Yesterday I witnessed a great hawk-and-sparrow drama with several plot twists and an unexpected ending. Let me say right here that I’m not certain what kind of hawk it was—maybe a rough-legged, perhaps an immature red-tailed hawk, I have no idea, because I only moved from General Bird Appreciation to Actually Trying Birdwatching since COVID, which was a humbling move, as all such moves are. It’s hard to admit one has been basically lazy. Honing our observational skills really does matter to a life well lived, I believe that—but also, I am a regular human with regular human tendencies. I’ve been trying to up my game, though—and this has extended to bird appreciation.
So, what happened was this: I was shoveling snow off my deck and I happened to glance up at just the right second.
But first, the snow: it didn’t really need to be shoveled, it could just melt. The next day was forecasted for Colorado-sunny and 60, but there I was for no good reason except I am human, and therefore I wanted to get out of the house, to do things like get fresh air and ward off backaches from sitting and blueness from winter. So there I was, annoyed because it was still very cold and windy, not the sort of day you really enjoy being outside, but simultaneously needing to ward off dangers.
That’s when I glanced up to see a flock of sparrows congregated together on a patch of brown muddy dirt near a car, and right then, a hawk swooped down and picked up a sparrow, flew a few feet, and landed with it in its talons in the snow.
And there they sat for a few seconds.
I assumed the hawk would eat the sparrow, which felt like a good idea, because hawks need to eat too. But the sparrow kept cheeping, all the scattered sparrows kept cheeping, and I stood there waiting to see how this would play out. And then I said, “Dude!” because the hawk was sinking into the snow, flapping his wings. At the sound of my voice, he flew off. I had a moment of confusion: Had he already eaten that little thing without me noticing?
Then a little head popped out of the snow. Such a tiny little head in a big expanse of white! We stared at each other, equally surprised, and then she flew off to a low branch.
I tromped through the snow so I could stand underneath her and looked up and said, “You okay up there?” and she took off, so the answer was, Yes. Then I looked down at the patterns off the hawk’s wingbeats and the little sparrow feathers scattered among the crystals.
That was only ten seconds of my day. But it was the most alive ten seconds of my day. Ten seconds in a day is all you really need, I suppose, to not only relieve backaches and heartaches, but also to realize that instead of just knowing the vague difference between a hawk and a sparrow—a very vague distinction, to be sure—that you could take another step in the direction of being a better witness: rough-legged hawks have small feet, the better to perch on the smaller twigs towards the end of branches, which actually, somehow, really matters.
Laura Pritchett is the author of five novels and two nonfiction books, the editor of three environmental anthologies, and her work has been the recipient of the PEN USA Award, the Milkweed National Fiction Prize, the WILLA, the High Plains Book Award, and others. She directs the MFA in Nature Writing at Western Colorado University and can be found wandering the West, especially her home state of Colorado. Catch up with her at www.laurapritchett.com.
Header photo of rough-legged hawk by Bouke Atema, courtesy Shutterstock.