Hawk Notes

by Robert W. Cording

After my brother died, my mother, the most rational person in our family, noticed red-tailed and red-shouldered hawks everywhere. Of the eighteen species in North America, these two are most common. Still, they arrived when she seemed to need them, unexpected gifts. Over the last four years, she has filled notebooks describing flight angles, call sounds, and, what I have the hardest time understanding, how these sightings helped her through her grief.


Neither red-tailed nor red-shouldered hawks leave the same two or three square miles, preferring to live their whole lives in the same trees, over the same fields, much the way my brother chose to settle in the town we grew up in, content with take-out from Joy’s every Friday, proud of how fast his pick-up could handle the curves on County Road.


Red-tails are highly adaptable; you might see one over a field, the way my mother did, forcing herself through a walk just after Daniel died. She didn’t want to look, but as it swooped, glowing in the late afternoon sun, she stood and cried.

You’re just as likely to see one perched on a roadside pole, even a mailbox, like the one in the driveway of Fairview Farm. That day, her first tutoring again, she screamed and pounded the steering wheel the whole way home. She didn’t want to see beauty, but just as she turned into the farm for milk, a hawk lifted off the mailbox and, in front of her windshield, stretched to its full four-foot wingspan.


When my mother tried to explain how these sightings made her feel closer to my brother, I mocked her, claiming she believed Daniel became a bird. At the same time, though, I wanted to start seeing them myself, as though my not seeing them was a sign. I watched the sky obsessively on walks with my dog; in the car, I scanned the sky ahead. I’d even force symbolism: the fact that I never had a hawk experience started to represent the way my brother and I never spoke about his addiction to painkillers — there was a distance between us, like an unidentifiable bird kiting at the horizon.


Though my mother always clarifies she does not believe Daniel has become a hawk, she has reasons for her association: their size and strength, but especially, the ease with which they soar in those slow, wide circles. At the end of his life, Daniel, a natural athlete, could barely move, his lower spine disintegrating, his most recent surgery a failure.


I once saw my brother, probably nine, climb a pine behind my parents’ barn, then, sixty-feet up (the height hawks make their nests), ease onto a thin branch, laughing at the way it bent. In the spring after he died, two red-shouldered hawks nested above my parents’ barn. Their back and forth calls — kee-aah, kee-aah — echoed across the field. Some days, my parents would step onto their patio to watch the pair circle their nest; other days, they’d stay inside their empty house, sipping tea.

The scream of a red-tailed hawk is different; that hoarse keeeeer is so recognizable that directors use it regardless of whether a vulture or eagle is onscreen. That first year after Daniel died, when my mother screamed in the car, the shower, in bed in the middle of the night, her shrieks could have been in a movie. They were unmistakably the howl of a parent who had lost a child.


Daniel was 31 when he overdosed. Are hawks’ lives also unfairly short? No, it turns out. In fact, they live longer than most backyard birds: wrens, finches, and jays all have shorter life expectancies. So do most other raptors, like the kestrel, the barred owl, or the sharp-shinned hawk, which typically lives only three years. The average lifespan of a red-tailed hawk is 16 years, but in Michigan, there is record of one living 30 years, 8 months. Daniel lived 6 months longer than that.


I search for these links, I know, because I’m trying to feel what my mother feels. I tell myself she lives in a rural town, where she’s sure to look up from her garden and see a hawk’s broad wings spread impossibly wide as it circles the sky. I live in Boston, where I tell myself I’m lucky to catch a glimpse of what might be a hawk disappearing behind a neighbor’s roofline. I tell myself this is okay. I tell myself it’s just a bird.


Robert W. Cording lives in Boston with his wife and two children. He teaches high school English at the John D. O’Bryant School and has published previously in The American Journal of Poetry and the New Ohio Review.

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