Raptorous

I HAVE BEEN SO hawk-addled and owl-absorbed and falcon-haunted and eagle-maniacal since I was a little kid that it was a huge shock to me to discover that there were people who did not think that seeing a sparrow hawk helicoptering over an empty lot and then dropping like an anvil and o my god coming up with wriggling lunch was the coolest thing ever.

I mean, who could possibly not be awed by a tribe whose various members can see a rabbit clearly from a mile away (eagles), fly sideways through tree branches like feathered fighter jets (woodhawks), look like tiny brightly colored linebackers (kestrels, with their cool gray helmets), hunt absolutely silently on the wing (owls), fly faster than any other being on earth (falcons), and can spot a trout from fifty feet in the air, gauge piscine speed and direction, and nail the dive and light-refraction and wind-gust and trout-startle so perfectly that it snags three fish a day (our friend the osprey)? Not to mention they look cool—they are seriously large, they have muscles on their muscles, they are stone-cold efficient hunters with built-in butchery tools, and all of them have this stern I could kick your ass but I am busy look, which took me years to discover was not a general simmer of surliness but a result of the supraorbital ridge protecting their eyes.

And they are more adamant than other birds. They arrest your attention. You see a hawk, and you stop what minor crime you are committing and pay close attention to a craft master who commands the horizon until he or she is done and drifts airily away, terrifying the underbrush. You see an eagle, you gape; you hear the piercing whistle of an osprey along the river, you stand motionless and listen with reverence; you see an owl launch at dusk, like a burly gray dream against the last light, you flinch a little, and are awed, and count yourself blessed.

They inspire fear, too — that should be said. They carry switchblades and know how to use them, they back down from no one, and there are endless stories of eagles carrying away babies and kittens and cubs left unattended for a fateful moment in meadows and clearings, and falcons shearing off the eyebrows of idiots climbing to their nests, and owls casually biting off the fingers of people who discover Fluffy is actually Ferocious. A friend of mine deep in the Oregon forest, for example, tells the story of watching a gyrfalcon descend upon his chickens and grab one with a daggered fist as big as my friend’s fist, but with much better weaponry, and then rise again easily into the fraught and holy air while, reports my friend with grudging admiration, the bird glared at him with the clear and inarguable message, I am taking this chicken, and you are not going to be a fool and mess with me.

I suppose what I am talking about here really is awe and reverence and some kind of deep thrumming respect for beings who are very good at what they do and fit into this world with remarkable sinewy grace. We are all hunters in the end, bruised and battered and broken in various ways, and we seek always to rise again, and fit deftly into the world, and soar to our uppermost reaches, enduring with as much grace as we can. Maybe the reason that so many human beings are as hawk-addled and owl-absorbed and falcon-haunted and eagle-maniacal as me is because we wish to live like them, to use them like stars to steer by, to remember to be as alert and unafraid as they are. Maybe being raptorous is in some way rapturous. Maybe what the word rapture really means is an attention so ferocious that you see the miracle of the world as the miracle it is. Maybe that is what happens to saints and mystics who float up into the air and soar beyond sight and vanish finally into the glare of the sun.

Brian Doyle is the editor of Portland Magazine at the University of Portland, in Oregon. He is the author of nine books of essays, nonfiction, and “proems,” most recently Thirsty for the Joy: Australian & American Voices (onedayhill.com.au).

Comments

  1. Beautiful article, expressing how raptor rapture affects those of us who love these birds. BUT – the Golden Eagle has been murdered for years because of careless over-dramatisation like yours. No bird of prey in this country has ever been documented “flying off with a baby,” or killing a human being. The one death report I have heard and believed (by Stephan Bodio) described a trained eagle in Mongolia. The falconer starved his huge female GOEA before a hunt, and the bird responded by killing a small child. The dreadful fake video last year of an “eagle” carrying off a baby was just that, a fake, by a student film crew. Yet several GOEAs were later shot by folks who’d seen that film. We in the business of rehabilitating injured eagles who have been shot, turbined, poisoned, hit by cars – we have to clean up after you. And no matter how lovely your prose is, the eagle is lovelier by far. Please publish a retraction.

  2. I said ‘endless stories,’ and I meant stories, and I have heard endless stories over many years, the vast majority surely utter fiction, like the one I heard of a harpy eagle carting off an unattended soccer ball in Latin America. No one respects eagles more than me, and anyone who shoots one, even the rancher who is convinced he or she is losing lambs, is making a mistake, seems to me. What am I to retract, exactly? The celebration and elegy and song I just tried to write for the birds we both admire?

  3. When you write of “endless stories” about eagles carrying off babies, and leave it at that, you’re (in my opinion) allowing a vision that is false to regain currency. Just the words “utter fiction” as you said in your reply to me would be enough to keep the image from triggering fears. But I’m just one reader. Perhaps the majority of your readers will not react.

    I teach classes about raptors to all kinds of audiences, and every week I see that a large percentage of the adults in my classes still feel that “chicken hawks” should be killed. We’re not a species that tolerates other predators, I think. And the idea that eagles and wolves are going to attack us, or our children, is surely deep in our subconscious. You’d be surprised at how many people in my classes brought up that false eagle video shortly after it aired. The bird – bigger than any of today’s condors – swoops down in a park and scoops up a toddler. The animation was good – the action looked real – and even some people who are “enraptured” failed to recognize that it wasn’t any possible bird of today. It woke old fears. I’m afraid your line will too.

    I heard the story about the Harpy Eagle and the soccer ball, too. Eons ago! It made me laugh. But a baby – that gives rise, not to amusement, but to a shudder. At least in me.

  4. I can see Sallie’s point but still loved the writing. You captured many of my thoughts about raptors. I spent a lot of time trying to identify the hawks soaring over our land in Northern Wisconsin this past weekend. I came to the conclusion that they are Red-Shouldered Hawks. We heard their whistles every day and always stopped what we were doing to try and see them. They nest in a tall Basswood on our land every spring. Thanks for the inspiring words Brian.

  5. My favorite line: “Maybe what the word rapture really means is an attention so ferocious that you see the miracle of the world as the miracle it is.” So true! A wonderful article about these amazing creatures of the sky. I do see Sallie’s point, though, as many people are less enamored of raptors than we are. Too often, however, the general public responds to what it thinks it sees rather than what is really in front of it and an expanded explanation of “endless stories” feels appropriate. Though, alas, most people who would respond in fear probably don’t read Orion Magazine.

  6. Thank you. My heart opened just reading it.
    I volunteer with raptors and every time I see one I am in awe. I watched an osprey fishing in the Pacific. What a sight!
    I plan on saving this to read when I want my heart to open and soar.

  7. ah these are kind and piercing remarks — thanks. i am just awed by the whole clan — lately for me the sharpshins — the scottie pippens of the bird world — lean and efficient and quiet and scary if you are a lesser player…

  8. Years ago I watched ospreys fishing in the Chesapeake Bay. A truly inspiring article. Gave me goose bumps, especially the last paragraph

  9. As a lifelong falconer. I am also an admirer of raptors from eagles to vultures. But, please do some research on these bird’s natural histories before you write. Sensational articles like this, being loose with the facts about these birds of prey only makes more of them victims of ignorant humans. Another comment mentions Stephen Bodio. A writer and lifelong falconer who always wrote with biological accuracy in mind when it comes to raptorial birds.

  10. We can, and should, be concerned about misconceptions and their impact on threatened eagles, but let’s also respect the writer’s right to cite “story” as a non-literal, but present, aspect of human experience. This is, after all, the writer who nails raptors’ appearance perfectly as a “stern I could kick your ass but I am busy look” and tells us they carry switchblades: let’s allow room for wordplay here. I join John Sabean in levitating over that conclusion!

  11. Your story evoked such passion and magical musings about our beloved raptors. I was more in awe of your writing abilities, not the facts. The article really resonated my own feelings about these beautiful creatures we are so fortunate with which to share the world. I’ve been photographing raptors and other birds for a few years now, and it never gets old no matter how difficult or easy the setting. Thanks for your story.

  12. A simply gorgeous piece of writing, it just really needed a “fictional stories” rather than stories, so as not to repeat the fallacies that all of us that work in zoos, raptor rehab centers etc fight all the time. And an owl bite is a major pinch, they can’t bite off a finger, or anything else. They rip and tear with beak and talon. Others have commented on the other fallacies.

    Might seem like hair splitting, but it is not… I am going to copy it for our raptor rehab crew, who will love and appreciate the prose and imagery, but will have the same concerns about repeating fictional tales without clarification….

  13. People who shoot raptors (or any other wild creatures) will do so regardless of fictional stories. I know people who have done this and bragged about it later. Their reason for killing is just the fact that they enjoy killing. Citing stories about raptor attacks is just a way of justifying their psychotic behavior. And, as has been stated previously, NONE of these people would bother reading Orion magazine. In fact, reading is probably a skill that they never mastered in the first place.

  14. I am honored by all these compliments — thanks. And I note with an editor’s fidgety fuss that I did not write fiction. What I said about birds is true — including the stories I have heard and read, however silly, about birds. I am not endorsing them.

  15. Doing research for my own website (a sports site), I stumbled across this. I have to say I’m very glad I did. Despite spending my like as an EAGLES fan and having seen a hawk in my yard, I never gave much thought to the idea of understanding them any better. Now I’m thinking I should get to know these neighbors of mine a little better.

  16. I totally agree abt. how awesome (awe inspiring) these raptors are. Until a yr ago, I never saw one live & up-close. Then a red-tailed hawk decided to check out my bird feeder … it was one big & very handsome bird, perching 1st on my car, then on the fencing next to the feeder.

    All song birds and squirrels within hailing distance abruptly vanished (or froze in place) and there was (almost) total silence!

    All my friends & neighbors have now heard abt. ‘my’ hawk observations…

    Thank you for sharing.

  17. I stumbled on Mink River at the Mt. Shasta library last fall and it became the most memorable of the many books I read that year. I bought copies for three friends! It’s great to find you here (I share your love of raptors), and dare to hope that you’ve got more fiction in you.

  18. Dear yes — go back to the library (I can hear my publisher shrieking nooooo) and get THE PLOVER, which launches from the end of Mink River…

  19. What a great piece of writing that celebrates the power and beauty of the raptors among us. We have an increasing population of Eagles in this area and the many varieties of Hawks that occasionally amaze me by joining me in my yard. However, I am told that the declining pheasant population is blamed in part to the increase in Hawks so we must be vigilant in protecting them. But thanks for recognizing them in a well-written piece!

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