The white-breasted hawk, alone, was watching from a misshapen, leaning tree in a scrap of woods – collateral damage from the construction of highway 172. Above the hawk’s black watchtower tree, truck tires howled at the purple twilight. The hawk, alone, hungry, hunting, was scanning the snow with eyes capable of perception at the infrared end of the light spectrum. I saw the hawk for a second while I was speeding by in a warm car on the way to a meal of my own.
In winter, hawks are apparently more solitary than in spring, when it’s time to hunt up one’s lifetime mate and enjoy their annual, acrobatic mating, when it’s time for them to repair the family nest and defend the eggs, when it’s time to take turns feeding the children and protect them on their first few flights.
I’ve never seen hawks hunting as a team, though apparently they occasionally do. Just after Christmas in a walk through the Navarino Wildlife Refuge, I did see the limbs of a rabbit hanging in the arms of trees, though I’m not sure if they were generously left to be gleaned or if they were like items squirreled away in the workplace refrigerator.
Cooperative and territorial instincts do drive parts of a hawk’s life: so I imagine they’re also a part of a hawk’s hunting strategy. Hawks return to the same nest each year; they must have certain hunting venues in mind as well, switching venues based on … what? A regular rotation? A recollection of success in a certain spot at a certain time of day? One wonders how hawks order their hours.
In the city, in the birches and cedars behind Grace’s dumpsters, in the dumpsters, on the walnut-strewn lawn, five or six squirrels romp year round in a land of plenty. They’re lucky a hawk hasn’t spied them and stalked them. Yet. Once in Madison, I did see a hawk snatch a squirrel who’d been enjoying crumbs tossed to him by diners at a sidewalk café serving strictly vegetarian fare. The clientele who had vowed to refrain from violence in their own eating regimen were shocked and appalled. Their misplaced largess in feeding the squirrel led perhaps to his unwariness and untimely public devouring.
In the woods, it’s a different matter. In the wild, I’ve seen a million rabbit and rodent tracks to each actual animal. I’ve seen tiny tracks of mice across a snowy trail and the tiny holes of tunnels into the banks of snow on either side. So a hawk must sit, dressed in down, and wait and watch. For hours. What patience. I thought patience was a characteristic only of love.
Maybe at twilight or even at night, hawks can see with their infrared vision the glow of warm-blooded creatures creeping through their tunnels of snow, creeping toward the mouths of the tunnels, where hawks snatch them away, bearing them away toward the heavens, their bodies given and blood spattered for a hungry species that naturally cooperates only intermittently, and only primarily for the survival of their own.