The Eye of the Sharpie

Sharp-shinned hawks don't eat carrots.

SharpieBefore the thud, it was a scene of peace and abundance, and it made me feel very jolly indeed. Through the falling snow, morning came into my living room and filled it with soft light. A cardinal perched plump in the hawthorn tree, his red color muted by the snow sifting between us.

On the ground, juncos jumped backwards, scratching for sunflower seeds. Three mourning doves drank from the heated birdbath. I was deeply contented with this scene, whose stage I had prepared with the sanctuary of evergreens, berry-giving trees, never-frozen birdbath, and an endless supply of birdseed.

I'd glanced away when something thumped against the glass. By the time I looked back again, birds were exploding out of the yard like shrapnel. Water still rippled where the vanished doves had sucked. The bird that struck the window was not lying in the snow. Apparently it made it to the safety of the evergreens.

But there, on a low branch over the bath, orange eyed, alert as an angel, crouched the cause—an adult sharp-shinned hawk. Her head swiveled in little jerks like the second hand of a watch. It cocked up as she studied bare branches above, and down as she searched for any bird that might be hoping to escape notice on the ground.

A royal visitor

She was beautiful, a joy to see. Hawks are not common like juncos and cardinals. I knew she had come to my yard for them though, just as they came for berries and birdseed.

Hawks don't eat carrots. Sharp-shinned hawks eat birds, and I don't begrudge them their rightful prey, even in my yard. I know that wild predators help keep prey populations healthy by picking off the weak and the slow. The hawk wouldn't wipe out my backyard company. She was just another bird at the feeder, a royal guest. But still I felt uneasy, wondering which bird she would seize.

Tufted TitmouseAs the sharpie watched over the empty yard, two tufted titmice flitted into a hawthorn tree. I knew these two little grey birds and regarded them as friends. I feared that if one of them went for the seeds on the platform feeder, she would have it in a her yellow talons.

And then I began to shrink from my manly acceptance of nature and all its processes. "Ohh," I moaned out loud, "Not the titmice!" Where were the expendable house sparrows when we needed one?

Inwardly I offered an incautious junco to the sharpie. One could be spared, to nourish the hungry hawk. But my yard had only two titmice, with their cheery lisping calls, with their bright black eyes and expressive crests that rise and fall with their moods.

The dilemma

The titmice wanted those sunflower seeds. They worked their way through the hawthorn toward the feeder. And I kept moving up closer to the window, until my hands were pressed flat against it. "Don't do it!" I pleaded. "It's not worth it! She'll get you." I was begging a sparrow, a junco, a cardinal, anything, to come out of hiding.

The sharpie turned her head away from the titmice, as if uninterested. She preened the delicate white-and-orange feathers of her breast. She turned her head around and ran her bill through the dark feathers of her back. She stretched her long, grey-and-white-banded tail, spreading it like a fan, and shook it.

A titmouse perched on the tip of a branch over the feeder. It leaned down toward the seeds.

Sharp-shinned HawkShould I try to warn the titmouse by waving my arms? If I did, maybe I would startle the bird I was trying to save, distract it, cause it to make a mistake. I stood as if paralyzed.

And, paralyzed, I had time to ponder whether I really wanted to interfere. I definitely wanted to save the titmouse. But did I want the sharp-shinned hawk's orange eye to close forever? I treasure the charming titmice in part because they are less commonplace than juncos and cardinals. Yet even titmice are abundant compared to sharpies, and their lives are easier. The hawk's difficult role is to hunt and capture wild, watchful birds, or else perish.

This sharpie might have traveled traveled hundreds of miles from her breeding grounds in the north to get to my Iowa backyard, surviving on her speed and wits. Why hadn't she kept she kept going south, like the majority of her species? Perhaps she was starving and did not have the strength to continue. The meal that she sought in my yard that morning might have been a matter of life and death for the hawk as well as for the titmice.

A daring solo

TitmouseAt last, when the sharpie's head was turned away, one of the titmice dashed to the platform feeder, snatched a sunflower seed, and bounced back into the shelter of the thorny branches.

I gasped. The hawk looked hard at the titmouse and then returned to preening. Apparently that was sufficient adventure for the titmice. They drifted through the hawthorn and evergreens and out of the yard. The hawk sat in the maple for an hour, occasionally flicking away the snow that fell upon her, but no other birds came out into the open. At last she leaned forward and sailed off the branch and across the snowy lawn, out of sight. In a few minutes my yard was full of birds once more.

Hope of the human heart

The sharpie must have found something to eat elsewhere. She did not starve, for she returned occasionally throughout the winter. I found feathers on the ground few times. Once I saw her catch a house finch. The titmice were still visiting my yard when spring came.

Against all reason I had wanted both to cheer for the sharp-shinned hawk and to save the titmice. And this time, nature indulged my sentimental heart. Sharpie and the titmice all survived.

In a larger view, such a wish is not necessarily a vain hope. We have an emotional, almost instinctive, desire to preserve individual birds that we know and love. If we can extend that desire to embrace entire species and the natural habitats on which their existence depends, we can save more than one or two birds. We can preserve what makes our planet a good place for all species to live, including ourselves.

-- Diane Cooledge Porter


Story first appeared in Backyard Bird Newsletter, February, 2005.
Copyright 2005 by Diane Porter
Photos copyright 2005 by Michael and Diane Porter



Inexpensive binoculars