Operation WildLife volunteer Bill Whinery bent low, preparing to toss a young red-tailed hawk into the air.
“OK, here he goes,” he said.
The bird gave several hard flaps with its wings before flying to a nearby tree to perch.
“Definitely, he’s back home again,” said Samantha Walker, a natural resource specialist for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at Clinton Lake.
Last month, the bird was found just several hundred yards away near Clinton Lake’s maintenance shed.
“The poor little guy, he was skinny, held his head crooked” and had a damaged wing, Walker said.
She decided to take the bird, which most likely was hit by a car, to Operation WildLife, a nonprofit in Linwood that provides veterinary and rehabilitation services for injured and orphaned animals.
Once at Operation WildLife, the bird was given a shot to reduce swelling in the brain. Volunteers fed the bird pieces of rodent until it was strong enough to eat on its own.
And the big test came in the L-shaped flying pens. Before it could be returned to the wild, the hawk had to be able to round corners.
After four weeks of rehab, it was ready to return home Thursday morning.
“We always want to try to release them where we get them because most raptors mate for life,” Whinery said.
While the hawk, which was born this spring, was probably too young for a mate, Walker said she thought she spotted its mother in the weeks following the hawks’ trip to rehab.
The crew at Clinton Lake will keep a close eye on the bird, mostly out of curiosity, Walker said.
The potential for the bird to live a long and happy life is good. Once red-tailed hawks reach adulthood, they can live up to 15 to 20 years.
“Hopefully, it will have learned its lesson to avoid cars. But after that it should do just fine,” Whinery said. “Clinton Lake is a great place because you got the lake and they can always rely on dead fish.”
Along with the hawk, Whinery released a black vulture on Thursday. Rare to the region, the vulture was found in Overland Park, starving and unable to fly. It, too, was rehabilitated at Operation WildLife.
Whinery expects the vulture to spend the remainder of summer at the lake and then fly south this fall.
Watching the birds fly away is the high point for Whinery.
“They don’t turn around and say thank you for all the hard work. They just fly off,” he said. “But it is really rewarding to see all your hard work end up with an animal released to the wild.”