A pair of Cooper’s hawks has built a nest in the woods behind my brother’s house, the house where I grew up. Trees in northern Ohio are still leafless, and Ken at first mistook the dark silhouette high in the branches for a squirrel’s nest. Binoculars revealed a substantial structure of sticks, not leaves, and he confirmed the identification when he saw the birds. Watching hawks is always a privilege and rather frightening.
I accompanied a group of birders on their annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count in 1996. We met at dawn at the entrance to Vale Cemetery in Schenectady, N.Y., where the temperature was eight degrees. We hiked up a hill, past the grave of Charles Steinmetz and across a field of century-old stone markers and monuments. Something moved perpendicular to our path, 20 yards ahead of us, just above the tops of the gravestones, the rising sun glowing feebly behind it. The senior birder among us, a retired General Electric executive, promptly identified it as a Cooper’s hawk, and others concurred. The bird moved without effort or hurry, like a remote-control model airplane, and ignored us, disappearing like an apparition into the oaks.
Cooper’s hawks prey on other birds and are adapted to hunting in woods, though a recent study showed almost one-quarter of the birds examined had suffered broken bones in their chests – presumably from smashing into trees at high speeds. That’s a strangely comforting discovery, an attractive flaw in an otherwise perfect hunting machine. A hawk’s fierce gaze suggests focused intelligence and always earns my respect. When an ornithologist told me hawks possess 400 times the visual acuity of humans, he confirmed my atavistic fears. What I remember vividly of that hawk in the cemetery is its coolly savage indifference to our existence. Eugenio Montale recognizes this in Cuttlefish Bones, as translated by Jonathan Galassi:
“Often I have met what’s wrong in life;
it was the stream that chokes and roars,
the shriveling of the scorched leaf,
it was the fallen horse.
“I knew no good, beyond the prodigy
That reveals divine Indifference:
it was the statue in the drowsiness
of noon, and the cloud, and the hawk that soars.”
Here’s David Young’s more emphatic translation:
“Again and Again I have seen life’s evil:
it was the strangled brook, still gurgling,
it was the curling of the shriveled leaf,
it was the fallen horse.
“I have known no good except the miracle
that reveals the divine Indifference:
it was the statue in the drowsy trance
of noon, the cloud, the cruising falcon.”