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Former pilot swoops in to comfort dazed hawk



Five children, four grandchildren and a host of beloved dogs have found sanctuary in Nelson Crocker’s lap over the years.

Add to that list a Cooper’s hawk.

The bird slammed into the bay window of Crocker’s Stafford County home on Dec. 31 while the retired farmer and airline pilot was inside reading the newspaper.

Daughter Lorena Critzer was in her father’s computer room at the time.

“We heard this big bang and we went to go see what it was, and a young hawk had hit the bay window and was lying on the ground,” she said. “I thought for sure he was a goner when I saw him.”

Then it moved a bit. That’s when her father reached down and scooped up the stunned bird.

“He held onto that bird like a little baby,” said Critzer, who took plenty of photos of the encounter. “It was so sweet.”

Crocker cradled the dazed hawk in his lap for a bit, speaking to it softly, and after a while, it seemed to perk up.

“I tried to caress him a little bit and pet him, get him going,” recalled Crocker, 82.

Critzer said she was surprised by how docile the bird seemed. Given the size of its talons, she’d been a little concerned about her father handling the bird at all—let alone allowing it to sit on his lap.

Crocker, who’s cared for his share of injured birds on his farm over the last 47 years, said he wasn’t worried.

“They’re not wanting to do damage,” he said. “They’re wanting to get out of trouble.”

Retired pilot and farmer Nelson Crocker comforts a Cooper's hawk after it flew into a window at Crocker's Stafford County home.

This isn’t the first hawk he’s rescued. In the 1970s, he found one seriously injured on his property and cared for the bird in the family’s basement.

The kids named the hawk Henry and it practically became part of the family. When Crocker would leave the house, Henry would soar above his Volkswagen bus as the vehicle traveled down the family’s long driveway.

“Then he got better and flew off,” recalled Critzer.

Cooper’s hawks are pretty common in this region and they do regularly do battle with windows, said Kent Knowles, president of the Raptor Conservancy of Virginia, a nonprofit that helps rehabilitate injured birds and educate the public about their habitat.

“They have no idea what a window is,” said Knowles. “If they are relatively small and hit at not too bad of an angle and they’re not going too fast, they’re simply dazed and can shake it off.”

But they can also hit hard enough to break bones or cause a concussion, which could take hours or days to wear off. If the bird appears to be seriously injured or unable to fly, it’s best to contact a wildlife refuge, Knowles said.

This Cooper's hawk slammed into a window at Nelson Crocker's Stafford County home on Dec. 31. Dazed, it sat on Crocker's lap for about 15 minutes before flying off.

He recommends picking up an injured raptor using a towel or jacket and placing it in a secure cardboard box in a dark place to help it recover a bit. Its talons can be quite sharp, he said, and only the bravest folks with the thickest pants generally let one sit on their lap.

Perhaps Crocker’s hawk sensed the man, who flew planes for American Airlines for 32 years, had a soft spot for aviators. In any case, the bird perched comfortably on his lap for about 10 or 15 minutes before hopping onto a porch chair next to him, giving him a last look and then flying into a nearby tree. A moment later, it was soaring across Crocker’s fields.

“He flew off like there was nothing wrong,” said Critzer. “It was amazing.”


The Raptor Conservancy of Virginia is a nonprofit organization based in Falls Church. Volunteers rehabilitate injured birds, educate the public and help increase the population of threatened and endangered birds of prey. For more information, visit or call 703/578-1175.


Edie Gross: 540/374-5428