Firefighters, bird expert rescue hawk from St. John Cantius bell tower

Published: 6/22/2022 9:24:09 PM

Modified: 6/22/2022 9:21:46 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Northampton Fire Rescue, renowned bird of prey expert Tom Ricardi and concerned neighbors of St. John Cantius Church worked together to save a male redtail hawk that was trapped in the downtown church’s bell tower for about three days.

At around 8 am Wednesday, a fire department ladder truck parked in front of the vacant church at 10 Hawley St. Ricardi, 82, was hoisted up to the 83-foot tower with firefighter Eric Toia and city resident Hobie Iselin as they spent an hour working to capture the hawk in a net.

Somehow, the hawk had gotten through the wire mesh that covers the four arched openings at the top of the tower.

Ricardi checked the hawk’s condition and determined that it was well enough to be released back into the wild, so he carried it down to the church lawn and let it fly away. The hawk disappeared behind the Northampton Center for the Arts across the street.

“I had white knuckles,” Ricardi said moments after stepping onto solid ground again. “I’ve never been that high up in my life, except on an airplane.”

As he ate a blueberry muffin offered by a well-wisher, he said he had been “getting seasick” as his and Toia’s movements caused the platform they were standing on to jostle.

“It was hard up there because there’s so much broken material. It was hard to get a net around (the hawk),” he said.

The bird’s weight was “low,” Ricardi said, but he did not need any treatment or rehabilitation. “I could feel his breastbone. Pretty solid,” and the presence of dead pigeons in the bell tower suggested that “he was eating good” during the ordeal.

As they worked, a second hawk sat on the cross atop the bell tower. Ricardi said it was likely the trapped hawk’s breeding partner.

Neighbor set wheels in motion

Phillips Place resident Faye Wolfe was the first to raise the alarm about the hawk and she stood among the crowd of bystanders who watched the rescue. On Sunday morning, she said, she heard “blue jays making a commotion” and walked a short distance to the church to see what was happening.

“I’m very interested in the bird life and wildlife in our neighborhood,” Wolfe said while viewing the work with binoculars that she often uses for birdwatching. “Eventually, not immediately, I figured out that there was a hawk trapped in the bell tower … and I could see it flying around and it didn’t seem to be able to make its exit.”

Over the ensuing days, Wolfe made a series of phone calls and sent emails, including one to Fire Chief Jon Davine, to ask experts for ideas on rescuing the hawk. Historic Northampton connected Wolfe and Fire Rescue with Ricardi, the retired environmental police officer who runs the Massachusetts Birds of Prey Rehabilitation Facility out of his home in Conway.

Laurie Sanders, co-executive director of Historic Northampton on nearby Bridge Street, watched from the sidewalk in front of RentNoho. She said Ricardi is regarded around the world for his caring and expertise with birds of prey.

“He’s done more to raise awareness of birds of prey (and) the capacity for rehabilitation” than perhaps anyone, she said.

Wolfe said the owners of the building, O’Connell Development, deserve credit for their efforts, as well. O’Connell sent staff to show the fire department around the church before the operation, she said, and had staff on the scene of the rescue. She said she was “thrilled” by the actions of the firefighters, “seeing them go to this amount of trouble to save a hawk.”

Asked if he expected to rescue a hawk first thing in the morning, firefighter Toia said, “No. I haven’t even had breakfast yet.”

The condition of the tower, he said, was “not bad. It was structurally sound enough for us to kind of take a couple of steps in and grab the hawk. … I was happy everything worked out.”

Brian Steele can be reached at


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