We are naturally drawn to the sight of hawks soaring, where their aerial mastery takes our breath away, and makes our thoughts soar, too. Red-tailed hawks are the ones we see most often, especially in winter. But in my neighborhood, we are fortunate in having had red-shouldered hawks, a less common buteo (soaring hawk), nest in our woodlots for the past few years. They’re around all year, and are often quite vocal, these forest hawks and their young, drawing my eyes to the sky with their repeated cries, distinct from the redtail’s trailing-off scream.
Almost 40 years ago I had my first close encounters with red-shouldered hawks, in the Florida Everglades where I worked as a seasonal park naturalist. I was astonished by how these hawks allowed me to stand right below them where they perched, just ten feet up in the pine trees. They seemed, in the pine islands or “keys” of Everglades National Park, as common as blue jays in New York and more approachable. And then here they were in New Paltz, red-shouldered hawks building a nest in our own backyard as we were moving into our new house. They seemed to us a welcoming presence then, making their home there just as we were making ours.
Each kind of hawk has its own preferred way of hunting: harriers flying low over fields or marshes, sharp-shinned and cooper’s hawks deftly winging their way between branches in the woods to pick off small birds, buteos sometimes as they soar. But often the latter still-hunt from a perch, where they wait patiently for a vole, a deer mouse or a rabbit to emerge from tall grass or leaf litter, then plunge to the ground to seize their prey with hooked talons. We often spot a red-tailed hawk, husky as a linebacker, his white belly marked by a band of dark streaks, hunting like that from a roost along on the shoulder of the thruway as we speed by. I meet one redtail almost every day on my walk at the marsh sanctuary, perched 20 feet up in a maple, waiting for his supper to appear below him. Here is a poem that appears to have been composed by such a hawk, but was actually written by the British 20th-century poet, Ted Hughes:
by Ted Hughes
I sit in the top of the wood, my eyes closed.
Inaction, no falsifying dream
Between my hooked head and hooked feet:
Or in sleep rehearse perfect kills and eat.
The convenience of the high trees!
The air’s buoyancy and the sun’s ray
Are of advantage to me:
And the earth’s face upward for my inspection.
My feet are locked upon the rough bark.
It took the whole of Creation
To produce my foot, my each feather:
Now I hold Creation in my foot
Or fly up, and revolve it all slowly –
I kill where I please because it is all mine.
There is no sophistry in my body:
My manners are tearing off heads –
The allotment of death.
For the one path of my flight is direct
Through the bones of the living.
No arguments assert my right.
The sun is behind me.
Nothing has changed since I began.
My eye has permitted no change.
I am going to keep things like this.
Hawk Encounters is the third in a new series of columns by Richard Parisio, linking experiences in the natural world with works of literature. The series’ goal is to bridge the gap between the poetry and science by showing how their different ways of seeing nature are complementary. Parisio is a lifelong naturalist, poet and educator. He is NYS coordinator of River of Words, a national poetry and art contest for grades K-12 on the theme of watersheds. His poetry collection, The Owl Invites Your Silence, won the Hudson Valley Writers Center 2014 Poetry Chapbook Award and will be published by Slapering Hol Press in January, 2015. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org with questions, comments or suggestions.