About a week ago, perhaps two, I first saw a large nest at the top of a very tall oak a few hundred yards away. I was on the side of a hill, which put me at the same elevation as the nest, but it was so much a part of the tree, made out of large twigs from the self-same tree—an oak that has clumps of mistletoe in it—that I probably wouldn’t have noticed it if it hadn’t been for movement. I got my binoculars and saw Mrs. Red-tail’s head sticking up, and while at that distance even ten-power binoculars couldn’t get me close enough to say for certain, I can guess that she had very much the same resigned and long-suffering look of all mothers who are approaching end of term and very much ready for the next phase of events. I made a note to keep an eye open for the next phase. It has now occurred.
I went out with the binoculars yesterday and could see two downy white heads sticking up above the nest while mom (or dad; I couldn’t tell the difference at that distance and might not be able to tell the difference unless I had one on each shoulder; females are larger) sat on a nearby branch doing guard duty.
And guard duty is very much a critical constant. Ravens and, I assume, other birds of prey, possibly even other red-tails, are an unending threat, as too, I suppose, would be any raccoon ambitious enough to climb that high. Fifteen or twenty years ago I was out walking with one of my dogs when I witnessed a raven make a very ill-advised and badly-timed attempt to raid a red-tail’s nest. How the raven thought he was going to get away with it, or how he was myopic enough not to have noticed mom sitting on the nest, I can’t say, but I actually saw the damn fool descend, feet first, as if he planned to sit on the nest himself. The next moment he wanted very much to be anywhere except where he was, because mom had grabbed one of his legs in her beak and for the space of almost a minute I was treated to the spectacle of one of the most intelligent birds on earth behaving like a moron, frantically and stupidly flapping his wings in an effort to get away, and screaming his fool head off. Of course, if a red-tail grabbed my leg in its beak, I’d probably scream my head off too, but it certainly didn’t show the raven off to best advantage.
Baby hawks and falcons are called eyas, the plural being eyases or possibly eyasses. The Oxford Unabridged tells me the word comes from the Latin and is one of numerous words that originally had a “n” in front, a “n” that got dropped, much as adder used to be “nadder,” and apron used to be “napron.” To be honest, I only know the word, eyases, from Hamlet, because Rosencrantz uses it to describe child actors in the scene where he and Guildenstern tell Hamlet the players are coming to Elsinore. Otherwise I would have been content to call them baby hawks. Since Shakespeare spells the plural with one “s,” that’s good enough for me, and don’t bother telling me Shakespeare’s spelling is suspect at best, and frequently attributable to someone else entirely. The Yale Shakespeare has him spelling it that way, Shakespeare’s good enough for me, and that’s that.
They are cute little beggars. As I watched them, dad (or possibly mom) came home with groceries and was immediately greeted with open beaks. It was impossible to tell, at that distance, precisely what the groceries had once been, but the odds are good it was either a gopher, a very small ground squirrel, or a chipmunk, but I’m basing that solely on size. Whatever it might have been, I watched for a while as mom (or dad) tore off junks and thrust them into waiting beaks.
Feeding one’s children is always a lot of work, for every species that actually devotes some care to its offspring, including humans, but baby red-tails must count as some of the most demanding. They grow very quickly: within six weeks they are ready to leave the nest, which seems like an exceptionally rapid rate of growth for a bird that can live to be twenty-five years old in the wild, and that much growth in six weeks requires a lot of fuel.
Red-tails are technically considered migratory birds (at least, they are protected by the Migratory Bird Act) but throughout virtually all of the lower forty-eight states they tend to live in one area year-round, and that one area encompasses almost every kind of habitat we have in America, as long as there is some open area for hunting and as long as there are some high perching spots for nesting, so you can find red-tails in heavily forested areas, in open prairies, in the mountains, and in the deserts of the Southwest.
They also have a wide range of plumage, including a melanistic variation which I have seen in my neck of the woods. By melanistic I mean very, very dark brown, almost black, and almost completely devoid of any markings. It took me a long time to realize what I was seeing when that particular bird appeared near our ranch, but regardless of coloration, they are breath-takingly beautiful and I get a thrill every time I see one sailing majestically along or taking his ease in a tree. Or sitting on a nest with babies in Easter week.
I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird, – the achieve of, the mastery of the thing.
Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!
No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.
The Windhover, To Christ Our Lord, by Gerard Manley Hopkins