Tag Archives: red-tailed hawks

My babies want to fly

I don’t know if you have been wondering about the baby hawks I’ve written about, first here and then here.  If you have, you’re in luck, because I found several updates about them from this past week that detail Lucy, Larry, and Lucky’s various adventures after successfully fledging.  If you click through to that link in the previous sentence, read PHAWK’s updates if you read nothing else.  His are the best written, and he’s the man I referred to as Ed in a previous post, who has been birding for 40+ years, and is an expert on raptors.  Also, if you want to see some amazing video of the “flight school” that the hawk parents, Buzz and Ruby, put on for the fledglings, watch this:

As I’ve said before, I have been just as fascinated by the people who have been watching the hawks (some of them have decided to call themselves “hawk stalkers”) as I am by the hawks themselves.  I’m especially intrigued by the variety of human emotions and perspectives that people project onto these birds.

Then I remember reading Natalie Angier’s stunning book, “Woman: an intimate geography.”  Specifically, I remember reading her write about thirst as an emotion.  [Note: Courtesy of Google books, the link at the end of the previous sentence will take you to the very page where she describes this.  If you don’t read the whole book, at least read page 197.]  If thirst is an emotion, it only follows that hunger is, too.   The “hawk stalkers” are doing a bang-up job of documenting the persistent hunger of the juveniles Lucy, Larry and Lucky. Many of the recent updates detail the crying, even whining, that the juveniles are doing, since their abilities to hunt and feed themselves are not nearly so far advanced as their appetites.  The hawk stalkers are also documenting how Buzz and Ruby are keeping an eye on their young, bringing them food, watching as the juveniles try to figure out how to “open” a mouse or a chipmunk they’ve been given.  I’m no Marlin Perkins, but even knowing all the things they’re doing to help their fledglings, I still can’t imagine that Buzz and Ruby are feeling the parental cocktail of pride, nostalgia, wistfulness, and heartache that many of the humans project onto them.  This emotional margarita is the one that so often swims in our veins when our kids “fledge” from one phase to another.

I first remember feeling the effects of that swirly cocktail whenever I would look at GForce’s toothless grin:  “Oh man, teeth are going to RUIN that smile!”  I actually believed that her toothless smile was the apex of all smiling, and that once her teeth came in, her smile would be fine enough, but fine in the Eeyore-ish sense of the word.  Fine as in, “Oh well, I guess this is the best I can hope for.”  It sounds ridiculous now, but I felt that way so intensely for those few months between when she started smiling and when she cut her first tooth when she was not quite five months old.

Going back to the hawks, it seems to me that the hawk parents are perfect examples of parenting as an exercise in eternal heartbreak:  if you’re doing your job as a parent, and your children are lucky enough to be born with the ability to grow into independent adults, then your children eventually evolve to the point where they don’t need you.  Buzz and Ruby have been bringing food to their three juveniles, and in some cases have been seen teaching their offspring how to hunt, using pine cones as stand-ins for prey.  Ultimately, though, the juveniles’ jobs are to not need Buzz and Ruby anymore.  In fact, the juveniles’ very survival depends primarily on fending for themselves, learning how to fly and hunt well enough to survive on their own out there in the whole wide world.  My assumption is that hawk parents don’t get too hung up about not being needed.  Maybe it’s even a relief.  But, from my point of view, every step of my kids not needing me has contained some measure of (sometimes gleeful) excitement and (sometimes overwhelming) heartbreak.

It starts like this.  As an expectant mother, I had this intensely intimate, private experience of carrying a whole different life around inside me, one that was completely dependent on me and inextricably a part of me for a brief period of time.  My friend Patricia was pregnant with her second child while I was pregnant with GForce.  One time late in our pregnancies (August in Northern Virginia – nuff said), I remember uttering that familiar complaint “Ugh, I can’t WAIT for this to be over!”  Patricia said, “I know exactly what you mean, but I have to tell you to be ready to miss having that little life all to yourself.”  At the time, I thought she was crazy, since GForce had developed a fondness for spinning and turning in ways that felt like she was alternately break dancing and attempting to moon the world through my belly.  But after GForce was born, I knew exactly, and deeply, what Patricia was talking about.

Then, as a nursing mother, babies eventually lose interest in breastfeeding, so you lose that connection.  Even when you bottle-feed them, you still have that experience of cradling them while they eat.  Then kids graduate to being spoon-fed while sitting in a chair.  Then, voila! they can eat Cheerios and green beans all by themselves.  Then they start sitting in a regular chair, using their own utensils to eat regular food, but maybe you still serve them.  And then at some point they get really pissed because they don’t like the portions you dole out and they want to serve themselves (not that I have any experience with that.)  You don’t have to be a rocket surgeon (to quote our former president) to see where this arc is headed.

Like Lucy, Larry and Lucky, my babies want to fly.  Sheerah recently decided to stay in Philadelphia to go to graduate school.  I’m simultaneously bursting with pride for her and wistful for the time we could have had together if she had decided to come back up here and go to Boston University instead.  Who knows where Lulu’s journeys of adulthood will take her.  For now, she seems to want to stay close to home, but she’s rightly worried about having to live at home while she gets her feet on the ground.  I simultaneously feel a) well, who could blame her for wanting to live on her own and 2) she’s one of the funniest people on the planet and I can’t wait to have her around more.  GForce is already in that age-appropriate phase of wanting to spend more time with her friends than with her moms.  Teenage years being what they are, chances are good that things with her will get MUCH gnarlier before they get better.  With the 11 year age difference in our girls between the eldest and the youngest, we have plenty of opportunities to see that the arc of maturity may vary in length, but it always points away from the womb.

I was thinking this morning about the juvenile hawks, and our own kids, and I stumbled upon a song by Kristin Andreassen called “Fly.”  While the lyrics appear to tell a story of a breakup, it’s not that much of a leap to apply them to the juvenile hawks, or to the heartbreaking conundrum of parenting our own three offspring.  I want them all to fly, to give birth to their own possibilities, as the singer puts it.  At the same time, I still miss every phase that has come before, every step that has brought us all to here.

Almost 14 years ago, when GForce finally emerged from my body, I instinctively reached down and tried to pull her up to my chest.  I still remember the midwife shouting, “Wait wait WAIT!!!  The cord isn’t THAT long!”  As it turns out, the cord stretches farther than anyone can possibly imagine.  You just can’t see it.

by  Kristin Andreassen / Yellowcar Music, ASCAP

There’s a scar in the sky when a plane goes by.
Like a surgery gave birth to possibility.
My baby wants to fly.
My baby wants to fly away from me.
There’s a look in your eye, I can’t describe.
All I know, it’s unsatisfied.
My baby wants to fly.
My baby wants to fly away from me.
There’s talk goin’ down, you’re running around.
I kinda think you wanna be found.
My baby wants to fly.
My baby wants to fly away from me.
Flee. Fly from this slow slum.
If I smell sweat, are you already on the run?
I don’t mean to hold you, but I kinda wish I’d told you
That I wanna leave this place as bad as you do.
Star light, star bright.
Wish I may be on that flight.
My baby wants to fly.
My baby wants to fly away from me.

Fledglings, breasts, and pubs

You know it’s May in the Boston area when traffic is stopping for flocks of ducks and Canadian Geese and their babies.  The Charles River is a popular nesting area for these birds, probably because of its proximity to such avian educational powerhouses as MIT, Harvard, and Boston University.  Four-lane roads hug both sides of the river, and the ducks and geese will often step right out into the road to cross the street.  This behavior is well documented in classic scientific texts, such as Make Way for Ducklings.  On more than one occasion, I’ve seen a baby goose fail to scale a curb along these roads.  Once I saw a driver stop, get out, pick a frantic gosling up off the pavement, and put it on the grass where the rest of the flock was, all while the goose parents were flapping and honking.  Other drivers were flapping and honking, too, but that’s hardly newsworthy around here.

Because we’re in the Month of the Baby Birds, a couple of weeks ago the Boston Globe ran a story about a pair of red-tailed hawks who built their nest on the front of an office building.  Since some time in April, they have been raising three chicks on a ledge of this building that faces a busy four-lane road.  I was at a grocery store Friday morning in the shopping center across from the hawks’ building, so I strolled over to get a better look.

The first man I encountered, Ed, has been a birder for 45 years.  Every day since the babies were spotted, he has been coming down to a tiny grassy area between the parking lot of the grocery store and the four lane road, setting up his scope on a tripod, and taking hundreds of photos of the birds with a camera fitted with a huge telephoto lens.  I talked with him for a long time, and in the hour that I was there, I heard him talking with people who arrived after I did and telling them much of the same information that he had shared with me.  There wasn’t any trace in his voice of “oh god how many times do I have to explain why the babies are now bigger than their parents, or why the females are larger than the males.”  He generously invited everyone who approached to take a look through his scope to get a better view of the babies:  Lucy, Larry, and Lucky.

Ed said that people have been gathering to watch the nest in greater numbers for the past week because the juveniles “are overdue for their first flight,” which generally happens around the 42 day mark.  As of yesterday, general estimates are that Lucy and Larry were 45 days old, with Lucky being about 7 days younger. In the brief time that I was there, I got to see all three birds standing on the edge of the nest, flapping their wings, hopping around, and bonking into each other.  While the birds were beautiful to look at, I was just as interested in the people who had gathered on this small median strip to watch the birds.

One woman approached, asking the obligatory question “What kind of birds are those?”  I looked down and she was carrying two plastic containers, similar to the  containers used for a pint of blueberries.  Except her containers didn’t have any fruit in them; they were filled with tiny live crickets.  Several people suggested that we might get to see the hawks’ first flight if she opened the cricket containers, which were labeled “Now Easier to Use!”  [Note to cricket selling companies across the globe:  I used to write marketing copy for a Fortune 100 company, and if “Now Easier to Use!” is the best copy your marketing guy can come up with, maybe you should hire me.  No offense intended.]  Cricket Lady demurred at the suggestion that she take one for the bird watching team by offering her crickets in exchange for the hawks’ first flight.  Cricket Lady chuckled and said, “No, these are for my lizard.  But I bet the eagles would come after my lizard if I brought him here!” She left before I worked up the nerve to ask her if I could take a photo of the cricket containers’ labeling.  I so wanted to share it with you folks.  You’ll just have to use your imaginations.  I’ve given you a good start by sharing the ever-catchy slogan “Now Easier to Use!”  I’ll wait here while you conjure up 10 more exclamationy marketing slogans for live crickets.

See, wasn’t that fun?

After Cricket Lady left to go feed her lizard, another woman arrived wearing flourescent yellow flip-flops that had big yellow plastic flowers on them.  She animatedly announced that she and her husband were from Kansas and they don’t see things like this in Kansas.  “But we have land gulls in Kansas, and they look just like your seagulls here.”  Ed smiled and invited her to look through the scope at the hawks.  Yellow Flip-Flop Lady talked non-stop for the 15 minutes that she was there.  She also shouted out to at least five cars what kind of birds we were looking at.  The first time she did it, she looked at me and giggled, like she had gotten away with something.  As she was leaving, she stuck out her hand and said, “I’m Candy, and I’m a breast cancer survivor.”  I shook her hand and introduced myself.  She dug around in her purse and fished out a business card, which she then handed to me.  “If you ever get diagnosed with breast cancer, call me.  It can be pretty overwhelming, and sometimes the best thing to do is to pour your heart out to someone who has been there.  Well, we gotta get going.  Come on, Frank!”  As she walked toward her car, she turned and shouted to me over her shoulder, “Take care of your breasts!”

Ed looked at me and raised his eyebrows.  I shrugged and smiled.  As I bent to take another look through Ed’s scope, he told me that the mortality rate for hawks in their first year is very high.  Most likely only one of these three will survive to adulthood.  Given the location of their home, and the probable trajectory of their first flight — toward a busy street and a crowded parking lot — there’s a chance they might not even survive their first flight at all.  As Ed said, “They don’t really know how to fly yet.  Forget about turning or going up.  The first flight will most likely be a relatively clumsy downward glide.  And look at all these trucks.  I mean, they could end up flying right into the side of a truck.”  Another guy, Red, blurted, “Hell, I’d go out there and stop traffic if that happened.  I want them to make it.”  Red took one more look through Ed’s scope and growled, “Augh, I gotta get back in the shade.  This sun is killin’ me. ”  He elbowed me, smiled, and said, “Hey, you know what a sunburn is?”  I said, “What?”  “It’s God’s way of telling us Irish folks to get back into the pub.”

So, if you’re in a pub, or just sitting at home on your couch, enjoying your evening (or morning, or afternoon) beverage of choice, send up a toast of hope and thanksgiving for Lucy, Larry, and Lucky – three hawks that I watched from across a busy street, who unwittingly introduced me to a fascinating cast of characters on a sunny Friday morning in the Month of the Baby Birds.

And take care of your breasts!

Heather Masse wrote a great song that is the title track for her album “Bird Song.”  Aoife O’Donovan joins her with some lovely harmony.  This song builds in shimmery vibrating layers, just like spring.  Lucy, Larry, and Lucky, this one’s dedicated to you.