The Hawk Letter

An incident in 1988, embellished with a new introduction in 2002.

Our backyard on Crawford Avenue in Syracuse was lovely, but it was never the Garden of Eden, nor was it the Peaceable Kingdom. On one occasion, Laurie watched a cheeky sparrow take a sunflower seed from a chipmunk, who grabbed the sparrow and dragged it into the myrtle. In a few moments, the chipmunk emerged; the sparrow did not.

Another time, Laurie was filling the bird feeder when something fell onto her shoulder. She looked at her shoulder; there was blood. She looked on the ground; there was a sparrow’s head, freshly pecked off by a grackle in the tree above. (Grackles consider sparrow brains to be a delicacy.) When Laurie finished shuddering, she took the head away to the trash in the garage. The grackle divided his time for the rest of the afternoon searching in the grass for his prize and glaring in the kitchen window in search of the woman who’d taken it for herself.

But sparrows were not the only victims in our backyard. Late one Saturday afternoon, while dinner guests enjoyed a gin & tonic on the back porch, a raccoon ambled into the yard (“Oh, how cute,” someone said.). A nearby squirrel froze in fright at the base of a tree. The raccoon slowly circled the tree and pounced upon the squirrel, dealt three quick bites to the back of the neck, and carried the limp body across the yard, scaled the pine tree and began eating. Our guests noted that no one else had ever staged such an unique pre-dinner entertainment for them.

And then there was the Day of the Hawk, about which I wrote at the time:

Our adventure began when Laurie spotted a large bird sitting in the leaves on the hillside behind our home. Together, we guessed that it was larger than a sparrow, perhaps even larger than a woodpecker. Stirred by the memory of a hawk I’d seen circling above our trees the previous week, I applied advanced optics and lo, it was a hawk, sitting atop something gray, some creature that had very recently gone from animate to entree in the wink of an eye.

The Field Guide revealed the visiting gourmet to be a broadwing hawk, firmly in the saddle and bending down every ten seconds or so to rip some new morsel off his prey. Inside the city limits yet. Laurie said, “I don’t know what it’s got, but I can see entrails.” (“Hold the pickles, hold the lettuce.”) Hey, we were eating lunch, too.

I was trying to figure out just what the unfortunate victim might be when the question was answered for me, rather horribly. Wings began flapping. It was a pigeon, and it was still alive. The hawk didn’t change expression as the pigeon thrashed. He just shifted weight a few times to tighten his hold, almost like he was kneading pizza dough, and ripped off another piece.

“Eeeooo,” Laurie said, and left the room in search of the soothing murder mystery she’d purchased the day before at a book sale. But I hung in there, wondering how the pigeon could survive so long, the shock of the hawk’s strike wearing off, awakening to this Thing standing, holding, bending down… “Aaargh,” I said, my wince involuntarily sharpening the focus through the binoculars.

Horrified but unafraid, I decided to attempt some wildlife photography. I called Laurie back to the window and said, “Watch the hawk to see how he flies when I approach,” guessing he might reveal some characteristic underwing pattern that would verify our identification.

I tip-toed around the corner of the garage into the backyard, watching through the camera lens (drat, no telephoto), but the hawk took off with his carrion baggage before I could press the shutter. Well, I thought, now I don’t have to clean it up.

Back indoors, Laurie said, “You should have seen his head swivel. His body didn’t move at all, but his head swiveled right around 180 degrees to look at you.” A Linda Blair Exorcist hawk.

A few minutes later in the yard, two squirrels began humping. “It’s the wrong season for that,” Laurie said. “Tell the guy in the back,” I replied. Life triumphant.

The next morning, Laurie found feathers all around the bird feeder and up in the back, which brought to mind one of the oddest things about the incident. The whole time the hawk was eating the pigeon, the other pigeons stood around eating seed at the feeder. Talk about stupid, or was it some animal wisdom? “Hey, he’s already eating. We couldn’t be safer.”

And the whole backyard pageant prompts one final wonderment. Do PETA protesters have any idea what animals do to each other?

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