The Wild Without

As a child I found a touch of wilderness in a straggly line of trees edging a field. A nearby trickle of water was full of frog life, insects, and the mysterious rustlings of bulrushes and unseen possibilities. Birds twitted overhead, busy and preoccupied with their own societies. One summer a weasel family took up residence and if I sat very still, would slip into view for magical moments and then melt away. It was a small paradise within calling distance of my home.

I recall this special place to remind myself that the natural world is often close by. To my delight I can observe downy woodpeckers, nuthatches, chickadees and Bush tits busy at my feeder outside my kitchen window as I wash dishes at the sink. Flickers come and dangle off the feeders as these outsized birds pretend that their contortions are just as dainty as the smaller birds. Juncos and Spotted Towhees work the ground beneath the feeder for all the spilled bounty. The thick bushes give cover for foraging and shelter. The scene is cozy and convivial with a lot of good-natured fluttering and turn-taking.

But yesterday, a different kind of wildness showed up. A very large hawk appeared in the spreading maple tree that fills one side of the front lawn next door. It sat very erect and attentive, partially screened by twiggy branches. It was a dark shape that exuded a silent menace, a threat to the smaller birds. Its long barred tail, scatterings of brown flecks and chest blotches suggested a Cooper’s hawk but it could also have been a Northern Goshawk that also displays a barred tail—the feature most clearly seen through the branches. Both hawks inhabit this corner of the country but Cooper’s are more often seen in neighborhoods near feeders, according to my bird guides. There was nothing convivial about its presence!

I am indebted to my neighbor for alerting me to the presence of the hawk in his tree and for the use of his photos above
and below. We had a lively discussion about what kind it might be but were not able to be sure of our identification with such an obscured view of the bird. Still, it was thrilling to realize its closeness.

It stayed for several long minutes and then silently drifted away. I caught a glimpse of it being harassed out of the neighborhood by a flock of crows. As its huge straight-winged shape disappeared from sight I felt a shiver pass through me. A touch of the wild: more wild than my friendly chickadees, untamed, inscrutable, the hawk existed truly outside my human frame of reference. It was a thrill to see it! It gave me a jolt of adrenaline.

I thought of the weasels that led their secret lives so near by my childhood woodsy spot. They were unmistakably sharp-toothed, fierce and fearless, carnivorous to the core. I remembered how they thrilled me then, just as this hawk brushed me with its danger and mystery now. We crave the wild, we need the “other” to wake up our senses and remind us the world still has its sharp edges and is not made for our convenience and comfort alone. The wide gray sky that had held the imprint of the hawk’s flight was now impassive and empty but my day was transformed from the ordinary to the sensational.

9 thoughts on “The Wild Without

  1. Lovely blog! It reminds me of this poem by Robert Frost:

    Dust of Snow

    The way a crow
    Shook down on me
    The dust of snow
    From a hemlock tree

    Has given my heart
    A change of mood
    And saved some part
    Of a day I had rued.

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  2. When I had my first hawk visit my feeders, I complained to fellow birders. One of them said, “It’s just another way to feed the birds.” True. What was really amazing was having a Cooper’s Hawk drive birds off my feeder and chasing until one flew into my window to be stunned on the ground. Then the hawk came for its prey. This happened twice while I was home to watch. I have no idea how often it happened when I wasn’t there.

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  3. I can’t help feeling for the underdog, in this case, the under-birds….the little ones. Pretty clever using your window as a weapon! I guess if we are “for the birds” it needs to be ALL the birds however they get their dinners. Even Auduboners used to take sides and it was quite a campaign to get people to stop shooting hawks and owls on sight.

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  4. Lovely story Anne. Like you and Kathleen I have also had a Cooper’s hawk target my feeder. There had been about 20 little ones around the feeder but when the hawk swooped down, they all scattered. For the next 30 minutes, there was not a peep from any little bird in the area. Eventually they must have decided the coast was clear, and they returned. Afterward I learned from my birder’s book, that Cooper’s hawk have adapted quite well to urban life and often target feeders. After reading Kathleen’s story, I now know they have adapted better than I thought!

    Thank you for the Robert Frost poem Maria. Beautiful

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  5. Karen–and all readers

    I love how this post has become a vehicle for a wider conversation! We are creating a community of hawk watchers and observers of back yard nature dramas! Thank you! Keep talking!

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