Notes from the Audobon Society, Part 2

by

03/17/2004

418 Ditmas Ave, Brooklyn, NY

Neighborhood: Brooklyn, Kensington

The wind blew the first raindrops of the cold front against my back. Iris was late.

I couldn’t believe I was standing out there under the street lamp in Kensington, Brooklyn waiting for her. But I was curious. I wanted to see what she had.

I had never met her and I didn’t know what she drove. She wanted to know if my neighborhood was dangerous, if I wouldn’t mind meeting her in front of my apartment. I didn’t mind. I wanted to see if she had what she thought she had.

Then a beige luxury sedan pulled up and a neatly dressed, older woman opened the window:

Are you E.J.?

Yeah, and you must be Iris.

Yes, she said, popped the trunk, and walked around to the back of the car. I met her there and saw an inconspicuous, white shirt box from a dry cleaner. She gave it to me and said: Call me when you open it and tell me what you think it is. Then she drove off.

I took the white box around to the backyard, opened it and found a plastic bag. I opened that and saw Don Zimmer’s teary-eyed mug staring up at me from a rolled up Post. Inside was a dead bird.

It was not what Iris had thought it was.

*

It was a juvenile sharp-shinned hawk. Iris, a CUNY College Professor, who lives in Manhattan Beach, had found it in her backyard and thought it was a peregrine falcon. She called the New York City Audubon office where I work and reported it. Because peregrines are endangered in the state of New York and because the chicks from the 14 nests around the city are banded annually by Chris Nadareski at the Department of Environmental Protection, I thought I should collect the specimen and Iris offered to drop it off—if I waited outside.

When I unwrapped the paper I knew it wasn’t a peregrine falcon because the size and markings were wrong, but the beak gave it away as a raptor. Determining which one was going to take a little work.

You would think it would be easier to identify a dead bird but there is something about a bird being so close to you—it is so unbirdlike—that your eyes do not register what they would easily register in the field.

It definitely had a long tail, relative to its overall length, so I knew it was from the accipiter family, a family of hawks with rudder-like tails that help them capture small birds on the wing in woodlands. The smallness of the bird suggested a sharp-shinned, but then again the hawk was uncharacteristically brown and striped on the chest.

I went into the house and pulled out my trusty Sibley’s guide to birds and checked the field marks. It was a “sharpie,” the first year birds have a dark brown color to their feathers and the same streaking on the chest as the one in my hand. In fact, the striatus of the sharp-shinned hawks Latin name (Accipiter striatus) comes from the streaking in juveniles.

It is rare to get a chance to hold such a magnificent bird, unless you are a bird bander or work in a wildlife pathology lab. I examined the bird with all the enthusiasm of a fourth grader, spreading the curtain of its short wings and feeling the architecture of its skeleton through the feathers and fine skin. What struck me was how delicate and light the hawk was. To think, this fragile thing was an incredible killing machine, a scourge of migrating songbirds.

I ran my fingers over the cool, smooth talons until I could touch the tip that evolution had honed so thinly and so sharply. So sharp, I imagined, they could probably pierce the papery shell of a warbler and kill the bird before the pain neurons fired their announcement in its tiny brain.

*

Sharp-shinned hawks are quite shy and secretive. They are hard to find in the wild and harder to see in the city. Fall is the best time to catch glimpses of the birds migrating down the coast, along the marshes of the Belt Parkway or out on the Rockaways, on their way to Central America and the Florida Keys. The hawks shadow the migration of their prey, the small passerine birds returning to their wintering grounds in the tropics.

It is in the morning and evening hours, the crepuscular hours, when hawks and songbirds face off. Once on a walk in Central Park, I watched a sharp-shin chase a titmouse through the Ramble. Like a running back the little guy faked and turned, dove and ducked, but the linebacker hawk mirrored every move until it snatched the titmouse out of the air and carried it into the thick understory. The jays and other birds scolded the hawk vehemently, but it did not turn from its breakfast.

*

While exploring the bird, I looked for signs of why it died. The bones seemed intact. I ran my fingers along its breastbone searching for the tell-tale “hatchet keel,” the exposed breastbone of a bird that has burned all its fat stores and it muscles. This sharpie felt well-fed and there was no wound I could see. My un-expert opinion was a collision with a window, which made more sense the next day when I spoke to Iris and found out there was a large plate-glass window above the backyard where it was found.

The collision must have come so quickly the bird died before it could bleed or bruise. I told myself it didn’t suffer much.

The more I held the bird, the more I looked for some message. A Roman auger would have teased out the future of humanity from this single sharp-shinned hawk.

For me the bird was silent.

All my forays at meaning-making circled back to the dead hawk in my hand, this clod of wind. To say its death moved me as if it were a family member would be an exaggeration, but in that instant, I mourned it.

It is something I have teased myself about since.

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