A Hawk Named Grace

 

Summer, 1992

Portal, Arizona

The Cooper's hawks have chosen a large, century-old Chinese elm for their nest tree. It is only a few yards from our front door. Larry and I have mixed feelings about the hawks. Spoff says they normally don't seize prey in close proximity to their nests. However, the birds and other wildlife don't know this and have become a bit more shy in and about the yard.

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Several weeks have passed . Each day we watch the female as she nurtures her young. She is an excellent mother despite the fact that she herself is not yet a full-fledged adult. Yesterday we watched as she spread her wings to protect her nestlings from golf-ball-sized hail.

This was no easy task as the three young are now almost as large as their mother.

We're so intrigued by these birds that I've begun to gauge my life by them. They wake us as the male darts in with the morning's catch, and we listen to their evening calls as the sun slips behind the cliffs. Today, even a plain-capped starthroat couldn't lure me away from the hawks.

The smaller male in his full-adult plumage is more striking, but the female has a grace about her that I've observed in no other bird. She sits upon her day perch like a queen surveying her subjects. I am completely mesmerized by her, aware of every sutle nuance of her behavior. I watch. I photograph. I watch. I'm so busy watching, I forget to lift my camera. I watch the hawks. Or, are the hawks watching me?

I awakened early this morning after a fitful sleep. My dreams had been filled with feathers--feathers flying through the night. The monsoon rains are building and the night had exploded with thunder and lightning. Usually, I love these desert storms, but I had an ominous feeling as I climbed out of bed and walked out on the porch.

Stepping barefoot on to the still damp earth, I was aware of something white--feathers everywhere. Soft, white, downy feathers, baby bird feathers--young hawk feathers. Perhaps the winds had blown them out of the nest during the storm--but so many? I walked slowly into the crepuscular light, careful not to disturb anything that hadn't slithered away to hide from the morning sun. A knot tightened in the pit of my stomach. Then, more feathers--soft, white and brown. Please, no, I said aloud. And then I heard the scream. The mother hawk had flown in silently, and perched in the juniper just to the right of the Little House.

I was not prepared for the cries of agony that penetrated the stillness of that dawn. Her cries seemed to float up canyon, echoing again and again as they bounced off the rhyolite cliffs. Not knowing what else to do, I began picking up the feathers scattered about the yard. The hawks stare never left me. The eyes, not yet red, burned into my soul.

A gust of wind funneled down from the canyon--feathers flying everywhere, swirling through the leaves, swirling around my head. Pahos--prayer feathers.

With the hawk perched above me, I entwined the feathers along the cord that held a set of old Indian prayer bells. The bells had hung from the porch on a weathered juniper post for years.

Larry called to me from inside. I said nothing. He walked outside, our eyes met--no need for words. We both picked up feathers. A few moments passed; Larry walked quietly toward me. I saw the look on his face and the knot tightened again. Slowly, he placed a small yellow foot in my hand. I wept. For a long while, I ran my fingers along the ridges in the talons and imagined the hawk back in the nest. I walked down to the creek, gently washed the foot, and returned to the yard. Still weeping, I hung the foot among the feathers and offered up a prayer for the little bird. The hawk screamed again.

The hawk ate nothing, drank nothing all day. She allowed me to share in her grief. She screamed. I screamed back. A ritual--and it was female.

At dusk, she lifted from the day perch and flew off into the nighttime sky.

That night my dreams were again filled with feathers. What I can recall is as clear as any reality.

The hawk screamed. I screamed back. At dusk, she flew to the prayer bells, plucked a feather, dropped it at my feet, and flew off.

Next morning, I was awakened as I had been throughout the summer by the familiar calls of the hawks. I walked outside and immediately located the female at her day perch. Our eyes locked. One striated feather fell softly beneath my feet. The hawk flew to the nest tree, responding to the calls of two hungry young.

I bent down, picked up the feather, and tied it with a leather cord around my neck.

As I ran my fingers over the feather, I thought about who I am, about my soul, and the soul of the hawk. I bowed my head. I knew I had been part of something very sacred.

I have a place where I keep some things that are very close to my heart. A lock of my daughter's hair when she was five years old. My grandmother's pin. A love note from Larry. Among these treasures, you'll find a few small feathers --soft, white, and brown.

1997 Terrie Gates

 

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