As a homeowner who maintains several bird feeders, I have to be okay with the divine concept that we call the circle of life. It doesn’t mean that I don’t ascribe my own pecking order based on my own preferences. Regardless of nature’s order of assignments on the food chain, if one animal depends for survival on another animal as food source, it doesn’t engender my sense of fondness for the predator. More than once on a walk around my neighborhood, I’ve spotted a Cooper’s hawk ambush one of the more popular feeding stations. I automatically “feel bad” for the small birds and deem the hawk a “bully”. I know it’s illogical, and frequent reminders to myself that it’s all the natural order of things makes no bit of difference.
All of the turbulence in my life these days seems to erupt when I step outside my front door. The other night, just as dusk was settling in, I opened my front door to take Mona and Bowie out for a potty break. I’m overly twitchy, I admit, since Mona’s escape earlier in the week. I had both on a taut leash and was looking down at them and the three stairs that we were to descend somehow as a body of one and in one fluid motion. It was in that paused interval that a little bird swooped around us and aimed for the barberry bush two feet away. Literally hot on its tail was a hawk. Before the small bird was able to reach safety deep in the barberry, the hawk plunged into the bush, and grabbed him with his lethal talons. Within the bush, a ferocious flapping of wings (both birds?) ensued for a brief five seconds or so, and the hawk flew off with his prize.
The disturbing melee rendered the three of us immobile as we tried to make sense of it. Mona and Bowie, of course, were then ready to explore the barberry bush. In fact, their curiosity was so great that I failed to redirect them for our particular visit outside. While I tugged on their leashes and issued pathetic verbal pleas, my own anguish only increased. I convinced myself that had I not stepped outside at the very moment the little bird was hoping to fly a direct path to the barberry, he would have managed to elude the hawk. In flight, generally speaking, the little bird has the advantage over the hawk, who cannot pivot mid-air quite as well. I had sent him into the direct flight path of the hawk. Such was my reasoning.
I cannot swear that the hawk was a Cooper’s hawk — perhaps it was a sharp-shinned hawk or a northern goshawk — but judging by his reckless diving into a barberry bush, it’s evident that it was some type of accipiter.* These are not the hawks that you see gliding in lazy circular trajectories high above. Instead, their stealth involves well-camouflaged perches and lightning quick ambush. In our case, the direction of flight for both prey and predator suggested that the small bird — likely a sparrow — was startled at our feeder station, and attempted to reach the safety of the spiny network of branches that the barberry provided.
I consider one final note of irony in this circle of life story. One day, just a couple months ago, I got out my pruners and determined to scale back the overgrown and unruly barberry. I can only describe my relationship with it as one of deep animosity. If you’ve ever gotten one of its barbs as a splinter, you’ll understand. As I raised my arms to part the branches and assess which ones should be culled, I surprised three or four birds who had been sitting quietly deep inside it. I instantly withdrew, but they flew off, anyway. From that time, I’ve found it impossible to clip any of those branches despite my displeasure over a landscape element that is too prickly for my liking. I’ve been much more conscious of its tenants these days; depending on the time of day, if you stand quietly and peer through it, you can see — and occasionally hear — the birds hopping around within. It’s a sight that makes me happy. At the same time, it does present me with a quandary, one that I’ll have to sort out, probably in a couple months.
It’s difficult to accept that hawks are not the villains in this story. I make the mistake, however, of equating it with something that resembles a David and Goliath clash, where the bigger adversary is naturally corrupt or bad, and the innate goodness of the small contestant evokes sympathy. We therefore pull for the lil’ guy. Whether my timing was simply unfortunate — one second earlier or later making all the difference — in the end, it’s all part of the natural order of that thing we call Life. I have no choice but to accept it.
*It was a remarkable spectacle. The (presumed) sparrow dove into the barberry with practiced skill — he, no doubt, had done that many times before. The hawk pitched into it with complete abandon. It occurred to me that a split-second calculation of risk had taken place. Later investigation online brought me to an oft-quoted 2002 study conducted by the Raptor Research Foundation: “Incidence of Naturally Healed Fractures in the Pectoral Bones of North American Accipiters“. A couple of interesting take-aways for me were that (1) woodland hawks — such as the Cooper’s Hawk, the Sharp-shinned Hawk, and the Northern Goshawk — are famously impervious to risk, and (2) just under 70% die not from natural causes, but from encounters with man-made objects. In that same 2002 study (cited also here), scientific examination of Cooper’s Hawk skeletons indicated that 23% of them had evidence of healed-over fractures of the pectoral bones. I’d say they’re some kind of crazy.