I’ve seen a pair of new silhouettes in the sky above my pecan trees lately, two hawks who’ve found a new hunting ground. One is larger than the other, if not a mature and immature male, they could be a mated pair. In the world of hawkdom the females are larger than the males. They are probably red tail hawks, the most common in the U.S., and distributed coast to coast. There are several subspecies but they all have very similar looks. My Tennessee grandmother would have called them by their more familiar name, chicken hawks.
The name doesn’t seem to fit well with such majestic birds – besides, they don’t primarily prey on chickens, which are too large for them to tackle. Chicks maybe, but not full grown barnyard specimens. Red tails prefer to dine on pigeons, doves, squirrels, lizards and, most unfortunately, ducklings.
As I was walking along the river toward downtown one Saturday, I saw a flash of red and bronze out of the corner of my eye and felt movement of air from rapidly beating wings. The zooming predator was on the upswing from having made a catch in the tree above me and was swooping to a perch across the river, high in a cypress. His prize was wiggling and brown, probably a baby squirrel snatched from its treetop cradle.
I’d hardly gone twenty more paces before another hawk flew in front of me just inches above the ground and over the side of the revetment into the river. The target was a line of ducklings in convoy behind a hen. The hawk clipped the last of the infants, but couldn’t grasp it and pulled up in a rapid vertical maneuver to avoid collision with the retaining wall. He settled in the uppermost branches of another cypress looking ruffled and miffed. Another try produced the same result and the return to the same perch. By now, the hen was quacking a very loud alarm - producing the arrival of reinforcements - five mallard drakes that formed a circle around the brood and their mama. It was an amazing display: they continued swimming in a defensive perimeter drifting downstream until the hawk gave up and went winging off for lunch elsewhere.
I thought it was time to provide for my own repast so I stopped at my favorite riverside café where my habitual table is against a shoulder level flower bed that has been home to a mallard nest for the last two seasons. Sure enough the hen was under her accustomed philodendron canopy, atop a clutch of eggs.
Shortly after the first course arrived a huge clamor ensued in the foliage and two drakes emerged in a flapping, bill-locking scrum, one flipping over on his back and into my calamari. His opponent succeeded in sweeping everything else off the table until they both went thrashing into the river to settle their quarrel.
The hawks and the ducks were here long before we were. The fact that we’ve built a city in their territory doesn’t seem to perturb them in the least. We are not even worthy of their notice while they prosecute their lives alongside ours. It is more than a little hubristic for mere humans not to notice that the urban environment is still where the wild things are.
- Michael Guarino