Tuesday, March 3, 2015

In the Garden of the Snow: The Hawk and the Cardinal

            Another hawkish moment. This one almost hard to credit.
            Something is happening in the tall, bare shrub. I notice it, glancing idly at the kitchen window which looks out at the bird feeder. The shrub in question is a scrawny bit of foliage, some variety of crab apple perhaps (or perhaps not), that serves mainly as a launching base for birds that wish to linger near the feeder. The cardinals favor it. For months I rarely look out at it without seeing a cardinal or two; sometimes two males, on occasion two males and two females.
            Glancing over on this occasion, however, waiting for coffee to reheat in the microwave (yet again), I see a male cardinal, but also another bird, darker and a little larger, flapping its wings in what appears to be high anxiety.
            The familiar red bird is also in motion, but in a more reserved fashion, hopping from one thin ascending branch to another. Exhibiting no anxiety; showing no interest at all in flying away. My first thought is that the cardinal is chasing away or somehow spooking this other bird. The other bird has opened its wings and jerks about for a second or two in an agitated flutter.
            You see pigeons flutter, panic. But this bird is somehow less plump and more solid than a dove, its wings broader.
            So, I think, maybe we have a bird pursuing a cardinal. If so, then there is only one choice: a hawk.
            But this bigger bird is no longer, if it ever was, seeking contact with the red one. It doesn't want anything to do with it. It wants to get away. It wants to get out of the confined cell-like spokes of the shrub's ascending branches, away from a place too narrow for it to maneuver. In saying this, of course, I am reconstructing what I believe I saw.
            The bird, I decide, might be one of the small hawks, looking for a meal. It has gone after the prominent red bird. The smaller birds, the sparrows, scuttle away at any movement within 50 yards of the feeder; they're long gone now. The cardinal however, lingers with the shrub. The hawk darts in after him.
            But it's a mistake, the hawk realizes when it tries to open its wings to maneuver and get an angle from which to strike. The cardinal simply slips away from perch to perch on the close-set branches. The hawk finds its wings tangled, flapping against the branches, an uncomfortable sensation. It panics; wants to get out of there. That's the moment, I believe, I look out and catch the end of the encounter.
            I watch the bigger (though not very big), darker bird launch itself, angle away from the shrub, so that its wings can grab the air. It sails out of sight. 
            When I step out on the porch to investigate, I spot it perched now on a thin branch extending down from the tall shade tree, our street-side maple. I take the photo.
            When I zoom the image on the screen, it really does look like a hawk. One of the two smallest ones in this are, a Cooper's hawk or a Sharp-shinned hawk. They are not all that much bigger than a male cardinal -- especially, according to the "feederwatch" website, the Sharp-shinned hawk, which averages 12.5 inches long, Similar in size to a jay or dove (avg. 10-14″ long).
            Other details from feederwatch: Sharp-shinned hawks are wide at the shoulder and get distinctly narrower down to the hips. Also: "Usually a Sharp-shinned Hawk’s head looks small, and a Cooper’s Hawk’s head looks large. Sharp-shinned Hawks appear short-necked; Cooper’s Hawks appear tall."
             Of course, the reality is that all I can say for sure is I'm seeing an interesting dark-colored bird in a tree.
            I haven't seen the hawk again. My only concern is that, lately, I'm not seeing the cardinals either. Let's hope I'm just jumping to conclusions.