by Jean Carr
It started when I lived in New Jersey in the 1980s. Driving along paved highways, a flicker of movement would catch my eye. Looking up, I would see a bird, huge wings fully spread, dark red bands inking the white feathers . . . soaring. As it flew, it crossed back and forth above the road. Was it hungry and looking for something to swoop down on? Why did it seem to hang out there? All I knew was that seeing it lifted my heart. I envied the bird’s freedom, its independence, its view of the world below. I found it hard to keep driving at high speed while trying to keep the bird in sight.
After some research, I discovered that the birds I most often saw were red-tailed hawks. As raptors, hawks seize and eat rodents, birds, and other small animals. Many people see them as nuisances and even somehow evil. Chicken farmers or pheasant hunters, interested in protecting their animals, shoot and poison hawks and other raptors. But the hawk is part of a healthy food chain and feeds mostly on mammals and insects that are either harmful to the environment or too weak to survive.
But now I wanted to see a hawk up close. I went to meet Len Soucy who ran the Raptor Trust, adjoining the Great Swamp Wildlife Refuge. Len’s lifelong project to rehabilitate wild birds began in the 1960s when he found, on his doorstep, a hawk suffering from a gunshot. Over the years, Len took in increasing numbers of raptors and other injured birds, eventually hiring staff and building medical and educational facilities. By 2016, the Trust annually took in over 5600 birds and released 2300 of them to the wild. Those who could not be released live on Trust property and continue to educate and delight people of all ages.
Len was someone who would understand that, every time I drove on a highway, I kept an eye out for my talisman, who gave me good luck for my journey. As we sat down to talk, a volunteer walked over with a red-tail on her fist. “How does the hawk hover so long, seldom flapping its wings?” I asked him.
“Hawks use rising air currents called thermals to stay aloft,” he said. “Thermals form on sunny days over paved roads and near hills. Riding a thermal, a hawk doesn’t need to move its wings very much.”
“So, is it looking for prey as it soars?” I asked.
“Nope,” answered Len. “Red-tailed hawks hunt by sitting in a tree and jumping down on a mouse. If the hawk saw one from 5000 feet, which he probably could, do you think he could get down in time to catch the mouse?”
Not giving up, I asked, “Then why does he soar like that?” Len responded immediately, “It must feel good to be able to do that; hell, that’s what I’d do if I could just hang out and look down from up there—why not?”
As a wordsmith, Jean used her love of language to pursue two careers – as an editor and then an attorney. While still doing some consulting to help nonprofits, she’s mostly retired to enjoy family and friends, hiking, writing, genealogical research, and travel. Nature gives her solace and inspires her to learn.