The cruel links of the food chain, wonderfully revealed

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside Magazine, October 1998

A Talent for Killing
The cruel links of the food chain, wonderfully revealed
By Bernd Heinrich

Every April since I was a kid, a pair of goshawks have built their nest in a dense grove of pines on Picker Hill, near my mother's property in Maine. Our family has had a long relationship with this pair: More than once I remember my mother stomping out of the house with a shotgun in hand when one of the hawks came to perch in the big elm and eye the chickens in the yard. In spite of my mother's vigilance, the hawks eventually also caught all of her prize pigeons, but that was after the story I'm about to tell.

I got to know these goshawks personally. They once touched me, and rather indelicately — with thin, lemon-yellow scaled toes tipped with inch-long curved blue toenails sharp as knives. I had made the mistake of climbing their nest tree. Suddenly I heard loud clanging calls like the banging of metal pots. Then a second one started in. And then I noticed the bright-red eyes of the huge white-breasted hawk staring at me from the dead branch of a neighboring pine. Our eyes locked, and at that moment the other bird hit me on the back. I heard a swoosh and in the same instant felt the impact and a tear across my spine. I realized then that Accipiter gentilis is not all that the name implies — either that or Carolus Linneaus, the great Swedish biologist who had named the species, had a perverse sense of humor. Later that summer, when I saw the hawks try to get a meal for their young, they won even more of my respect. It was then that I pleaded with my mother to lay down her shotgun for good.

I happened to be crossing the hayfield in back of our house on a slightly overcast day in July. The starling young were long out of their nest and had joined up into flocks for protection. One of these flocks of about 50 birds was flying over, and I looked up and saw a gos rapidly approaching from the direction of Picker Hill. The great hawk was gaining height, rapidly pumping its short, broad wings. When the starlings saw it, they converged into a tight group. No individual stood out. They were safe now, I thought.

The gos had gained about a hundred feet of altitude above the starlings, which were now streaking off toward Pease Pond. Starlings are fast flyers, and the gos is not built for a prolonged high-speed chase. It is a forest bird with stubby wings, adept at quick maneuvers through the trees using its long tail as a rudder.

The hawk's wings paused as it angled down and then plunged like a rock, right at the starlings. In only a second or two it was just above and behind the panicked birds, and I knew it would miss. But then the starlings also dove. The hawk's plunge was faster, and when the gos was directly under the flock it flipped upside-down and spread out its wings to break its fall. One of the diving starlings fell into those same yellow talons that had raked my back. The gos then flipped back up and flapped off toward Picker Hill with its prize. I was left standing open-mouthed with amazement at the power and grace of the whole show.

My greatest moments have happened when I wasn't looking for them. As I walked across the hayfield that day, I never expected to see such a sight, nor could I have predicted from my previous encounters that the goshawks were capable of so magnificent a feat. I wondered if the hawk was pleased with its performance. I presume that the nearly 50 starlings that were spared felt relief, maybe even joy.

You wouldn't think that seeing a chicken hawk kill a songbird would be much to marvel about. But there it was — I saw a goshawk kill a starling, and it set my limbic system pumping.

Biologist Bernd Heinrich's books include Ravens in Winter and, most recently, The Trees in My Forest.

Illustration by David Miller

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