Thursday, February 12, 2015
A light snow had been falling all morning, just enough to dust the streets and tree branches, just enough to freshen the dirty crust of old snow without making the roads treacherous.
We were each in our favorite spots in the living room. I was in my chair, my feet on the ottoman, and he was stretched out on the sofa. We had our coffee and the Sunday papers and no particular plans for the day.
When my husband got up to refill our cups he stopped at the window that looks out on the tree in the front yard, the one with the bird feeders in it. All morning we’d been watching the bird show as small, hungry finches flew in and out.
“There’s a bird out here eating one of your birds,” he said.
I looked up from the New York Times and blinked at him, trying to make sense of what he’d said.
“A bird is eating another bird.”
I chase away the neighborhood’s young cats all the time, I wouldn’t have been surprised if he’d told me a cat had struck. But a bird had killed a bird?
I walked over to the window and peered through the curtain. Sure enough, a small hawk was on the front walk that leads to my front door and he was devouring the remains of a goldfinch.
I was surprised to see there were still a few finches and Junco’s at the feeder, but they seemed to have one eye on the feeding predator below them. I guess the death of one of the flock had just bought them all a little time. Danger was distracted for at least a few minutes.
I looked down at the hawk again and I realized he was not a stranger to me.
Late last summer my son spent a few days with us and as he was leaving we stood outside and said our goodbyes. Suddenly a large bird flew low, right over our heads, and landed clumsily in a small tree nearby.
We moved closer and he peered down at us through the screen of the branches. It was a young Cooper’s hawk, still wearing his juvenile spots, and I suspected he was out doing his first solo hunting. He’d made a lot of noise for a bird that is known for moving with great bursts of silent speed. I pulled my phone out of my pocket and snapped his photo before he launched himself out of the ornamental tree and moved to one of the tall Chestnut trees on the corner.
As my son put the last of his things in his truck we talked about our good fortune, about feeling lucky to get such a close look at a beautiful raptor. Then, one more hug and he was on is way. Later, I sent him the photo I’d taken.
Now, in mid-winter, I can’t prove it, but I have the feeling the proud hunter calmly devouring his catch as we watched was the same bird I’d seen all those months ago. Like most of his kind, in the winter he stakes out urban feeders hoping for an easy meal and that morning, at the feeder in my front yard, his patience had paid off.
The hawk finished his meal—leaving nothing but feathers scattered on the fresh powder—and flew up to the high branches of one of the Ponderosa pines across the street. I stayed by the window, wondering what would happen next. After a while a few goldfinches and pine siskins returned to the feeders. They were hesitant and nervous, but the winter day was cold and raw and to survive they had to eat
Suddenly, the hawk swept in again with a stealth and speed that shocked me. One moment the birds were alone quietly feeding and the next they were scattering in all directions, fleeing from danger. He didn’t get lucky that time but the tiny birds took the hint. They stayed away for the rest of the day.
A few days later I watched the goldfinches gather again in the Chestnut branches at the end of the street, dozens of them watching my feeder, chattering loudly as if discussing what to do. Suddenly, as if warned by one of their number, in one smooth motion the entire flock lifted, flew in a circle over my house. Arcing gracefully, they turned toward the park, flying over chimneys and treetops, off to a safer address until the hawk moves on.
Cheryl-Anne Millsap’s is a columnist at Spokesman.com. Her audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of ‘Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons’ and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org