Close encounters

It was nose-hair freezing this morning when I went out in my long underwear and slippers to warm up the car—about six below.

I stepped out onto the porch, and something in the turkey pen caught my eye. The birds were milling around as they usually do when it first starts to get light and they see one of us come outside, hoping that maybe we’re bringing breakfast and warm water. But one of them was hunched down on the roost all alone, looking small and haggard and bedraggled and pathetic. We had been keeping the guineas inside the shed during the bitter cold, and I was worried that maybe the extreme cold had stressed one of them past the point of no return.

But it wasn’t a guinea. I looked at it, and it looked up at me. It was a Red-Tailed Hawk. On the turkey roost all by itself. Inside the netted turkey pen.

The milling about wasn’t because I had come outside; it was because THERE WAS A FRIGGIN RED-TAILED HAWK SITTING ON THE TURKEY ROOST.

I went back inside, dropped the car keys, called to Mary to grab the camera, her coat and the fireplace gloves, and hustle outside ASAP.

When I came back outside (still in long underwear and slippers, mind you) the hawk took off and immediately flew into the net roof; he hung there briefly, then dropped to the ground, regained his footing, and flew to another roost in the distant end of the pen. The commotion his passage created among the pen’s residents was remarkable for its intensity and fervor.

I snatched the bird net—a long-handled fisherman’s landing net with the net bag shortened by half, which I had just gotten a couple of weeks ago to make guinea wrangling a little easier. I went into the pen, and slowly approached the hawk on the roost, looking it directly in its brilliant dark eyes and talking to it quietly the whole time.

As I got closer, it went into full threat-display mode*, beak agape, eyes filled with rage, and wings held up and spread. It held this posture, never breaking eye contact, even as I slowly lowered the net over it on the roost. It actually rotated backwards, sliding off the roost until it hung by one ebony talon upside-down, never altering it defiant display. It dropped gently onto its back, and I held it to he ground supine, while Mary brought the foundry gloves over.


Holding the landing net down with one hand, I slipped the gloves on one at a time, then slowly reached under the net to secure both of the hawk’s shins in my left hand. We never broke eye contact (the eyes are right next to the supremely daunting looking pointy bits), and once I had a firm grasp of its legs, I lifted the net away. (When you have them by the shins, their hearts and minds will follow). I expected a flurry of flapping and struggling, but it never altered its posture a whit; wings spread defiantly, beak agape yet never striking.


It seemed strangely frozen, and perhaps it was exhausted and frightened; if it had misunderestimated the resolve of the turkeys, it may have had a rough time of it before I showed up and intervened. But there was no obvious evidence of a bird-on-bird struggle, and no one on either team showed any overt signs of damage.



Mary took a few pictures of the magnificent bird, and I walked it slowly into the back yard, where I had no option but to place it on the ground on its back, wings still spread wide. It would not look away from me and would not turn its back on me; it lay inverted until I had been inside the house for half a minute. Then it righted itself, and in one swift and balletic motion, took to the air and swooped down the yard and away into the frosty pre-dawn forest.


*At that very instant, I realized that in my whole life I had never realized that the Great Seal of the United States  presents the eagle in a ‘threat display’ posture. That’s not exactly flattering, is it?

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