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by Linda Thomas

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This spring, six friends are battling cancer. One way or another. In one form or another. I tell you this because the chance of so many cells transgressing all at once has me thinking about miscalculations and things I don’t understand. I think how in sunlight, a bluebird’s back gleams like gemstone, and when a cloud covers the sun, the bird turns black. In a lawn dotted with ground squirrel holes, I see a hawk’s meal in every pocket. I hear the thrasher sing phrases that are none alike. In the slow relentless drill of a raven’s beak, I hear an egg crack, see dust rise, something leaks into the nest, and the raven ducks and lifts, its great wings hard against the afternoon, its beak clasped on the bright pink embryo of the crow baby, its lolling head.

Such scenes are hard and arbitrary, something like my friend’s pancreatic cancer, only easier on the heart.

In all of nature—which includes humans and our endeavors—spring is a time of growth when it takes only the lengthening of daylight, and suddenly every bird pricks up its head feathers, puffs it throat, and lets go a stream of notes meant to beckon the next generation. It is a sticky time of hormones and destiny. There is much to see and learn.

Just yesterday, I followed the keeeyahh screams of a Red-tailed Hawk into a large park where sweeps of lawn are broken by stands of Coast Live Oaks and Western Sycamores, picnic tables, and playground slides and swings. People use the paved walkways to stroll with their dogs or ride bicycles. I found the hawk perched high atop a sycamore overlooking a circle of lawn that was dotted with ground squirrel burrows, here and there a squirrel dashing, stopping, dashing on. And across the lawn in a cottonwood was a brown nest of sticks and and branches, leaves and lichen nestled into the green heart-shaped leaves of the cottonwood, gorgeously essential and quintessential all at once. But my heart sank, for the nest was not camouflaged at all, but was obvious and accessible.

From her high perch, the adult hawk, a female, faced the nest. And from the nest, an immature hawk—feathered, eyes like a child’s—faced her. Between them in the center of the lawn was a man seated in a camp chair, his camera and enormous lens mounted on a tripod that was aimed at the mother hawk. The scene had drawn curious people onto the lawn to peer into the trees where the man pointed. As if on cue, the mother screamed.

I imagine the man in the camp chair thought himself a sort of hawk whisperer, but the truth is, he is simply a part of the daily intrusion that all birds endure from us humans. The better part of a bird’s day is spent foraging for the food that fuels flight and body well-being. The Red-tailed Hawk perched on the park sycamore weighs about three pounds. Her wingspan averages about 50 inches. She can fly at 30 mph, and in a dive, she can reach 120 mph. About three months ago, she and her mate soared in a mid-air display that can only be described as 100-mph aerobatics that ended when she perched and he joined her for a brief copulation. She and her mate then built the nest together, one stick at a time, and lined the nest with pine needles and soft plants, easy access to an open market of squirrels. The building took a week, and when they were done, she laid somewhere between one and five speckled eggs. Then, for four or five weeks, she and her mate took turns sitting on the nest to incubate the eggs.

The amount of energy depletion at that point cannot be over-emphasized, even for a bird species that shares breeding duties between the male and female. Once the young hatch, the work of raising them intensifies for another six weeks. At first, the nestlings are a mere two ounces of pink helplessness, and during those early weeks, she stays with them, while her mate hunts and brings back food—squirrels and other mammals, small reptiles, other birds. She tears the carcass into small bits to feed her babies until they are strong enough to feed themselves from prey that is dropped into the nest. Little wonder that she now looks bedraggled, her tail feathers worn, fluff poking out from her unpreened chest.

On the morning that I saw the Red-tailed Hawk’s nest, the juvenile bird perched on the edge of the nest looked to be over 30 days old; that is to say, the young bird was standing, perching, lifting its wings. Imagine, then, the stress of the mother hawk as she peers down onto the lawn where her youngsters will soon be crashing, flapping, and otherwise learning to be the hawks they are destined to be. Or not.

It all depends on whether a person happens upon a fallen immature hawk, thinks the bird abandoned and in need of food, scoops it into a cardboard box, and drives away.

Hear the mother scream?

It depends on whether the flock of fourth graders—here via a big yellow bus for a lesson with the park ranger on California history—look before they run onto the lawn, near aerobatic in their skips and cartwheels, screaming one another’s names.

Hear the mother scream?

And next year depends on her memory of all of this. Easily, she and her mate could abandon the old nest, abandon this park.

I stood on the lawn for a few slow minutes, watching, and I took a photo of the young hawk perched on the edge of the nest. Later, I sent it to a friend who loves birding as I do, and who now is facing the surgery that comes after the chemotherapy. She will be pleased to see the belly-band of dark streaks already forming on the bird’s chest. She will remark on the gape. She will peer deep into the photo and believe there’s a second youngster. Birder talk that will carry us away from the topic of cancer. At any stage, I think to myself, anything could happen: in the frenzy of spring, a hawk miscalculates, a person trespasses, cells grow and divide, an egg defines our fragility.

Interested in learning more about all birds? Subscribe to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology where your donation helps to protect birds and the natural world.

Title Photo Credit: Linda Thomas


Linda Thomas is a retired community college writing professor. She now volunteers for Sea and Sage Audubon as a birder and naturalist.

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