Sunday, May 14, 2006

Protecting the Family

I was waiting for my kids to finish their free ice cream after the Memorial Day parade several years ago when a neighbor told me a hawk had attacked her near our house. It drew blood when it scratched her head with its talons. I got the look on my face that means, “OK. Whatever,” but that stops short of conspicuous eye-rolling. She’s a smart but imperious woman who occasionally freelances for the New York Times, and I was happy to tell her I thought she was imagining things.

“That never happened,” I said, with an authority and matter-of-factness that surprised even myself.

Broad-winged hawks had in fact been in the neighborhood. I wasn’t sure where they were trying to nest, but I had heard their call, an sharp one-note whistle. For sentimental reasons I liked broad-wings. I remembered a day two decades earlier, sitting on a veranda at a conference center on Upper Saranac Lake and having the editor of Adirondack Life magazine nudge me, point to the sky, and say “broad-wing,” and then looking up to see a tiny silhouette circling above the lake. And later that summer I’d watch them swooping like swallows off the summit of Hurricane Mountain. So to have broad-wings as neighbors in the outer suburbs was a reminder that there was more to the out-of-doors here than watching the day laborers mow the lawns. But to think they were diving on people’s heads was ridiculous.

Two weeks later I was helping a friend, Tom Burke, do the annual Audubon Summer Bird Count in my town. We met early in the morning, near the end of my road. As I walked, there was a rush from behind and a slight feeling of wind and before I could duck, the broad-wing was flying up into the trees. Tom and I looked at each other with widening eyes. Within seconds he found the nest, in the crotch of a red maple alongside the road. The female was simply defending her turf.

A few days later it strafed me from behind again and when I turned to watch it, it turned and swooped at me in a frontal assault. Two other neighbors – one who had been biking past, the other jogging – were attacked and cut. Because the jogger wasn’t sure at first what had attacked him, he went for rabies shots, in case it was a bat.

I’m happy to report that although none of these folks liked being hit by a pair of talons, neither did they suggest that anyone try to get rid of the birds. The bicyclist made sure he wore his helmet, the jogger found another route. The woman from the Memorial Day parade quickened her pace and increased her watchfulness.

As for me, when a reporter from the local newspaper called to write a story* about all the fun, I made sure to tell her how sure I had been that the early reports of hawk attacks had been ludicrous. And how I had been completely wrong.

A week or so ago the phone rang. It was the wife of the bicyclist. Be aware, she said: I just ran along the road by your house and the broad-winged hawk attacked me. And the other day, when my son and I walked down to get the school bus, I felt that familiar rush from behind and looked up in time to see the hawk settle gently onto a branch. When it whistled, I smiled.

*(The article appeared in the Record Review, a weekly that covers our town, and I’ve used it for some of the details here.)


Blogger Tamara said...

Wow, how very, um, Hitchcockian.

2:19 PM  

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