Which fascinated, but didn’t frighten, my wife and me.
What did you think when I mentioned predator? How about if I had written Buteo lineatus instead? Somewhere nearby, probably less than a block away, and way, way up in the one of tallest trees, a red-shouldered hawk had unpacked its suitcase in our neck of the ‘burbs. For weeks, we heard a sharp, repetitive cry across the street. At first, I was convinced it was a bird and probably a robin or blue jay protecting its nest. A few times I wondered if it was a bird in trouble, fallen from nest and parent.
I also imagined the sound could be one of our brash, street smart squirrels. They always seem ready to rumble. Not long ago, I had a squirrel scamper away from me and then dash up a tree. Out of harm’s way, it settled onto a branch to squirp-and-chirp at me. I felt like I was a bad boy and being scolded.
Finally, we spotted Buteo lineatus. A red-shouldered hawk was perched at least twenty feet from the ground, in a tree beside our driveway.
This was no robin. This was no chattering squirrel.
With heads angled toward the sky, my wife and I were initially unsure of what we were staring at. Or what was glaring back at us. However, we knew it wasn’t what we expected in the landscaped and sidewalked jungle of our zip code. We grabbed our Audubon Society “Field Guide to North American Birds” and did our homework.
A predator. No debates about that. Beak. Talons. Huge by robin and sparrow standards. We didn’t waste any time researching the gull or pigeon categories in Audubon’s guide. Initially, we debated the merits of red-tailed vs. red-shouldered hawk. But after we compared blurry pictures taken with our phone cameras, we were convinced by its “rufous shoulder patch.”
We have seen at least two hawks. One is likely a parent. The second, which has spent more time crying a plaintive, piercing “peeer-peeer-peeer-peeer” and sitting motionless on tree limbs, is smaller. A chick? Or is it hawklet or predatorlette?
We always hear them first, calling to each other, perched in, or swooping over, the tame redwood and sweetgum forests in our area. It usually takes a long time, with my fascinated eyes, to discover their location. But I don’t doubt they see me. Nor do I doubt that they see all the birds and squirrels and cats and other potential lunch box specials that frequent their territory.
Around the same time that our feathered residents were exploring the landscape, I had my eyes examined. It was my random annual visit to check my vision. I was reminded that I am not much different than Mr. Magoo (to drag out a Baby Boomer reference) unless my glasses are firmly on the bridge of my nose. I believe one eye is 20/200, corrected to the ballpark of 20/40 or 20/60. Please, don’t ask me to be your key expert witness based on my observations.
A hawk’s eyes are much better than the best human eyes. How much better?
At least 8-10 times better.
When someone has 20/20 vision, she or he is normal according to the eye professionals. With 20/40 vision, you see at 20 feet what a “normal-eyed” person could describe at 40 feet. Which is to say that when I’m standing with my 20/200 eyes, glass-less and dull-witted at 20 feet yelping, “I think I may see it!” . . . my 20/20 friend is 200 feet away replying, in a bored tone, “Yeah sure, I see it too.”
A hawk is 2/20.
Now that is an amazing gaze! What the best sighted human can see at two (2) feet, the hawk—and likely all predatory birds—casually analyzes with accuracy at 20 feet. Up thar, in the sky, in my neighborhood, is a red-shouldered spy satellite. Beware, squirpy-chirpy squirrels, there’s a new high-flying sheriff in town. Winged fury. Sharp talons. Hooked beak.
Is a hawk truly the bad guy?
We humans, predators ourselves, don’t like competition. After all, how many fearsome grizzlies—other than the two-dimensional version on our state flag—are left in California? You can count those remaining on zero fingers.
And hawks aren’t as popular as eagles in the scriptures. The Bible mentions eagles over thirty times, including what is arguably one of the more famous passages: Isaiah 40:31’s “they shall mount up with wings like eagles . . .”
And yet, I like one of the very few hawkish references in the Bible. There, near the end of The Book of Job is: Is it by your wisdom that the hawk soars? (Job 39:26).
That was a divine question, a Holy shout-out to human arrogance. It’s a query as sharp as a talon. As the fictional tale of Job concludes, God—with more questions than answers—challenges the human Job to remember his (and our) human limits. We can never fully understand the Holy. Beware of all of the squirpy-chirpy humans who say they have insider info about God!
I wonder how long the hawks will stay? My Audubon book claims they may return, year after year, to the same nest. I’d like that. I like living in a neighborhood with a feathered mystery and those sudden bursts of . . . peeer-peeer-peeer-peeer.
I’ll keep my feeble eyes ready for them.
Image from here.