A line of poetry passed through my mind yesterday, about a landscape so pure, so cold and quiet, that one could “feel the shadow of the hawk’s wing pass over the land.” I felt that same silence of a hawk at the moment when all the busy chatter, the comings and goings of the birds at my half dozen bird feeders came to an abrupt halt.
It was so sudden and dramatic that I somehow sensed it and had to get up from my desk and look through the storm window.
What did I see? A small flock of assorted sparrows and juncos sitting perfectly still –as if frozen- in the low bushes and brush, a half dozen mourning doves doing the same in the dormant winter flower beds, twice that many goldfinches and common redpolls in the upper branches of a nearby tree, also still and silent, and a little female downy woodpecker literally flattened against the side of a tree, saying, in essence, “I’m not here”. I scanned the yard but saw nothing.
But then, there it was, midway up a tree in the woods adjoining my yard, perched in a tangle of branches- a Cooper’s Hawk.
A Cooper’s Hawk, itself sitting as still as death, except for the most subtle movement, a slow swiveling of its head, like some kind of military instrument, and its cold, gold, yellow-angry eyes scanning the terrain, looking for the slightest movement, for a fidgeter to reveal itself and thereby provide a meal. It reminded me of another line:
“Among seven cold mountains, the only thing moving was the eye of the raven.”
I witnessed this drama for perhaps five or ten tense minutes, when, perhaps because I needed something in the shed, perhaps because I could no longer bear the strain, I stepped out into the yard. The hawk rose instantly, flew off among the trees, and was gone.
Cooper’s Hawks principally prey on birds and are the most common hawk seen around bird feeders. And what I had seen is its standard mode of operation- the stealth attack- stationing itself in a semi-concealed location, rather than hovering overhead like many other species of hawk. It is especially designed for this, with compact, rounded wings, and a long tail to weave and dodge and maneuver through woodland settings.
The numbers of Cooper’s Hawks have dramatically increased over the last couple of decades, and there is evidence that many of them are overwintering in the north, rather than migrating south, and it is believed that this is partially due to the existence of bird feeders. It is intuitive: imagine for a moment that you are a hungry hawk on a cold and snowy day: consider the effort it would take to canvas a few acres of frozen woodland to hunt down and capture a chickadee or two (or if you are lucky, a fat mourning dove) to provide the precious calories that will keep you alive for another day; then imagine that you come upon a bird feeder, or a series of feeders, that attract birds throughout the day. A good deal for a hunter- like a water hole on the African steppes attracting wildebeest for a lion (or an ATM machine in the city attracting little old ladies with large purses for an urban robber). Not exactly shooting fish in a barrel, but along that line of thinking.
But there was no kill this day in my yard. In just a few minutes the little birds became unfrozen and began again their comings and goings, their feeding, their cheeps and chatter. So it would have been, too, if one of their comrades had been taken: life goes on, and wild creatures are the ultimate realists. (For that matter, I recall reading about the poor people of Sarajevo, plodding through the streets with their shopping bags, heads down, as the cruel snipers took their toll among them: life goes on.)
Many birds do not survive, and so it was for our species not so long ago; the Native Americans called The February moon “Hunger Moon” because typically their supplies would run out about then, and they had to just persevere until the following month.
Soon these birds will be joined by others, the survivors of hawks and hunger, and the dawn chorus will be in full blast. So it is in the natural world- the world just beyond your storm windows- that the eternal verities of death and survival play out.
Life goes on.