Hawk Talk

I first noticed them last spring, soaring tandem over my head, emitting a series of staccato piercing shrieks. As they neared, there was no mistaking the distinctive red glow of their spread tails. Well, lookie lookie at who’s vacationing in Harwich Port this summer. The Harwich Port Red Tail Hawks had arrived.

We’d have to duck into the house as one swooped down at breakneck speed to grab its dinner: a vole, mouse or sometimes a rabbit. Often we sensed we were being watched, and then we’d spot a bird lording over us from the tippy top limb of the dead, bare-branched old oak next door, its imposing stare boring straight through us. After finding rabbit puff tails tumbleweeding across the lawn, we began to keep a closer eye on the pug and bitty lab pup during their outside forays. But it wasn’t until people with binoculars and long lens cameras appeared across the street at Doane Park peering up into a tree that we realized the birds had taken up permanent residence in the village.

We watched in amazement as the mister and missus toted hefty sticks up 60 feet to the top of a venerable Norway spruce in the park. Day by day, the large bowl of twigs grew in size and soon mama settled in.

Red tails, also known as chicken hawks because they picked off hens, were despised by farmers and killed by the thousands even though they also rid the places of rats and vermin. These huge birds can grow 26 inches long and sport a wing span of 57 inches. At age two or three, the females, who are 25 percent bigger than the males, engage in a Sadie Hawkins-like ritual and pick their mate for life. In the spring the couple engages in lovely loop de loop aerial displays of courtship before they construct a nest, and mama gets down to business. Dad attends to her and the subsequent one to three chicks for the next few months.

Native Americans consider the red tail hawk a sacred spiritual animal and have used their feathers in cultural rituals. The birds don’t hunt in mid air; instead they perch on a church steeple, tall tree or post and swoop down, talons extended, at 30 to 120 miles per hour for their meal. They don’t need to eat every day like a lot of birds, as they can store food in their crop. When we see bald eagles on TV ads, the “voice” of this hawk is dubbed in, over the eagles, because it sounds more powerful and regal. From 3,000 BC in Egypt and Asia to the present, all over the world, they have been used for falconry. They turn their heads to look around, since their eyes don’t move, and they can live for 30 years, although it’s usually less in the wild.

So, back to my yard. Three years ago, I planted a boat load of flowers which I don’t even remember, since each year, just as the little guys poked their heads out of the soil, they disappeared overnight. Also pulling the same disappearing act were my hostas and chrysanthemums. The culprits? Those cute little bun buns, which I do love—honestly, but my garden was their free fast food heaven! We had been inundated with the creatures, under the porch, the deck, in the thickets. Then suddenly, this year, lovely, never-seen-before flora grew into beautiful masses of color, right before my very eyes. All I can say is that I’m loving my flowers, and I’m curating an extensive personal collection of rabbit tails.

In the summer at Doane Park, during Art in the Park Mondays, the hawk babies grew to appear bigger than mom and dad just as they fledged. The goofy feathered kids would perch in the lower crooks of the old oaks a few feet away and stare at the artists and their paintings. We always knew they were flying around because their steam-whistle screams drowned out the constant traffic commotion.

Summer is over, the kids have mainly flown the coop, and now we only hear them intermittently. I hear there is talk of cutting down the giant tree that is their home…not sure why as it looks pretty healthy. The hawks are like so many summer residents who return each spring to their Cape Cod homes—they renovate, add a few sticks and raise yet another brood in the family homestead.

If the tree is felled, I fear the only ones cheering will be the rabbits. I better kiss my flowers goodbye now, as I’ll never see them again. I will be accepting sympathy plants, hopefully rabbit proof—trade you for a powder puff tail?