–In the presence of goodness, good people rejoice.–
My boots crunch loudly on the loose and frozen gravel, rousing common sparrows from their cold roosts in the willow and wild rose bushes. Despite being leafless in December, the bushes seem an impenetrable tangle of twigs and dead leaves. I hear, rather than see, the birds fluttering and tweeting within. I have bundled myself against the bitter cold, and wonder how these almost weightless creatures survive Winter. I imagine them huddled in their houses, mostly protected from the wind, their feathers puffed out to gather insulating air, with temperatures sinking to just above zero. I marvel that these birds constantly peep and sing, fluttering about with the energy of jubilation. I envy them their unconditional happiness. I have come to appreciate their enthusiasm, to rely upon their unassailable cheerfulness.
A short distance down Rabbit Lane, in the gray of pre-dawn, a sizable lump slightly darker than the dark road began to show itself 100 yards ahead. I slowed my pace for fear of encountering a skunk, but the lump stayed uncharacteristically still. Charcoal lifted subtly to steel gray even as I approached the object lying in the middle of the lane. It remained unmoving. Now within ten yards, I could see that the lump was a bird, a large bird. Stepping nearer, I nudged the dead form with my toe, then bent to examine it more closely. The bird was a mature Red-tailed Hawk, its body still warm and supple. Its head lolled loosely on what appeared to be a broken neck. I struggled to deduce what had caused its death. No trees or power poles lined Rabbit Lane in this location. Cars were rare at this time of day, and usually drove slowly for the pot holes. Had the hawk collided with another raptor, perhaps an owl, in aerial combat? Or had it expired suddenly on the wing and landed fortuitously in my path?
Lifting the bird, I found it surprisingly light for its bulk, and cradled it in the crook of my arm like a child that needed comforting, stroking its feathers as I turned toward home without finishing my walk. I laid the hawk on my work bench to examine it more closely: ferrous tail feathers; long primaries; incisor beak. What struck me most were the ebony-black talons, two inches long each, four on each yellow foot. I spread the talons to tuck in a tennis ball, and the talons held it firmly, three talons in front, one in back. I thought for a moment of harvesting the talons and some feathers. I hungered for a token of my encounter with the great bird, to keep it with me in some tangible way. The taloned feet would make impressive trophies. But I knew that harvesting from the hawk was not only illegal, it would also make a hollow trophy, an empty souvenir, like an artifact stolen from a museum to gather dust in some necessary but forgotten hiding place. Keeping any physical part of the hawk would dishonor the bird as well as plague me with guilt and the fear of being caught. The hawk deserved better, and so did I.
Consulting with a game warden friend, I prepared to bury the hawk. My children accompanied me, admiring the hawk as I had. At the edge of my garden plot, I placed the hawk on a new three-foot-long bale of hay. Stretching out the bird’s wings, the feather tips hung over the edges of the bale by at least three inches on each side. Having dug a deep hole, I refolded the wings and carefully placed the regal bird into its garden grave.
I marveled that the Red-tailed Hawk had come to me, or I to it. What would have happened to the hawk had I not encountered it at that moment? It might have been obliterated by heavy truck tires, mangled by raccoons or dogs, kicked aside to become mere carrion, or desecrated. How preferable its burial beneath rows of corn and tomatoes and pumpkin vines.
My funereal reverie disturbed by a commotion to the west, I turned to see Erin (10), Laura (7), and John (5) standing on the chicken coop roof, silhouetted against the sunset, flapping their arms and letting out descending screams like the piercings of a Red-tailed Hawk.
Roger Evans Baker is the author of Rabbit Lane: Memoir of a Country Road. The non-fiction book is available in print and for Kindle at Amazon. Rose Gluck Reviews recently reviewed Rabbit Lane in Words and Pictures.
Your comment was on the gifts placed before us. My thought was on the tenderness and gentleness of the finder (you) and the regard for another even after the world would say you are no longer needed. I hope to be as compassionate when I come across another in need.
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Well Rog you struck another chord with me and took me back to another fond but sad memory when I was but 13 years of age. Those were the sweet and magical days which evolved into years that later shaped my life quite considerably. I was very fortunate to be born and reared in the little town of Tooele with the population at that time of 5,000 people. Parents didn’t have the fear and terror of letting their children take in the town and nearby canyons as their playgrounds like the parents of today do. My seven buddies and myself practically lived in the canyons as soon as school was out, starting around a few days before Decoration Day and lasting through Labor Day. Now for the reason of this response about the hawk….one day while tracking a porcupine along a hillside covered in scrub oak and a few tall trees, I noticed in one of them a big nest and two red tailed hawks ,one was on the nest and the other was resting close by. I thought ..hmmm I would sure like to see what they have in that nest. It was about 30 feet up off the ground and branches that was well placed as if they were intended for climbing.
So the very next morning I carried my dads old black metal lunch bucket up to that place and ran my belt thru the space between the handle and the top potion of the bucket and climbed that tree. Luckily mom and dad hawk were out on the hunt and as I peered over the edge of the nest there was to my amazement three little white snowballs smaller than baseballs looking up at me with their beaks wide open. At about that same time I heard a high piercing screech and looked up in time to nearly getting my hat snatched off of my head. I knew I was in for it and had better get out of there pronto…but not before I had all three in the lunch bucket. Down I went as fast as I could and had an escort of screaming dive bombers most of the way home.
I kept them in the lunch bucket until they outgrew it which only took about 2 to 3 weeks and then into a bigger cardboard box until they got feathered out.
My dad was in the mink business at that time and I fed them the same kind of food , horse meat , fish, poultry off-al with all kinds of vitamins and minerals and they grew like weeds and big. I kept them in a good sized coop next to my pigeons and would shoot spugs and starlings for them quite often. I learned and mastered their call by vibrating my lips into a kind of a trill and they liked to fly up on my heavy leathered outstretched arms and would look me right in my face . I made the mistake of taking mom down to see them and show them off. When she saw them so close to my face she came unglued and said ” they are going to peck your eyes out !! You have to get rid of them right now ” !! No amount of crying , bellering and bribing could talk her out of it. So with tear filled eyes I got some big boxes and boxed them up and we drove up Settlement Canyon and I released them. They took to wing and circled just over our heads and followed us a little ways down the canyon. I always wondered if they were able to learn how to hunt for themselves. I have loved hawks and most raptors all my days. These were two large females and one just a bit smaller male. I also felt bad for their parents and wished many times that I would have left them at least one little baby.
I have had a great horned owl and even a pet raven in those days.
Sorry I took up all this time and space I didn’t intend to go into so much detail …I guess I really got carried away . But like I said you brought back some wonderful memories that I had almost forgotten. ….Harv
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