The Hawks of Winter

I thought it was a hawk as first. Swiveling its beaked head almost completely around. Sitting high in the white pine, level with my second floor windows. Big but not enormous. Not an eagle. Not a condor!

     The bird book disagreed. Not a true hawk (which to me means a Buteo, the classic red-tailed hawk). This bird had splotches of white on its back and a brown streamed neck, chest and wings. A juvenile Northern Goshawk, the largest of the family Accipters, from smallest Sharp-shinned, to mid-size Cooper’s, to this threatening bird.

     Every one of the birds I feed winter, summer, spring and fall, were silent. It was like a tomb, which indeed it could well become for any bird that ventured to show itself.

     The day was brilliantly clear.with heaps of snow on the ground.where I had shoveled paths for ground feeders. Little did I know.

     That first day of silence and intense scrutiny–for this Accipter stayed put for hours, swiveling its head, shaking snow from its feathers–I was fascinated, training binoculars on it, checking on its position from all the back windows. 

     The second day, it had disappeared from view but must have stayed close. Blue jays bugled their warning calls, and when I returned after two hours away, mid-afternoon, there was evidence of a death in the snow–feathers spread in a circle and a touch of blood. The Harrier had carried off its prey. My heart sank: I was afraid it was a cardinal, one of the ten who usually settle in twilight to feed. I felt complicit in the crime. Thought of taking a pot-shot at the hawk. I’ve never shot anything nor did I intend to start. But the impulse was there, startling.

     The third day the silence made me so sad I almost covered my ears. No twitter of goldfinch, no gossip of sparrows, no chick-a-dee-dee, no little rasp announcing a nut hatch. No flutter of wings. I drove to the store for groceries and as crossed the freeway home, two big brown and white stripped birds soared close above. Accipters, two of them.

     The backyard was strewn with little fans of pale grey feathers. A pigeon had put up a fight and succumbed. The body had been carried away. Since then, I’ve seen one of the Accipters again. It dove out of the blue into a gaggle of pigeons gobbling up seeds. I saw the wide shadow on the snow, the spread wings. The pigeons got away, probably because the Accipter knocked into a low-hanging feeder. But in a trice, it righted itself and was gone.

     We all are wary. I am no longer angry or even sad. Just glad the small birds know they are in mortal danger, know to stay low or simply not to appear at all. I’m saving on bird seed. And wonder when the Accipters will lift the imbargo on my yard, and restore my usually peaceable kingdom.
According to the Sibley Guide to North American Birds, these Goshawks do not spend spring and summer here. I’m praying that spring comes soon.

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