I have been watching and enjoying song birds in the back yard for a long time, but just recently I’ve begun to observe the raptors that live in the urban wilderness near me. Members of at least two hawk categories frequent my neighborhood: Accipiter cooperii, the Cooper’s Hawk, and Buteo jamaicensis, the Red Tail or “chicken” hawk. Of the two, the Red Tail has been bolder and more noticeable.
It’s easier to see the hawks in winter, when no leaves are on the trees. This winter I’ve often seen one perched on top of a utility pole or sitting up in my neighbor’s oak tree. A hawk will sit for a long time, moving only its head from side to side looking for prey. They appear to be unimpressed with the humans in the neighborhood, and I suppose this lack of fear is due the hawks’ own fierceness and the fact that we’re all living in the city where it’s unlikely that anyone will try to shoot or otherwise molest them. For some reason, the red tail hawks like to hunt in my driveway. This is an exciting and startling experience for me if I’m in the vicinity when it happens. At the end of the drive stands a large maple tree where squirrels, chipmunks, song birds and mourning doves (the “bag ladies,” as my mother calls them) hang out. The wildlife in that tree must seem like the hawk equivalent of the K&W cafeteria.
The first time a hawk came zooming down the drive, homing in on a flock of bag ladies, I was sitting on my patio where I don’t think the bird could see me. It flew at what seemed like incredible speed in a straight line down the drive, scattered the doves, came up empty, made an amazing 90 degree turn at my back fence line and flew off into the trees next door. The next time this happened, I was standing under the maple tree and saw the bird coming straight at me. On this run, the hawk was luckier and snared a titmouse in mid-flight. (I now have an appreciation of the last image the hawk’s victim sees before it’s lights out for the victim.) I have come to think of this spectacle as the hawk “shooting the strip.”
Once last summer, when the maple tree was completely leafed out, the hawk shot the strip and disappeared into the canopy right over my head. I heard the sounds of a brief and apparently fruitless struggle, then a single small grey feather drifted down at my feet, catching the rays of the late afternoon sun as it fell. The hawk is a clean and efficient killer. And Mother Nature is not that nice lady who used to be in margarine commercials on TV.