Warning: animals were harmed in the inspiration of this blog. Not by me. And no, this is not a political rant.
Recently, a Cooper’s hawk has been using my bird feeders as a buffet. It’s the price of attracting birds in winter. You also attract those who eat them. I can’t mind, really. The hawk has as much right to eat as the mourning dove who became lunch.
I didn’t see the actual attack. When I looked, the hawk was sitting in the snow in my back yard. On top of something. It took binoculars and a different angle to see the mourning dove. Here’s where I thought about looking away: the dove was alive. Eyes wide open (well, they always are wide when open; there’s not a lot of nuance to bird eyes), but also mouth wide open. A silent scream. Neither moved. Perhaps the talons digging in were doing the job. I couldn’t see that.
So I thought about leaving the window and going back to my day. This was bound to be gross. Then I decided that just because something is gross, is no reason not to look. We edit life too much, deciding what we will and will not see. Refugees in boats? OK. Refugees dead on the shore? Not OK. I once walked away from a difficult moment, not from malice, but from ignorance. I had no idea how important that moment was. It wasn’t earth shattering. It wasn’t criminal. Others have done far worse. But I came away realizing that there are some things you should not turn away from and knowing what they are is perhaps life’s biggest lesson.
“Animals aren’t afraid of death,” said a veterinarian in a short National Geographic magazine article. You should focus on quality of life, he went on. And once that’s gone, put the animal down.
Not afraid of death. How remarkable. As I age, I seem to become more fearful, to the point where I’m not quite living fully. I fear disability, being alone, not being able to take care of myself. To the point where it was becoming inevitable because I was not taking care of myself now. How would I down the road? So I went back to the gym. I run that elliptical till my heart pounds and my lungs burst. I lift weights, I stretch. Now I can shovel snow (except the back still complains if I’m not careful), and I’m sleeping oh so much better. I’m less fearful.
But back to the hawk and that dove. They shifted. Did the dove struggle, or did the hawk reposition? The dove’s eye is now closed. Death, whether feared or not, has arrived.
I’ll spare you the gory details that followed, but I did watch, letting out an “Eww, gross!” at one point. But overall, it was fascinating. The hawk is a beauty. Female, I think, because she seems quite large, but with no other Cooper’s hawk to compare her to, I’m left speculating. Subadult, I’m guessing by the not-yet-red eye. The very notion that this wild thing can thrive in this city thrills me.
I’m not at all religious and my spirituality runs more along the lines of, Isn’t nature grand? Almost, but not quite, everything that Mother Nature has come up with has been pretty cool. Humans an obvious exception.
I’ve been thinking about that hawk and that dove. The snow has melted and all that remains is a pile of feathers. I wanted to write about them, then I remembered that I’d already done so. There was a similar event several years ago and I wrote about it then but had no place to show it off. So I’ll do that here. Enjoy. Or not.
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The crows make me look. A cacophony of cawing. I know it could mean they are torturing some hapless raptor, but it’s coming from my back yard—in a city, which like most, is not generally known for its diversity of wildlife.
I put down the Sunday paper and go to the den window. It’s early spring and the trees have yet to leaf out. Three crows sit high in the boxelder and a large blob of something is in the crotch below them. An owl? It shifts position. A red tailed hawk. And it’s sitting on a smaller gray blob. Pigeon.
The crows dive bomb the hawk and clearly hope to score an easy meal. I’ve seen them so harass hawks in flight that they force the predator to drop its prey. I can’t see this one’s head, its back is to me—far below, peering through window panes.
There’s a flash of movement. A gray wing flaps.
The pigeon is not dead.
I’m all for the cycle of life—nature, red in tooth and all. Still, I get squeamish at suffering.
The crows continue their attack. The hawk has had enough and risks an escape with its burden. It flies to a neighbor’s spruce less than a hundred feet away.
I grab the binoculars and scan the spruce. Near the top, in a gap in the bristly branches, I can make out the hawk. It’s behind the trunk, so I see the tail to one side and the head on the other. The deadly business is blocked from view. Thick branches deter the crows so two settle in a red maple to the left and the third in the sugar maple on the right. They continue their squawking.
I am relieved that I can no longer tell if the pigeon is alive. The hawk settles in and begins pulling at the bird.
Plucked feathers snow silently into the yard.
After an hour or so the crows give up and fly off. Smaller birds—juncos—flit in the lower branches of the red maple. Branch by branch they move up and ever closer to the hawk. They go as far as they can without making the last hop to the spruce itself.
The hawk’s head bobs up and down as it pulls off pieces of pigeon. Feathers continue to fall for the rest of the afternoon.
I go back to my day, but every few minutes I’m drawn to the window to see if anything has changed. The afternoon light fades and finally it is too dark to see.
The next morning, I awaken to the calls of crows. I look out the bedroom window that faces the scene. Three crows sit in the sugar maple. Could it be the same ones?
Through binoculars I see that the hawk is gone. All that remains is a thick dusting of feathers on the spruce’s branches.
The crows fly away.
Elaine, you are right about the circle of life in nature. I find my peace there. I watch closely as I walk in the woods for signs. I too have discovered that nature is my cathedral. Since I got into recovery 31 years go I have been searching for ways to take better care of myself. I died in my accident in 2009 and with much determination I became as whole physically as I could. The spiritual recovery was remarkable. I live each day as it comes with no fear. The menu is endless. The same is true in watching people and not allowing them to abuse one another and to step in whe I can and not look away, say no. I am prepared to go and at peace. I have no regrets.
Thanks for sharing your story!
I could write another piece about that Greek chorus. With smaller hawks, it’s the blue jays who do the harassing. I’ve even heard jays give a warning cry when there is no danger, then get the bird feeder to himself (I’m sure it must be a guy 😉 ). Thanks for stopping by!
I sympathize with the hawks, too, but feel guilty about luring the small birds to my feeder when that might attract predators. Once in great while I’ll notice a very sudden lack of birds, and look out to see a hawk perched in nearby tree. Generally the birds know to lie low in the thick bushes when there’s a hawk around, but I’ve still seen crows pursuing a hawk with its prey. Sometimes there’ll be a chorus of harsh cries–reminiscent of the chorus in an ancient Greek drama–going on for half an hour or so when crows have surrounded a hawk in the grove of tall, thick spruce trees behind my house, and I’ll hear the hawk’s cries, too, which has to mean that by then it isn’t holding anything in its mouth.
At least this hasn’t been a difficult winter for hawks here; when there’s an extended snow cover with an icy crust they can’t get at the the mice and voles and shrews merrily scampering through their safely snow-defended tunnels (and popping up to grab their share of bird seeds from the ground.)
Two days ago, while I was on a trail through an open space beside a river, I came upon the carcass of a large turkey, intact tail feathers fanned out but the bones picked more or less clean. I can’t imagine a hawk having caught such large prey, not even the eagles that I sometimes see along that river, so I’m wondering just what’s hunting there. Even a coyote or bobcat would have a hard time taking down a wild turkey. Something (or things) got a fine meal, anyway.