Opinion

OPINION | FRAN ALEXANDER: Before the celebration of independence comes a lot of work

There’s a lot of squawking, but it’s the work that counts

"He has to learn the force of air and the pull of wind and the feel of freedom."

-- "Hawk, I'm Your Brother" by Byrd Baylor

The drama and trauma involved when inserting human sensibilities into the lives of wild creatures can bring suspense, hope, dread, fear, and joy -- at least to the humans. As I reported in my May 10, 2022, column headlined "Life In The Air," my husband and I were spellbound watching a red-shouldered hawk couple build their nest. The female sat on her eggs for a least a month, leaving only to feed, while the male also brought in some groceries and shared some egg-sitting duties.

Spying through a viewing scope as the story in the tall oak unfolded, we acted like new grandparents when we spotted two small, fuzzy white heads bobbling in the nest. Within the week, however, a violent spring storm had thrashed and pummeled that nest and hatchlings into the ground. The only words I could muster were, "Onward, sweet hawk, onward to next year."

This is that next year. This time the hawks chose a different oak, situated between two houses. They had started work on this new nest shortly after their 2022 loss even though they didn't build it out fully for occupancy. Sometime this February we noticed dropped or rejected sticks proliferating our deck located below their rudimentary structure. They had decided, we guessed, that its position and their engineered underpinning had passed the tests of last winter's ravages.

Before committing their single annual brood to this spot this spring, however, a lot of work needed to be continued involving more sticks and cedar and pine boughs. These plus a daily decoration of hawk poop, white and tenacious as Elmer's glue, polka-dotted our deck and were daily reminders we were living in a construction zone.

Scope spying again became our ritual for observing what was being erected using only beaks and talons to wedge materials across a fork of branches. Both birds built to instinctual standards with skills no human can comprehend. And from below, we cautiously got our hopes up as the dreaded spring wind, hail, rain and cold temperatures came once again.

This spring their new nest held. After about a month of incubating the eggs, the hawks' insane work schedule really got serious. On April 23 we saw the first white, fuzzy head barely showing over the nest rim. The next day one adult was seen arriving with another stem of evergreen, probably used as diaper material under the babe, easily tossed out when soiled. The feeding of that squawking hatchling also began in earnest with both parents on constant rotation, the mother in charge of pulling off bits of meat to satisfy that loud mouth.

What we didn't realize was that a second chick would hatch days later and the chorus of the two made for continuous hunger squawking and relentless hunting by the parents, who seemed to never rest. They hawk-talked to each other as they approached for a nest landing or to ask if the other was within range, voices that differed from hungry babies' demands.

What seemed unbelievable was how fast those hatchlings grew, and in only a few weeks, they looked as big as their parents when standing on the nest edge fluffed out in their downy feathers. By May 21 the oldest chick took flight, surely one of the scariest all-or-nothing plunges a creature can make, and made it safely to a nearby dead tree limb. That same day one of the adults went flying by dangling a 3-foot snake from its talons, perhaps a celebration dinner for the brave fledging. Two days later, the second chick also fledged. The adults continued for a few weeks to meet up at the nest with food for the youngsters, and hunting lessons continued all day every day along with the requisite noise. Now we hear them calling to each other as they fly through the forest or swoop through the understory when we walk by.

On the nation's birthday, we usually hear a lot about the meaning of freedom. Some people act as if freedom means no restrictions and that independence is a birthright. It's nice to dream of being "free as a bird," unburdened by all the things that weigh us down. But birds prove that flight happens only if they do the work that makes the freedom of soaring possible. Just squawking isn't enough.