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A question of survival

2021 12 24 hawk and doveJulie finally had a day in which to get caught up on a few of the hundred or so little jobs around the house that needed her attention. As she worked by the window, sorting through a few decades’ worth of unlabelled family photos, she would look up occasionally to watch the antics of the birds and squirrels at the feeders.

A dozen juncos were jostling with a couple of mourning doves for a few morsels of spilled seeds from the feeders above, while chickadees and a goldfinch filtered through the shrubs to visit the smaller feeders. A pair of hairy woodpeckers greased their beaks with suet and a white-breasted nuthatch perched upside down on a nearby maple.

The steady west wind was bringing something ominous with it and the birds seemed frantic to get food before things got wild and windy. Frenzied feeding is a sure sign, weather wise, that 'something big' is coming, and the wall of dark clouds sliding in from Georgian Bay confirmed the bird's prognostication.

Just as I left the room to do something important (I had to go to the bathroom, okay?), just as the wind gave a muted roar (from outside, not in the bathroom), just as the towering wall of storm clouds blocked out the sun, there came a loud THWAP!  (And Julie knew the sound wasn't from me, as I had already left the room.)

Looking out the window, she saw nothing, and that was strange, as just moments before there had been a lot to see. Her eyes changed focus from distant feeders to the much closer windowpane and there she saw it, the smudge and the little down feather stuck to the glass, wind-milling in the breeze.

"Oh dear," she thought, "A junco must have hit the window." Despite pressing her nose to the window and peering to the snow below she did not see any sign of the bird. So she slid open the window and stuck her head outside for a better look.

Now it's hard to say who was the more surprised, Julie, for what she saw, or the sharp-shinned hawk that was sitting on a branch just above the window… with a freshly caught mourning dove! Julie quickly pulled back inside and dropped the window, while the hawk quickly flew to the next tree, but dropped the dove. Perhaps it was the dove that had hit the window, in its blind rush to escape the diving hawk?

When I returned, they were facing each other through the window, the dead dove lying headfirst in the snow between them.

The hawk sat on a branch of the elm tree, its head bobbing and twisting, looking at the warm body of the dove below and then at the two white faces in the nearby window. It really, really wanted that dove, but sure wasn't going to make a move while under observation.

Julie and I moved away from the window, realizing that we were disturbing the natural sequence of events. A quick check out another window revealed that the feeder area was still unoccupied, as silent and lonely looking as any cordoned off crime scene might be; birds police their own activities quite well.

A few minutes later, when Julie looked out the window again, the hawk was gone. So, too, was the dove. A ruffled depression in the snow and a few loosened tail feathers were all that marked the scene. The wind blew, the snow drifted, and these subtle signs of evidence were gently erased as we watched.

The sharp-shinned hawk is a natural resident of the valley, and we count ourselves lucky whenever we catch sight of one. During the other three seasons of the year the hawk contents itself with whatever prey it may find in the woods and thickets, but in winter our feeders are like a big all-you-can-eat buffet. Too bad about the demise of the dove, but way cool to see this shy predator up close.

As Julie turned once more to her tasks, the feeders outside once again began to bustle with activity as the birds continued with their own daily routine of survival.

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© 2021 David J. Hawke

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