What Robins Take with Them

I have had occasion—three times now—to watch a robin die.

I have had occasion—three times now—to watch a robin die. 

The first to causes unknown, three decades or so ago. I was a child, perhaps ten or twelve years old. I collected an ill or wounded bird from near my family’s home. My uncertainty about her condition says everything. The bird died, because she was dying and because all I had was a human’s stubborn belief in the life-giving force of a human’s stubborn belief.

I kept the robin in a shoebox, believing her recovery was only a matter of rest and food. I fed the bird grass, believing her association with the damp lawn was about the plants, rather than the worms and insects I’d later learn she so effectively hunted. 

Over days, the bird lay motionless, shallow breath proof of life. To me, her death seemed slow, perhaps tragically so. But I think it’s more correct to say that she died only as quickly or slowly as what killed her would take her. I buried her, in the shoebox, on Memorial Day, thinking the act and timing significant. 

I then neglected American Robins. Even when, two decades later, I became a birder, I thought robins too much a caricature of a bird to deserve my attention. More Disney cartoon than wild life, robins walk like every bird is supposed to walk, run like every bird is meant to run, and feed on a cliché—the early bird getting the worm that ought not to have dawdled. 

It was like this for me until 2014, when I decided to attend to a flock of robins at Cheesman Park in central Denver, Colorado. In the presence of these birds—a sign of warmer seasons—I tried to will spring into existence, laying on the cold February ground to photograph one of them at eye-level. 

But recalcitrant robin he was. Instead of performing his photogenic wildness, he looked for the wildness in me. My photographs show him staring back, seeming to meet the gaze of my camera. 

Photo credit: Jared Del Rosso
American Robin (Jared Del Rosso)

So I left him and found the rest of the robin flock in the small, landscaping trees that edge the park. I stayed with one member of the group, who perched with her back to me. I did this for roughly fifteen seconds, collecting a dozen or so photos, before the flock convulsed as one.

Photo credit: Jared Del Rosso
American Robin (Jared Del Rosso)

In the act of photographing, I almost missed the moment, the meaningful signs that a flock of birds gives in the presence of their hunter—the tightening across their bodies, the change in the urgency of their calls. I whirled as the flock took flight, trying to follow the group. I found instead, on the pavement, about ten feet from me, a juvenile Sharp-shinned Hawk with her prey. 

Sharp-shinned Hawks kill by constriction. They tighten their talons around their prey, choking air, then life from songbirds and small mammals. And so the robin, beneath this small hawk, gasped. And so the robin called out, perhaps involuntarily, as the accipiter undid the robin’s breath. Meanwhile, I held my own, resisting the urge to flail and shout and rob the hawk of her well-earned meal. (Imagine my intervention, and this wounded robin dying regardless of my efforts while the Sharp-shinned Hawk went unfed.)

Photo credit: Jared Del Rosso
Sharp-shinned Hawk and American Robin (Jared Del Rosso)

A third time, about four years later, in my new neighborhood in the southern suburbs of Denver. On a walk, I encountered a Black-billed Magpie running interference on American Robin parents as another magpie hammered at the skull of a still living fledgling. 

The bodies of hawks—bills and talons, especially—prepare them for the work of death. By contrast, magpies’ minds are more lethal than their bodies. (This is probably true of all corvids—crows, ravens, magpies, jays. I think it’s fair to say that it’s also true of a certain primate species.) Magpies’ bodies prepare them for exploration and their omnivorous, opportunistic lifestyle. Their minds, though, prepare them to plan raids on nests and vulnerable young. And so the fledgling’s death was pure terror to this human observer—protracted and inefficiently violent. And, it seemed to him, deep tragedy to the fledgling’s parents who leapt and called and failed still.  

I watched from afar, aghast as I have ever been at the capacities of non-human animals. I wanted to make it stop. I wanted to bring some relief to the suffering fledging. I wanted to keep the parent robins from this loss and the panic they showed before it. Instead, I left the magpies, as I had left the hawk, with their well-earned meal. Given the timing—it was early June—I suspect they delivered the fledgling to their own hungry young.

When I’ve shared these observations with other birders, I admit all it took for me not to try to rescue the robins. Often, others respond without pausing for thought or reflection, offering clichés, which are no less true for being clichés.

Nature is cruel.

Death is cruel.

Death is part of nature itself.

A hawk or magpie, as the case may be, must eat. 

Intellectually, I understand and appreciate these messages. They encage the tender human muscles and brake the impulse to act on death denial, the belief that the protection of life is always an absolute good. Ruminating on them now, I recall in judgement the boy I was, who thought a wild being’s death could and, so, should be forestalled by a cardboard box, a bed of grass, and human intentions alone.

But clichés can be true without being all the way true. I find these as one-sided as those that moved me to try to rescue a robin. For just as the younger me was certain a robin ought be saved, these clichés offer an alternative certainty: that the necessity of a non-human animal’s death strips death and the animals themselves of meaning.

These clichés are used not merely to convey moral imperatives, but also to shape our attitudes and perceptions. Their subtext is that the mature observer must remain blasé in the face of life-giving death. Unattached to the bird who delivers death to the robin. Unmoved by the robin who delivers life in return. Uncurious about what it means to be in the presence of both.

I accept that the hawk must kill. And yes, the magpie will, too. It follows, then, that the robin must die. But what passes among the hunter and hunted? And what of the human witness, who hardly understands the lives of robins, or hawks, or magpies, or even his own species, let alone the ways they experience the extinction of life?

I do not know what a robin’s death means—not to the robin, the hawk, the magpie, or me. But I think I know this: there is no slogan that contains the death of a robin. I think I know some other things, too. One may feel for the life being taken toward death, even as one resists the pull of the feeling toward intervention. One may grieve for a robin, even as one honors the exchange between predator and prey. 

All other meanings robins bring with them. And whatever they leave behind belongs to the birds who take them away.

This essay first appeared in the Center for Humans & Nature’s Blog. Featured image of an American Robin at Denver Botanic Gardens by Jared Del Rosso.

That Time when Americans thought Eagles would Snatch Babies.

Jack E. Davis’s book The Bald Eagle reminds us that the national symbol was once erased from the lower 48. One reason? The belief that eagles hunted babies.

I just finished reading Jack E. Davis’ wonderful book The Bald Eagle: The Improbably Journey of America’s Bird. The book is a stunning account of the Bald Eagle’s natural history in the U.S. and Canada, as well as the species’ journey through policy, politics, and culture. Davis’ writing is beautiful, crisp, and loving. And the story is an epic as Bald Eagles themselves.

In truth, it took me much longer than it ought to have. I took breaks to read Sy Montgomery’s essays on hawks and hummingbirds. In part, the book reads slower than it might because there’s a lot packed into the book’s 380+ pages. Especially names. Names upon names. Of naturalists, activists, hunters, poachers, politicians (some who venerated the Bald Eagle, many who didn’t), and conservationists. Many of the names are lost (at least to me) to the arch of the story — from the Eagle’s veneration at the country’s founding, U.S. Americans quickly moved to assaults on the bird, only to realize in time to save them.

Some of these assaults were outright. Some farmers and ranchers killed (and still kill) hawks and eagles to protect domestic animals. Some hunters and fishers antagonize the bird (and still do) to protect prey for humans. Many states once had bounties on the bird, and hunters would exchange talons for dollars.

Other assaults were less direct, but no less fatal. Habitat loss and DDT, especially, nearly did to Bald Eagles what generations of persecution had failed to do: wipe the birds from the continent.

But as every birder knows, Davis’ story has a happy ending. Thanks to the careful and dogged effort of conservationists, Bald Eagles were guided through the worst of DDT’s impact. According to Davis, their population today matches what it did when their land was first colonized by Europeans. While every eagle encounter may still be captivating, such encounters are no longer rare, as they were just four decades ago.

Misunderstanding the Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle by Philipp Pilz on Unsplash.com
Photo by Philipp Pilz on Unsplash

U.S. Americans persecuted Bald Eagles for many reasons. Most of those have to do with our view of nature as an exploitable resource that serves humans, first, and all others last. From our perspective, Bald Eagles violate this rule by hunting some of the same animals we hunt. Or worse, that we raise to eat ourselves.

But worse than any of this was the fact — well, actually, fiction — that eagles not only ate our food, they also ate our babies. In the early 20th century, some Americans believed that Bald Eagles hunted children, snatching babies from yards and carriages. No matter that eagles can’t carry infants and toddlers. Members of Congress, children’s writers, nature writers, even ornithologists spread the lie of the eagle who hunts human babies.

So, too, did the nascent film industry. Davis’ describes a brief, silent film that Thomas Edison’s movie studied produced in 1908. Rescued from an Eagle’s Nest stars D. W. Griffith, who later go on to direct the racist film Birth of a Nation, as a father who pursues an eagle back to the bird’s nest, where Griffith’s baby has been taken. The film is a sad and awkward 7 minutes or so of propaganda against the eagle. The bird herself appears in the form of a stuffed specimen that, by ropes, hoists the real human baby into the air and back to the eagle’s eyrie.

Rescued from an Eagle’s Nest (1908)

Edison’s studio has a dubious record, to put it mildly, of representing non-human animals. Five years before making Rescued from an Eagle’s Nest the studio released a film of an elephant, “Topsy,” being electrocuted to death.

We’ve come a long way from the misbelief of this film. But we haven’t yet come far enough. There’s still a general distrust of hawks and eagles. I’ve heard, more than once, that they’re likely to take dogs. They generally won’t, unless those dogs are the smallest of small dogs. No doubt people, vehicles, and other dogs attack dogs more regularly than do raptors. I’ve also had neighbors ask me if Turkey Vultures, which feed on carrion, will attack dogs. They definitely won’t, unless something gets to the dog first.

Davis’ book is an corrective to all of this. Davis is meticulous in his research. He is loving in his descriptions of both eagles and the people who care for them.

Most of all, Davis respects the unbridgeable difference between us and Bald Eagles. Sure, we’re now entangled: Eagle and Nation, eagle and people, nest and cul-de-sac (or golf course or reservoir or stadium lights or cell phone tower). But Eagles, like all other living things, neither exist for us nor on our terms.

Featured Photo by Ingo Doerrie on Unsplash

Sy Montgomery’s The Hawk’s Way: Encounters With Fierce Beauty

Falconers, not hawks, take center stage in Sy Montgomery’s book The Hawk’s Way: Encounters With Fierce Beauty.

I feel a two-fold ambivalence about Sy Montgomery’s book The Hawk’s Way: Encounters With Fierce Beauty. The ambivalence first comes from the fact that the book is not a book. It is a chapter of Montgomery’s Birdology repackaged with photos to stand alone; the production was clearly rushed and at least two of those photos have incorrect captions. The second ambivalence comes from the purposelessness of the story Montgomery tells. Just when I thought I had found the hawk’s way, Montgomery lost it.

Selling The Hawk’s Way

In tiny type on the front cover, below the title, a reproduction of Audubon’s illustration of a Harris’s Hawk (then the Louisiana Hawk), below even the reminder that Sy Montgomery is a New York Times bestselling author is this disclaimer: “Previously published as a chapter in Birdology.”

Birdology was published by Simon & Schuster. The Hawk’s Way (and The Hummingbird’s Gift) were published by Atria, a division of Simon & Schuster.

The repackaging alone doesn’t bother me. The chapter is now a stand alone essay with a lovely cover and full color photographs. The problem is it seems the production of the book was done quickly or without proper checks on the images photographs that are meant to make the book special. At least two species of raptors are mislabeled in the book–a disappointment that chips away at Montgomery’s credibility in telling her story of the hawk’s way (though I suspect we don’t owe the production to her).

Ferruginous Hawk. Photo by David Thielen on Unsplash

The third color photograph of a bird shows a Ferruginous Hawk in Colorado. The bird stands on the ground, as Ferruginous Hawks often do in the open, dry grasslands and pastures they hunt in Colorado.

The photograph’s caption tells the reader: “Red-shouldered hawks love tall woods and water. This one, photographed in Colorado, has an unusually light breast.”

So here is a hawk, standing among dry grasses, loving tall woods and water. Here’s a nearly-white breasted raptor, while the Red-shouldered Hawks red shoulders bleed rust through their breast.

Photo by Richard Sagredo on Unsplash

Later in the book, an apparent Peregrine Falcon is labeled as the much smaller and more colorful American Kestrel.

It’s easy to make mistakes in the writing or production of a book. Copyeditors and I have caught mistakes in the spelling of well-known names in books I’ve written. I shudder to think what I didn’t catch.

But the mistakes in The Hawk’s Way are glaring. They are attached to one of the elements of The Hawk’s Way that make it a special book to own and not just a book chapter.

The mistake has the effect of eroding Montgomery’s credibility as a narrator of the hawk’s way of life. The book is short on species accounts to begin with. (In truth, a more accurate title is The Falconer’s Way.) So to not know the main characters well enough to use their proper names is something of a disappointment.

The Wayward Way

My other ambivalence comes from the underlying meaning of the stories Montgomery tells. For much of the chapter, I thought I was with her. This seems a story about the wildness of diurnal raptors and the profound incompatibility between their wildness and our own way of being in the world.

Books on birds often look for ways to diminish the distance between us and them. This brings us closer to birds, giving their lives meanings on our terms and investing us in them and their conservation.

This is particularly true of books on social songbirds, like crows, ravens, and starlings. Corvids, especially, possess remarkable, human-life abilities. They can solve problems. They express emotions. They lie. They play. They use vocalizations in ways that seem to mirror human language.

Not so, hawks. (Or perhaps most hawks, though they’re treated with a broad brush in The Hawk’s Way.)

I appreciate Montgomery’s effort to express the singularity of hawk-ness. But this seemed to fade into the background of the book the more Montgomery involved herself in the world of falconry.

This is particularly so in the book’s conclusion. The closing scene has Montgomery going out in the field with a master falconer to hunt with a young bird. It seemed a mess. Wild hawks lurk at the edges of the scene, and these birds’ wildness seems a problem to be solved. Conflicts between a hunting dog and the falconry birds abound. And all of this seems to result from human mistakes, not precision.

Perhaps this is what falconry is like, given the profound difference between a hawk and a human. But Montgomery doesn’t tell us if this is so. More importantly, she doesn’t help us understand this, so that we can appreciate the mistakes as something other than mistakes.

Instead, the clumsiness of the scene left me feeling for everyone subject to the interests and actions of humans — the wild birds seen as threats, the dogs who might the falconry birds might attack, those birds who might get downed by a Goshawk or Red-tailed, and the quails feeding all of the action.

And then I was left wondering the purpose of it all. If it’s to get close to wildness, then why the neglect of the wild birds when they enter the scene? (And the neglect of them when photographed and used to illustrate a book.)

If, as the final sentence seems to suggest, it’s to appreciate the meaning of animal lives and deaths, why not live, for a moment, with the quail’s way?

Let's stay in touch

Sign up to receive updates and sneak peeks from my upcoming book on Whip-poor-wills.

By subscribing you agree with our Privacy Policy