Death out in a Hayfield:
The curious lump wasn’t there the day before, about 70 yards into our hayfield. When the lump hopped straight up in the air, I backpedaled into the house and focused the spotting scope on it. The top of the lump was a hawk, a Cooper’s hawk, hunkered down, wings spread like a miser hoarding lucre.
Hawks always appear to be affronted by the world they can see all too clearly. This one was especially peeved. Hop, hop, and hop again, with no progress to show. After the last flounce, what was responsible for the rumpus became clear: the wing of a blue jay was jutting out from the pile. With more desperate pushups, the jay freed its head and began pecking at the hawk’s chest. The hawk retaliated in kind, and back and forth they went.
Being a human being, I pondered if I should sally forth to save the blue jay from the hawk, assuming it was savable. Almost anyone attending such a stark drama would give it some thought. On the other hand, I am rather fond of birds of prey. Their maniacal intensity is oddly fascinating, and they are rare in comparison with blue jays. If the statistics were reversed, I’m not sure how I’d feel.
I once watched a red-shouldered hawk dispatch a mouse, swallowing the last morsel, tail and all, in one gulp. Needless to say, it didn’t seem to enjoy the meal. If that were my job description, I’d look severe all the time, too.
On another occasion, at dusk, having jumped into the little river that borders our hayfield, I saw a form heading upriver under the canopy of overhanging trees, aiming straight for me like a feathered missile. I was sitting low in the water with only my nose, forehead and dirty blond hair above surface; my ablutions must have caught the assassin’s attention. At 25 yards and closing fast, what had been a curiosity became a concern. Whom, exactly, did this creature think it was dealing with, a muskrat?
My options were self-evident: hold my breath and go under – in total humiliation – or rise up and show myself in full, a homeowner, a taxpayer, a friend of animals. At the last instant, the hawk decided it wasn’t that hungry and peeled off, coming to rest on the branch of a tree overhanging the water. There, it proceeded to bob and weave like a prize fighter trying to take my measure, before flying off in pluperfect annoyance.
If they aren’t as common as blue jays, most hawk species are not rare, as yet. You can see red tails perched by the side of major highways at this time of year, surveying the edge of the forest for careless squirrels or rabbits. In the spring, our resident red-shouldered hawk sometimes wakes us up with his piercing cries as it skims the treetops trying to scare up breakfast.
But most hawk and bird species are declining, some dramatically in recent decades. Bob whites, which use to be thick hereabouts and serve as prey for hawks, have dropped from 31 to 5.5 million nationwide since 1967, according to one study. I haven’t heard or seen a bob white in decades.
The Cooper’s hawk is named for a New York man who shot the specimen that a naturalist used to officially designate the species in 1828. In rural vernacular, it is known as the “chicken hawk” and was often shot on sight by farmers. Pesticides like the now banned DDT took a heavy toll on Cooper’s hawks and other birds of prey in the 1960s and 70s.
Sad as I was for the blue jay, I didn’t intervene.