Elegant, Short-Winged Death

Sharon and I got home from Fort Bragg, CA on Sunday, December 6. We’d unloaded our stuff and were wandering around the house when Spouse said, “There’s a hawk in the backyard.” A hawk had perched on the tall post that we hang several bird feeders from.

It perched there, facing us. In the twilight its red eyes (which look orange-amber in most of the photos) glowed like faceted garnets, and the slaty blue-gray of its wing feathers was pronounced. It looked like a carved idol of a hawk. I was nowhere near my camera, of course. After a moment or two, it spread its wings and vanished. I could say, “It flew away,” but that does not carry a good impression of its speed. It launched itself; it was gone.

We went to the bird books. After a three-way discussion, we narrowed it down to three possibilities; a Cooper’s hawk, a sharp-shinned hawk, or possibly a peregrine falcon. We leaned toward “falcon” because of the speed; I didn’t think the breast, or the facial markings were right for it.

A few days later it was back, on the railing. Although the bird reacted to any movement, it seemed inclined to stick around for a few minutes. This time I had a camera. With these pictures to compare to, we narrowed it down to sharp-shinned hawk.

When it came back and perched on the arbor, I saw the dots of white on the wings for the first time. It may be coincidence but all three bird books show these dots on illustrations of female sharp-shins only. Given her size (the male sharp-shinned hawk is much smaller, about the size of a pigeon) and her red eyes, I’ve decided she is a female adult.

She is beautiful. And she is elegant short-winged death, sweeping like a honed scalpel through the clouds of small birds that come to our feeders. Spouse saw her take a sparrow off the railing. Well, more accurately, he saw this; the sparrow landed on the railing. The hawk launched, there was a streak, and then both birds were gone and two brownish feathers spiraled down. The next day I saw her chase a bird from across the street. They were about four feet off the ground. I could see the flash of yellow-greenish gray, and the larger creamy blur of the hawk. They tilted up to clear the gate to our side yard. Two days later when I went around the side of the house, I found the scrap of a tiny wing, from elbow to wrist, yellow-greenish gray with black bars, no longer than my middle finger.

Sharp-shinned hawks keep to wooded areas usually; they are fast and agile in the air. She can tilt and spin, swoop up and stoup down faster than a blink.

She likes the bird feeders a lot.

The internet says that sharp-shinned hawks are nesting in urban areas more, and will hang around yards with bird feeders. I don’t have a philosophical problem with the circle of life, but I don’t know if I want to provide her an all-you-can-eat buffet. I thought about taking down one of the feeders, at least. To be fair, if I tally up known deaths, the score looks like this: Hawk; 2, sliding glass door/kitchen windows; 5. The pine siskins, which, it seems, are not the Mensa candidates of the avian world, fly into the windows at an alarming rate, often for no known reason. Twice, I’ve picked up a stunned bird and put it in a shoe-box, and ten minutes later it’s flown away. Once I’ve done that step to find a dead bird when I came back in ten minutes. One time the bird left the box, flew onto the feeder, hopped inside it, and died. Three times I’ve scooped up tiny broken-necked corpses from the deck. The hawk has a ways to go to pull even with the windows.

Detente is achieved.

The squirrels, at least the two large ones, and the hawk seem to have reached a non-aggression agreement. The hawk perches on the arbor above the squirrel feeder, but she flies off when they approach. If she lands on the post, though, the two large squirrels retreat to the fence, or the neighbor’s redwood tree, and freeze until she moves on. One will chatter at her aggressively… from a prudent distance. The crows are quiet when she is in the neighborhood.

When I don’t see her, I hear her. For now, I’m leaving up the feeders; maybe not filling them as often. She is a force of nature, more “natural” than our fatal windows. Right now, I feel honored to have the touch of her adapted wildness in my life.


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