Saturday, March 28, 2015


Two downy hawk chicks glared out of the car trunk, exuding sharpness from their talons, beaks, and eyes. "Their mother disappeared a few days ago," dad explained. When you spend days in a field, you get to know its inhabitants as well as their conspicuous absences. You see miraculous life and the glory of animals in their habitat, but you also see the natural predation and the machinery accidents that leave nests flattened and small animals mangled.

My dad has eyes like a hawk for the smallest sign of wild creatures. He would spot the mock-injured limp of a mother kilkdeer acting as decoy, and search for the nest she was trying to lure the tractor away from so that he could leave it intact. He would set a large stone beside any nest he found, to mark the avoidance spot for subsequent farming processes. He would spot a hiding fawn before the swather was upon it, and move it out of the way before he continued harvesting; it would have crept back into the standing crop by the time he had made a round, and he would move it again and again. He was always alert, always respectful of wildlife, and always loved the glimpses he caught of owls, elk, foxes, and moose.

Knowing that the abandoned hawk chicks would die sooner rather than later on their own, he brought them home. They went into a large chickenwire cage that had housed an orphan owl more than a decade earlier. I was always eager to understand animals and forge a quiet bond with them, so I was happy to inherit the task of keeping the chicks fed and watered.

For the first while, I fed them eggs that may or may not have been incubated for a while. A couple of our hens were enthusiastic about hatching a brood that summer, and as a result we occasionally had partially-developed eggs that made their way into the other nestboxes; the safest solution at the time was to open every egg, freeze the good ones, and discard the bad ones. And so, I filled a syringe with the scrambled mixture of yolk, blood, and rough outlines of eyeballs, held each chick pinning their talons so they couldn't shred me, and maneuvered the syringe into their beaks where i could discharge the contents right down their throats. Their deadly talons clenched my heavy leather workgloves, and they snapped their beaks fiercely at the syringe.

After a couple weeks I moved on to ground beef, still maintaining the procedure with the syringe. One time I hesitated as I held the syringe in front of them, and realized that they were no longer fighting it; rather, their snaps were more purposeful and they were scrabbling to grab the meat. After that, they received their meals in a bowl.

For a while the two looked identical, but as time went on one of the chicks became runty and underdeveloped. It was still downy when it finally died. The other chick, though, grew strong and fiery, and in time was a rich deep brown with a lighter brown front. Its talons became even more deadly-looking, jet black like the toothbrush-moustache tip of its hooked beak.

I would sit by the cage for hours on the cool earth floor of the shed, watching the hawk and quietly talking to it. One day I confiscated a mouse that I found a cat playing with, and dropped it into the hawk's food bowl. It snapped the mouse up a microsecond after it had touched the dish and swallowed it whole, coughing out a pellet of bones and fur a few hours later.

As the summer wore on, we used a front-end loader to perch the cage outdoors and I had to climb a ladder to feed the hawk. Then, as summer faded to autumn, we brought it back inside, opened the door of the cage, and gave the hawk free run of the shed for a few days. Finally, we opened the main door an armspan and stepped back as the hawk waited for half a moment, took wing, and flew out and away into the trees. I hoped it would cope well on its own.

It was at least a week later that I caught sight of something tumble out from the scrubby willows by the water and take a few tentative steps onto the path that wound around to our yard. Back?? I was shocked that this wild bird that had never shown any domestic tendencies had returned so close to the house. But it must have been hungry; I hurriedly thawed some ground beef and approached it as unmenacingly as I could. The hawk's steely eyes watched me set the dish down, and it quickly consumed the contents before giving me one last sharp look and tottering back into the foliage.

That was the last time I fed my unlikely friend, although I did keep an eye out for its return. A few days later as I roamed in the trees, I stumbled upon a heap of deep and light brown feathers, ranging from soft down to broad flight feathers. It wasn't far from where I had buried my tiger finch the previous winter. Sadly, I picked out one perfect beautiful feather, and took it back to the house where I placed it in a vase on my desk.

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