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OPINION | FRAN ALEXANDER: Drama of life in the air captures the imagination

Watching the aerial drama of a family of hawks by Fran Alexander | May 10, 2022 at 1:00 a.m.

First it was the screech-scream from overhead that yanked our attention upward. Then, a large bird sliced by us on its way, perhaps, to terrorize smaller critters around the bird feeder or to show off its flying prowess to a female or his competitors. Wherever he was headed, his perfect wingspan allowed him to maneuver among the tree limbs then shoot skyward as if any miscalculation was impossible. An answering screech-squawk deeper in the woods acknowledged he'd been noticed, a sound only another hawk could love or dread. Perhaps another male was conceding that this territory was taken.

It was early March when we began to pay closer attention to the frequent conversations between the red-shouldered hawk couple. They were obviously making plans, but weeks went by before we were able to spot a growing pile of sticks 50 feet or more up in an oak tree in the woods near our home.

Nothing short of a miracle can explain how birds engineer the building of nests using only their beaks to carry materials and only their instincts for blueprints. No matter what size bird, whether hummingbirds, orioles, weaverbirds, egrets, eagles, etc., each species will have its own innate design.

When I squinted my eyes toward the high-rise construction, I wasn't sure, but this nest growing in our oak seemed to have a green tint to it. Then one day, one of the hawks zoomed by my study window carrying a twig of pine needles. The bare nest sticks were evidently being mortared with cedar and pine cuttings.

We began bird watching this assembly with the aid of a viewing scope, always repositioning it to find a sweet spot for the best observation. We suspected the hawks were watching us as well.

The female's ritual of sitting on the nest began in late March or early April, and she was almost always at home -- sitting, sitting, sitting. She left occasionally to go grocery shopping, but with our abundance of small birds, squirrels, voles, mice, etc., she didn't have to be gone long.

Life 50 feet in the air isn't easy, even in good weather, but this April played hellish havoc on the hawks. High winds thrashed the tree around frequently, and plunging temperatures, driving rain, and even hail beat on that mother bird sheltering her eggs. For a month she hung on to the nest, and miraculously, the nest stayed lodged tightly to the trunk and the forked branch where it had been built. We checked on her daily and empathized how tired she must be of sitting there week after week.

Then, on April 25 we caught a split-second glimpse of white fuzz in the nest, and you'd think we had just become new grandparents. Jubilation, at last! It wasn't long before we saw the mother ripping bits of meat and feeding it to her two new gangly chicks. By this time, spring leaves seemed to be doubling in size daily and our spying vantage narrowed.

We had also never been sure which parent was which, although both hunt for food and even share babysitting duties. But only the female feeds the babies, while papa continues bringing home the bacon. Red-shouldered hawks like to be near water, and there's a small pond nearby where I suspect they may have picked up the silvery tidbit I saw the babies gulping down.

It seemed to rain at least part of each day after they hatched, but one or the other parent covered those white towheaded wonders with their bodies to keep them dry and warm. And then, one week after the young hawks came into this world, the nest was gone.

At first we saw nothing on the forest floor until we realized the sodden lump of leaves, sticks and muddy material the size of a truck tire was actually the hawks' nest. The hatchlings were gone, of course, no doubt a meal for a passing opportunist. We can only assume that wind and the weight of the soaked home finally brought it down.

Grief, human-style, follows us now when we go outside and damn nature's fates. But grief, hawk-style, came from overhead the day after the nest fell. That piercing screech intensified as a lone hawk flew over us to a branch on the same tree where it had given its all to raise a family. It seemed at a loss, looking down at us as if to say, "What am I supposed to do now?"

Onward, sweet hawk, onward to next year.

Print Headline: Life in the air

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