By DAVID SMITH/ecoRI News contributor
BRADFORD, R.I. — Phoenix is an appropriate name for the red-tailed hawk that survived a fiery blast from a methane flare that burned the feathers from his tail and wings. The hawk’s misfortune at the Central Landfill in Johnston last November left him unable to fly.
Without human intervention, the raptor surely would have died.
It’s the second red-tailed hawk to receive care at the Born To Be Wild (BTBW) rehabilitation facility as a result of the ignition of methane gas at the landfill, and he’s one of a growing number of birds that have been injured around the country. According to BTBW rehabilitator Vivian Maxson, 14 states have reported similar problems with landfill flares.
Methane vents dot the landscape at landfills, such as the 1,200-acre site off Shun Pike in Johnston operated by the Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation (RIRRC). If there is more methane gas than a nearby energy plant can use — in this case, Broadrock Renewables LLC — it’s burned off by flares. These flares are either lit and left to burn, or are ignited by a switch when it senses a buildup of gas.
Flares create colorless, hot flames that can reach upwards of 10 feet high. The nearly invisible flame can reach temperatures of up to 1,700 degrees Fahrenheit.
If a hawk or another bird sits atop the vent when it ignites, it will die. If a bird is unfortunate enough to be flying overhead, the result can be the same. Luckily for Phoenix, he eventually landed at the BTBW rehabilitation center at the end of Vars Lane, a dead-end road that backs up to the woods.
The center has nearly a dozen cages, where a variety of birds are housed, including other hawks, a vulture and an owl. It’s the only licensed raptor rehabilitation facility in Rhode Island.
Phoenix is expected to stay at the facility for several more months, before he is released back into the wild.Phoenix is expected to stay at the facility for several more months, until he moats new feathers in June and is able to be released back into the wild. The raptor was initially rescued by a man at the landfill who is in charge of nuisance control. His job is to scare away gulls and other birds.
Maxson said the man found the bird unable to fly and called the state Department of Environmental Management (DEM). The bird was initially taken to a clinic where staff realized what had happened. From there, Phoenix was transported to Born To Be Wild to recoup.
Hawks and other birds of prey such as kestrels are attracted to landfills because of expanses of open space that can be home to mice, rabbits and squirrels. Landfills, home to plenty of stink and rotting things, also attract multitudes of insects, which in turn attract other types of birds. Hawks will sit in trees around a landfill scanning the countryside for prey.
While red-tailed hawks are a common bird in New England, they are still federally protected in the United States, as well as in Canada and Mexico.
The 16-year-old rehabilitation center is owned by Maxson and her husband, John. It was John who came up with the moniker of Phoenix, which seemed appropriate considering the bird’s plight.
Maxson said the center’s ultimate goal is to reduce bird mishaps and accidents. “We can’t eliminate them but we can reduce them,” she said. “They (landfill authorities) can’t ignore us ... they are a federally protected bird.”
Work is expected to begin this spring to remove trees near Central Landfill flares, to reduce the risk of birds perching in them and then flying over the flares on their way to snaring prey, according to RIRRC staffer Krystal Noiseux. The agency’s recycling program manager disputed the number of hawks injured at the landfill. She said records show only one bird being hurt by the flares.
RIRRC and Broadrock Renewables also are looking at recommendations made by Joey Mason of Keeping Company with Kestrels Inc. Last year, the Middleboro, Mass., organization prepared a 20-page report entitled “Methane Burner Impacts on Raptors” that was funded, in part, by Covanta Energy Corp.
To reduce the Central Landfill’s risk to birds, Mason suggested the RIRRC cut back the tree line, lower light poles to discourage them from being used as perches and install anti-perching crowns on the flares, of which there are six at the site.
She said she plans to do another site visit in April to look at the progress.
“There is nothing that you can do about it (the risk),” she said. “It won’t get rid of the problem. People want to go green and burn methane gas to recycle it. It’s a good thing, but not always great for the birds ... but they have to do something to mitigate the problem.”
Mason doesn’t have any figures on how many birds have been injured or killed by landfill flares, but she is seeking that information. It seems red-tailed hawks are getting injured the most, with some kestrels facing similar accidents at Massachusetts landfills. There are 24 inactive and 13 active landfills in Massachusetts. Fifteen are producing energy, she said.
Phoenix will be moved to the center’s flight cage when all of his burned feathers are replaced by new ones.Phoenix is estimated to be at least 5 years old. One of the indicators of age is the eyes. Young red-tailed hawks have yellow eyes, but as they mature, their eyes turn brown. Their feet also offer clues, because as the birds age, their feet turn from shiny yellow to a gray weathered appearance. One other indicator is the tail. Immature hawks have a brown-banded tail. In a rite of passage, it seems the red tail feathers don’t appear until after the first year.
Maxson said that only about 20 percent of red-tailed hawks survive to adulthood. She said those who don’t master the ability to hunt don’t last long — when they don’t eat, they become less efficient.
“Twenty percent are the smartest, fastest and strongest,” she said. “It truly is survival of the fittest.”
Phoenix awaits the growth of new feathers before he is moved to a flight cage. The expanse of the flight cage will allow him to regain his strength and show that he is strong enough to be released. Maxson said the dilemma will be whether to release him back at the landfill, where he likely has a mate, or someplace else away from the flares. A decision hasn’t yet been made.
One of the most important results of the attention drawn to the problem by people like Mason and Maxson is the awareness it has created with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and government agencies that license methane energy operations.
When Fish & Wildlife Service agent James Dowd learned about the problem in Massachusetts, at the Taunton Sanitary Landfill, he worked to get an aluminum top placed on the smokestack of the flare system. The aluminum top was designed by Mason.