September 2013

- by Linda Orkin

By now all have heard of the sad deaths of two juvenile Red-tailed Hawks, both found on the Cornell Campus and with a strong presumption that they were two of the recent “D” clutch of hawks from the BirdCam on Tower Road. Many are mourning the loss of these lives. If you had not heard, one bird was found dead, and the autopsy revealed internal bleeding caused by the blunt force trauma inflicted by some collision. The other was discovered with extensive injuries to the tissues, muscles, and toes of his legs, seemingly from a prey animal’s successful defense against this inexperienced raptor. The grief of people over this loss is palpable, and the image of the two parents and the one remaining fledgling is a very potent reminder of the hole torn in the fabric of a family. As much as I do enjoy observing all of the birds that can be seen on the various web cams, I always do so with much trepidation and fear that I will be a witness to some event that will cause injury or death to any of the birds in view. I celebrate the bond that this technology is able to create between humans and birds though. The empathy is powerful. So, even when the moderator tells people on the chat stream the only one out of nine Redtails are likely to survive their first year, the tendency is to believe that “our” birds will escape that statistic. We have had a very graphic and disturbing reminder of how difficult life is for wild creatures. Almost always, their struggles, their deaths and, yes, even their decomposition, happen far from our view. It is easy to forget that mortality is the rule in nature rather than the exception. 

People bond in a very powerful way with individual birds that they can know; this has been both a recurrent theme in my president’s columns over this past year and continues to be a goal that I pursue when I lead beginner bird walks at Sapsucker Woods. It is human nature to respond to recognition and feel strongly invested in that life. The banded bird, the tagged crow, the white-winged Turkey Vulture, the momentarily appearing vagrant all call out to us to form a relationship. Even less common birds that show up at our feeders, like the two Carolina Wrens that came to my suet feeder all during that one terrible winter of 1994, while my mother lay dying at my house and the snow was pouring down in amounts measured by feet, become symbols to me of how I can be a part of the natural world by knowing these discrete beings. 

I reflect on these thoughts constantly. I think of all the ways we can make life easier for the creatures of the earth, many things that would not require substantial effort or sacrifice on our part. The list is too long to enumerate here but includes: preventing window strikes, keeping cats in, minimizing uses of plastic; eliminating all pesticide, herbicide, and rodenticide use; planting a natural yard and getting rid of manicured lawns. And on and on. While I am thinking and doing all I can to make our human impact less horrendous on the world, I try to train my brain to see each bright bird eye as a window into a unique soul.