If you feed wild birds long enough, you begin to feel as if you are doing something important. Especially during the winter, when the mercury flirts with zero and every natural food source is blanketed in snow, the birds come to depend on your largesse.
In return, they reliably offer pleasures only sporadically available in the realm of people: beauty, vitality, grace, and — if you count the squirrels — humor. It is enough to make you, an ordinary human being, feel necessary in the world, because you are doing some good. You feel the solidity of your place in the family of things, in the words of poet Mary Oliver.
And so it is hard when a hawk visits your feeders to take for itself, and from you, something you have come to cherish. I first experienced this on my farm in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, home to a variety of fierce and gorgeous raptors. I would go out on a winter morning to restock the feeders and find evidence of the past day’s kill: the pile of feathers, the crimson snow.
On the worst day, a hawk took a rare and treasured visitor, a female cardinal who, with her mate, had brightened the dreary December dawns and dusks with visits to the sunflower seed feeder outside my bay window. He left her black mask, hanging limply from her orange beak. He broke my heart, and I hated him for it.
I have mellowed in the years since, acknowledging that the hawks must eat, too. And that if I am going to make myself an artificial link in the food chain, I must accept that they are a natural one. In feeding the smaller birds, I have inadvertently laid the hawks a banquet, and occasionally, they will dine.
Birds know when a predator is near, so when the jays sounded their raucous alarm on a recent snowy day, I suspended my chores to investigate. My seed-strewn deck, usually dense with feeding juncos, was empty. The peanut butter log — a favorite of the nuthatches and woodpeckers –swayed vacant in the cold wind. There was not a bird to be seen on the suet cakes. My little avian village had suddenly become a ghost town. Even the squirrels were gone.
And then, not 10 feet away through my kitchen window, I saw why:
The hawk — likely a sharp-shinned but possibly a Cooper’s — seemed less hungry than cold. As I watched, it shifted on the fence pickets, lifting first one foot and then the other into the warmth of its downy breast feathers.
It looked disoriented, and I wondered if the wind and snow had forced it down. It stayed for a long time, giving me every chance to record a predatory beauty that now seemed strangely vulnerable:
By the time our photo session ended, I felt tender toward the hawk; I wanted to help. So I headed out with a few pieces of the raw ground meat I feed my hens as a treat, thinking that my offering might save the hawk some energy and a smaller bird its life. But then, it was gone. And for a long while, the fence where the hawk had perched looked too empty, and for a few minutes more, my yard felt too still.
Then, I heard them coming back, saw them descending from the snow-flecked sky and the bare branches: the juncos and finches, the jays and woodpeckers, the nuthatches and doves. The flickers and grosbeaks and chickadees. And the squirrels, of course. And so I went to get more seed and suet, remembering my place, no less than their own, in the food chain.