Yesterday morning, around 9 a.m., a hawk swooped through the backyard and sent the pigeons, sparrows, bluejays, chickadees, four cardinals, and assorted juncos and nuthatch–all making a beeline for trees or sky. This has happened before, usually in winter, when the accipiters, harrier, falcons or buteos are hungry and their more normal hunting grounds are covered with snow. Never before have I stopped to watch the whole hunt unfold. It takes patience unless I come in during the middle of the episode when the hawk’s watching and waiting have already taken place.
This time, three jays hounded the hawk into a mess of trees two houses away. With binoculars I could spy the tall, pale-chested, dark- backed hunter almost cameoflaged among the thin branches of the trees. Its yellow legs and feet lifted it fairly tall. Checking the bird book, David Allen Sibley’s Guide to Birds published by the National Audubon Society, I decided it was probably a Cooper’s Hawk that stands 16.5 inches, with a long tail striped with dark and lighter bands. It swiveled its rather flat head with the hook of beak back and forth, but otherwise, except for shaking off flakes of snow now and then, it didn’t move.
The jays, quite brave I thought, kept heralding “Hawk Hawk Hawk” from the very tree where the critter stood. I went upstairs to the bathroom with its huge picture window looking out to the back yard. I could spy the hawk from there as well, even better cameoflaged from this higher angle than from the kitchen window closer to the ground. Time passed. The jays kept at their warning, like tornado sirens gone wild. Oh, the hawk will give up, I thought. The jays make it too conspicuous; no birds will return to our daily feast. But I was wrong. The hawk simply waited and watched. Eventually after I’d been upstairs and down a number of times, a few pigeons and sparrows returned to peck at the ground.
Shaking its shoulders, the hawk dislodged itself and flew a short distance to balance on a wire. None of the birds in our yard seemed to notice. All of a sudden, so fast I couldn’t track it, the hawk swooped around to the other side of our yard and in an instant had captured a dark-feathered pigeon, one of the few who’d seemed fearless (or dumb or old or careless). The yard went absolutely quiet. Light snow fell. I steeled myself, binoculars to my eyes.
Huge yellow claws dug into the squirming pigeon’s back. The hawk was beautiful, stern, absolutely alert, looking in every direction except directly behind it, its large yellow eyes like small headlamps boring into underbrush, between fences, behind the garage. I was fairly sure nothing threatened it, but the hawk clearly didn’t want to spend more time than necessary pinned to the ground, pressing its captive to death. This close–I was now in the kitchen no more than six yards away–I got a good long look at the hawk’s features. Its breast was heavily striped with orange; a strip of white went under its chin and almost around the whole of its head. The feet and legs were startlingly yellow.
The poor pigeon took a long time to die. Perhaps it’s in shock, I thought. I’d be in shock if something pinned me to the ground and began piercing my innards with sharp pokers. After perhaps four or five minutes (but I really couldn’t judge the time. My heart was pounding with amazed horror), the hawk began tearing at the breast/stomach of the pigeon. Feathers flew, one stuck to the hawk’s sharp, downward curved beak. Flesh, red and wet, was exposed. Maybe the hawk is trying to get at the heart and put a quicker end to this agony, I thought.
The pigeon opened its beak and was either crying out or trying to breathe. I almost couldn’t watch. Flashes of a news article from the morning’s paper about turkey raisers in Willmar, Minnesota, who toss newly hatched but damaged turkeys into a grinder reminded me of another kind of cruelty. But of course, I told myself, the hawk has to live. It is in essence a hunter and killer. It eats only if it kills other living things. Gradually, the pigeon went limp. In another minute, the hawk lifted off, carrying the body of the pigeon in its claws. And I was left to pour over the two volumes of David Allen Sibley’s bird books, discovering that among accipiters, the female is larger than the male since it must feed its young in cold weather. Surely, there was no nest nearby with newly hatched chicks or fledglings, not in Turkey Weather.