Riverdave's Journal
This essay appeared in the Durham Herald-Sun on July 5, 2009

          Predator animals have long been admired by those peoples who live in close relation to the Earth.  Hawks have always been near the top of the list of the most revered, especially by members of hunting and herding societies.  The hawk’s ability to soar, its predatory mobility with speed and sharp vision are traits that hunters envied and herders feared.  Although I am neither a hunter or a herder, I have respected hawks for their visual acuity, a trait that I was born with and have carefully guarded throughout my life.  While my near sight has slipped a bit in middle age, I have refused to wear corrective eye glasses for fear of injuring my superior farsightedness, without which my naturalist ability would suffer.

          Hawks possess a visual acuity several times more powerful than a human.  Photoreceptors in a hawk’s retina number up to 1,000,000 per square millimeter as opposed to 200,000 for humans. In addition, the number of nerves connecting these receptors to the brain is greater in hawks than in humans.  Of course these impressive numbers that modern science has come up with only confirm what careful observers of the natural world have known all along.  On occasion, when I have come face to face with a hawk up close in a rehab center, I am always struck by the awesome energy of its intense gaze.  I find myself asking, “what might they actually be seeing beyond what I can see and fathom?”   Is there some bigger picture that they see that would help me better understand my past, present or future?

          While traveling in Central America this Spring, I experienced repeated encounters with a Black Hawk, the memory of which has haunted me ever since.  On a number of occasions the bird seemed to call directly to me, perched high in the forest canopy.  The bird had a sweet but plaintive song, almost pleading with me about some urgent matter that needed attention.  At one point two of them descended from a tree and hovered over me as I walked.  They would also come and perch at the top of a poro poro tree loaded with orange blossoms that towered over the cottage that I was renting.  Did this bird’s penetrating gaze see something about my life that I was not aware of?

           Because of their predatory instincts and abilities, hawks are often chosen by members of the human community worldwide as symbols of insight and power.  They can be the guardian animal spirit or totem of the indigenous American or the depiction used by ancient Egyptians for the  soul that left the human body at death. Hawks often appear as logos for commercial products, including everything from the U.S. military’s Black Hawk Helicopter, the mascot for NBA’s Atlanta Hawks basketball team, to the Red-shouldered Hawk logo for this year’s 2009 Eno RIver Festival.  Despite the macho imagery in the first two examples, hawks may also represent a powerful feminine and nurturing force as female hawks are generally larger than their male counterparts.
         With the demise of the cougar and wolf, the North Carolina Piedmont region has lost its largest wild terrestrial predators.  Hawks now remain the most potent predators and symbol of keen vision and hunting prowess.  While it is always appropriate to honor the more passive and tranquil forces of our life with nature, we must not forget that nature can be a harsh teacher and her wildness can become a serious challenge on both personal and community levels.  The hawk then becomes an important example of how to face the vicissitudes of survival.  Sooner or later each one of us faces situations that require us to claw our way through an obstacle, chase after a prey or just soar and see the bigger picture.

         Our Piedmont Carolina avifauna include the possibility of Red-tailed, Red-shouldered, Marsh, Broad-winged, Cooper's and Sharp-shinned hawks.  In a broader definition of hawk, we might also include the fish hawk or Osprey and several migratory falcons.  In my North Durham neighborhood of Lochhaven Hills, there is a nesting pair of red-shouldered hawks with young that seem to rule our streets and backyards.  I find them occasionally visiting my wood pile, poking around for chipmunks, fence lizards and mice.  I consider it a significant day when such an honored guest drops in. I love regular visits by the gentle white-tailed deer.  But when Mr. or Mrs. Hawk swoops into my backyard, the animal commands my attention like nothing else!