Feathered Friends

I’ve spent the last forty years of my life looking at birds. It’s true. I’m not a “Birder,” I don’t care about collecting “sights” of rare birds, but if you’re out in nature, birds are there. They captivate me. Here — and a reward of living near a wetlands — are birds. There is a lot of food in a wetland. My first real bird was the red tailed hawk I watched in the coastal sage chaparral of Southern California.

They also watched me.

Every winter afternoon I took my dogs for a hike, there was a mated pair of red tails waiting for me, one in the air, one perched on a boulder up the hill from the road. I took this personally. I decided (having read my Carlos Castaneda) that the hawks were my spirit guides and we had a spiritual bond. They even seemed to “hike” with me. For example, one day, I was walking along a ridge, and one of the hawks was flying “beside” me, watching me, at eye level. Another time, at the top of the low mountain, I sat on my usual rock overlooking San Diego and the bay. One of them flew straight at me and made eye contact from about 5 feet before he flew off on a thermal. It was all amazing, and I learned a lot from watching them.

But were they my “spirit guides?” I guess it depends on what is meant by “spirit guide.” Teachers, definitely, absolutely. Did we have a bond? We did and that’s the best part. One day I drove to the spot where I usually left my car. There was the hawk on its usual boulder. I opened the back door to let Molly and Kelly run up the hill. For once I didn’t hurry, but stood by my car and watched my dogs. The hawk followed my dogs. Kelly was a Golden Retriever; Molly was a Malamute/Aussie mixed. Both dogs were formidable hunters. The hawk stayed close to the dogs and when they got near a bush — white sage or black sage usually — the hawk watched.

That was when I understood “our bond.” Layers of sentimental spirituality shook off me. I felt them fall. Our bond was more important than that. My dogs and I helped the hawks find food, a bond way more profound than any I conjured in my mind.

As I hiked my hike I thought about the thousands of years dogs, humans, and raptors have hunted together. I had fallen into that relationship just like that, without knowing it.

One afternoon standing on the same ridge I watched “my” hawks teaching their young one how to evade attack from above. I got good lessons about teaching from watching them. The parents each had a role in this. One hawk flew above the young hawk, one below. The upper hawk would dive toward the young one, like a raven attacking. The young hawk was supposed to evade the attack. IF the young one succeeded, the lower hawk came up from below and lifted it with its wings, a beautiful gesture of “Good hawk!” If he didn’t succeed in the evasion, he got pecked. This went on a long time, long enough for me to see the young hawk get the, uh, point perfectly. When the parents saw their young one understood, they all took off on a thermal. “Life or death, little guy,” the upper hawk “said.” And it was.

Red tailed hawks are “buteos” –buzzards. Hawks, but a particular sub-category that is, as this state, “Buteo is a genus of medium to fairly large, wide-ranging raptors with a robust body and broad wings. In the Old World, members of this genus are called “buzzards”, but “hawk” is used in the New World…both terms are ambiguous.”

A lot of people confuse “buzzard” with “vulture.” In my mind vultures are pretty great birds, but they got kind of a bad rap in popular culture from Bugs Bunny to Faulkner’s grim book, As I Lay Dying. There is a group of turkey vultures who hang around Monte Vista in late summer and fall. They like to lurk in the tallest spruce trees, one of which is in Elizabeth’s yard. As luck would have it, during the time I was stove up with Covid, I went out front to water something and there was a long, beautiful wing feather on the grass with the end broken off. It had come from one of the vultures AND my sparrows — who nest in a box on my fence — had customized it as decoration. I checked the box to see if my theory was right and sure enough; the end of the feather was poking out of the hole. It’s a beautiful feather; golden underneath and brown on top.

I could probably write all day about birds I’ve observed, but… One thing I’ve learned is that chances are very good that every cool behavior I observe in nature I will observe only once even if it’s something that the animals do every day. I won’t be there to see it.

My favorite feather in my whole collection of equally favorite feathers is from a Sandhill Crane. I found it in April 2021, the spring that it was just me and the cranes out at the Refuge. There was a spot where Bear, Teddy and I would stop, sit on a boulder and just watch the show. It was wonderful to sit still and let spring’s life unfold in front of me. April was toward the end of the crane’s visit to the San Luis Vally, and by then I had become kind of dependent on their company. I found the feather near “my” boulder the last day I saw cranes that year.

I know they didn’t leave it “for” me but it still felt that way.

18 thoughts on “Feathered Friends

  1. We are only human – and we want to make every observation in some way personal. We are kind of self centered that way… Still it is very cool that you have had so many up close encounters with the birds. Hope you have many more!!

  2. It is amazing when a bird acknowledges you. A simple “hello” is great, but so is a “back off, featherless biped.” Sometimes I can’t help it, but I always try not to be totally clueless. I have an eagle feather with my medicine bag. Federal law says I’m not supposed to have it, but I do. It was/is a precious gift and isn’t going anywhere.

    • Yep. in the case of eagle feathers, well, I understand the law and the reason for it, but the eagles don’t give a rat’s ass who you are, what is your tribal affiliation or where your ancestors come from. Nature is way way way beyond all that. That’s why I’m keeping my, ahem, Harris Hawk wing feather. I know who I am, my wild areas have all known who I am, and every Native American I’ve known has also known who I am — even when I haven’t been sure.

  3. Lovely post, Martha. I thoroughly enjoy your blogs about wildlife and your walks when you encounter it, and I can see how strong your connection with birds is. I’ve never forgotten your story of that poor little bird hovering in front of you and almost crying out for help during the insane summer we’ve just had. That image has stayed with me, and I think it always will – it epitomises the climate change we’re going through and I fear for the wildlife whose world we are stealing.
    And yes, that is a beautiful feather indeed. 🙂

    • That little blue bird — I’m sure he made it, but what a vision. It was as if Heaven itself were asking for help which is NOT too far from the reality since, for us human animals, this IS Heaven, our world for which we are designed. That bright little piece of sky definitely epitomized that.

  4. Thanks for writing this, Martha. I enjoyed your post. You said “monosyllabic words or nature” and I think birds does fit the bill, isn’t it! Sonnets can surely wait their turn.😉❤️

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