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Gary Kern

Red-Tailed Hawk

What's their problem? I'm sitting on top of this telephone pole minding my own business. I don't care a rat's ass about them. I'm not encroaching on their territory, I'm not taking any food away from them. But they can't get me out of their craw. They just don't like me. There's nothing more to it. They're prejudiced against hawks.

Here comes a new wave of attacks, one peeling off after the other, dive-bombing me. It would seem pretty daring since each one is smaller than I am, but there are 30 to 40 of them. Here he comes... Damn, that was close! There he goes, circling back to the others. Now another, swooping in... Ha! Didn't come within 10 feet of me.

Maybe they make a game of who can get closest. Or maybe it's a test of courage, and the one who ruffles the feathers on my neck or actually nips at my shoulder achieves a special standing among his comrades: they'll allow him to fly ahead of the murder of crows. Some courage! If it were just one who was harrying me, without backups and without witnesses, like the fierce little mockingbird I see chasing big black crows and sometimes even a raven away from its territory, then I could give them a measure of respect. But it's always a whole swarm of them attacking, making such a racket, working themselves up into a delirium of hatefulness. What have they got against me?

It must be something ingrained, something very deep. Crows hate hawks they hate owls too. It's not just because we're different. Doves are different, quail are different. It's rather that they perceive in some quintessential way that big as they are, bold as they are, clever as they are, we are superior. We are proud. They can't stand it.

Here comes another one... Wow, he actually clipped the back of my head. This is getting dangerous. I can remain indifferent for only so long. They're beginning to get bolder, encouraging each other with their sweeps and their caws. They're landing in that old, dried-out tree over there to reconnoiter. Listen to them: the whole desert is aware of the commotion. Like a neighborhood with a house on fire with sirens screaming, lights flashing and black smoke curling over the roofs. But this is a false alarm; there's no fire here. Nothing's happening. I'm just sitting where I always sit in the mornings, watching the ground squirrels and gophers scamper through the field, warming myself up as the sun burns off the early mist. But they just can't leave me alone.

This is irritating. I'm going to have to do something. I could fly to another spot, in which case they would pursue me and snap at my tail feathers like bullies. Or I could lift off and find an ascending air-current so that I could spiral higher and higher to regions where they cannot not reach. Their miserable, narrow wings don't permit them to soar very well. Even so, some of the daring, to prove themselves to the others, make a point of flying up with me very, very high, so that in a way you have to admire them before they are forced to give up and wing their way back down. I've tried these natural strategies before, and they work, but they leave a bad taste in your beak, as if you had run away.

No, I need to work out a new strategem, one that will solve the problem and show them who's who. I can do it, because I have a different brain from your run-of-the-mill buteo. I must make an example of one of them so that the others will understand. I think I know how to do it. The first one to come over this time will be the one to get it.

They're still raising hell over there, the whole tree peppered with them. And I'm just sitting here on the telephone post in bold relief against the mountains, looking unconcerned. That really seems to drive them nuts. They're typical cowards, gangs of chicken hearts. They want not only to hurt the body, but also to torment the spirit. Yet each one by himself might be a decent fellow... no time to think of it now. They've caught their breath, they're starting to lift up. They're ready to challenge me again. They've got a big surprise coming. They're messing with the wrong bird this time.

Just as I suspected, that gangster is taking the lead. He's the one who won points with his buddies for clipping the back of my neck. They're sliding up overhead, starting to curve down. I'll crouch a bit: he'll think I'm going to duck. He's peeling off. Here he comes... Now, off! Upside down, the talons! C'mon, c'mon, gotcha! Got the little sucker. Turnabout's fair play.

Oh oh, my, my! It's a different chirp you're making now that you're in my claws. Your wings are twisted backwards and your head is hanging down. You don't look so good, now, do you? Say, did you ever swoop like this? Aaa-aaak, pretty fast, isn't it? Didn't scare you, did I? And say, where are all your clansmen, your faithful comrades-in-arms? Have they given up the chase? They're still circling around back there by the telephone post, cawing in confusion. Here's my victory scream aaa-aaak! That got their attention. Let's swoop again... Aaa-aak, aaak! Look at them scatter! What would they do if they saw me tear you apart? Don't like that idea, eh? Must have squeezed you a little when I thought it. What a sad eye you have.

I'm thinking I ought to release you, sure of the lesson you've learned. But then the others won't grasp it; they might even hate you, thinking we were friends. On the other claw, if I kill you, they'll have all the more reason for thinking themselves right in pestering me. Yet it would be just. There should be some justice in the world, don't you think? Not even a little cluck in reply? Well, I think there should. Seems to me consistent with a hawk's nature. It's hard to improve on animal nature, even with a human brain.

Let's just glide to that old, crooked tree over there in the orchard, rising up out of the bamboo thicket. It's easy when you have broad wings. And I'm used to carrying another creature, sometimes one even heavier than yourself. Ah, here we are, all by ourselves. You and me. Now I'll decide.

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