Not Always in the Sky

(10.1.17) Not Always in the Sky

This is a picture of a red-tailed hawk. The hawk’s tell-tale color is muted in females, in certain lights almost brown, and the dead tree this hawk often uses as a hunting perch is distant enough from the street to make the bird’s identity a matter for debate. My neighbors are convinced it’s an eagle.

“Go home and get your camera!” one stops her car to say as I’m walking the dog. “There’s an eagle in the dead tree!” I go home and get the camera, just to be safe, but the dog and I have just passed the dead tree, and perched in it was a large red-tailed hawk. When I go back with my camera, she is still there.

There’s much talk here about the eagle that has taken up residence in our neighborhood, but no one seems to wonder what kind of eagle it might be. When I first heard the rumors, I thought perhaps my neighbors were seeing a young bald eagle. Everyone knows an adult bald eagle on sight, but juveniles always pose a challenge in birds. There was a remote possibility, too, of a visit by a golden eagle, a species generally found west of the Mississippi but reintroduced here not long ago; several birds equipped with transmitters are known to spend winter on the Cumberland Plateau. But only by the most muscular effort of imagination could this bird be a golden eagle. We don’t live on the Cumberland Plateau, and it is not even full autumn yet in Middle Tennessee.

This bird is clearly a red-tailed hawk, but I don’t say anything to my neighbors. People want to believe that something extraordinary has happened to them, that they have been singled out for grace, and who am I to rob them of that one tiny sheen of enchantment in the first-ring suburbs?

Working at my desk the other day, I heard a great mob of blue jays sounding the alarm: a predator was in their midst. Their rage showed no signs of dissipating, and I couldn’t figure out what it was about, so I stepped outside. Perhaps the hawk that looks like an eagle had landed in my own yard.

But when I went outside I saw nothing in the sky, nothing in the trees, nothing on the power pole at the corner of the yard, nothing on the power lines. And then I noticed that the blue jays were looking down as they screamed out their jeering cry of warning, and that all the small birds, even the ground foragers, had taken to the bushes and the honeysuckle tangles and were looking downward too. The little Cooper’s hawk that hunts in this yard will often stand on his prey for a bit, working to get a better grip on his fighting victim before taking to the sky, but there was no hawk on the ground, either.

I walked a little farther into the yard and still didn’t see anything, even scanning the ground with a zoom lens. And then it dawned on me that the birds must be looking at a snake. This lot backs up to a small city easement, only a few yards wide, that leads from the wooded area behind my neighbor’s house out to the side street next to mine, and we leave that area untended as a kind of wildlife corridor. There’s a very large rat snake, at least five feet long, who hunts here—it climbed onto our deck last spring, and I got a good look—but I wouldn’t be able to see it in that part of my yard unless I was practically upon it. I walked a little closer but only a little. Though I am not especially afraid of snakes, I know they are afraid of me and I like to give them their room.

Standing in the middle of my unkempt yard, holding a useless camera, I suddenly realized that something extraordinary was happening right here before me in my own little half-acre lot, a great serpent slowly on the move and all the songbirds aware of its presence and calling to each other and telling each other to beware. And then I thought about how universal it must be, how human, when something amazing is happening, to look instinctively toward the sky. Surely it couldn’t be happening in the damp weeds of an ordinary back yard, among last year’s moldering leaves and the sifting, fragrant soil turned up by moles.