely, once to and from Ames, Iowa, for an ornithologists’ meeting, and she even came along on my family’s vacation to Chicago and Wisconsin. I hope she’ll travel with me on many journeys to come.