Heading into my senior year at Luther College, my fitness was good and I’d used the summer to clean up my act. I cut off the long, thick hair that shrouded my face. Dumped the thick glasses and got a set of contact lenses. Shaved the scraggly Lasse Viren beard and ran some smart mileage heading into the season.
The final touch was creating a talisman of sorts to inspire my efforts in cross country that fall. I was out running one afternoon and found an adult red-tailed hawk that had been struck and killed by a car. As a field biology student and a wildlife painter, I’d done taxidermy on a few raptors and decided to bring the hawk home to save its parts for future painting reference. I know. That’s illegal.
I’ll admit to breaking conservation laws. No one without a permit is allowed to collect or keep feathers or body parts of any raptor species. But I’d already collected a great horned owl and done some great paintings using its feathers for reference. I also kept dead songbirds in our freezer at home to thaw them out and do paintings. In my younger mind, these efforts were justified. I was celebrating the creatures I’d found. While human society often lays waste to wild things, the artist in me sought to bring them back to life.
Studying the red-tailed hawk I’d found made me appreciate its evolutionary history even more. The thick, gnarly feet were equipped with knobby scales to grab prey and hold it. And those talons. Lord, those talons.
As I completed my drawings, the bird began to get a bit ripe. I carved up the hawk into wings and feet and disposed of the decomposing body out in a field. Then I got an inspiration. Wouldn’t one of those talons look great on a silver chain?
I took the talon to a jeweler that obviously knew or cared nothing about game laws. They mounted the talon in a silver semi-cube and slipped it onto a flat silver chain. I loved it.
I’ve written about how that talon and chain provided inspiration going into my senior year cross country season. It symbolized the fact that while I knew that running would take most of my time that fall, I’d someday get back to painting the birds I loved.
The season went great that year. I soared like never before. We placed second in the nation in cross country that fall.
That talisman was a link between my love of nature and the freedom that running afforded me. In many respects, running was the activity that cleared my head of anxiety and depression. It was also the yin and yang of my existence. While the act of running brought freedom, the commitments of competition required year-round dedication. Such is the conflicted nature of life. We are all wild things at heart yearning to break free yet bound to our commitments in order to survive.
The life of a red-tailed hawk is quite similar. While their high, soaring flight is an inspiring thing, it also has a highly-evolved purpose. Hawks excel at flying because they are predators. If they don’t catch something to eat each day, they may die. Young birds struggle at first to be good hunters. The mortality rate of young hawks is thus high.
This past weekend I watched a trio of red-tailed hawks, two adults and one young bird, soaring above the wetland behind our house. They were vocalizing as they tipped and turned in the wind. I brought my camera out and took photos of the young bird. It is already equipped to be a grand predator, yet still obviously being weened off the food supplied by the parents.
There is no way to count the number of red-tailed hawks I’ve seen over the years. They are one of our most common buteo species, found from coast-to-coast and from lowlands up into the mountains. Many’s the time that I’ve been running or riding on a country road when a red-tail launches from a telephone pole and flies ahead of me. Yet I have also seen them flying through and over the skyscrapers in Chicago, lifted on thermals on bright fall days and sitting sullenly on snow-covered branches on cold winter days. They are my longtime friend, these red-tailed hawks. We have seen many of the same places together.
The day that my wife and I first visited the house where we now live, I walked out back to see what the yard was like. At that moment, a large red-tailed hawk swooped into the yellowed cottonwoods at the edge of the wetland. It perched there and called. Quite likely it is one of the same birds seen soaring over our place this weekend. My wife walked out to find me staring at the hawk up in the tree. When I turned around, there were tears in my eyes. “Oh, so you like this one?” she inquired.
“Yes,” I replied. “Let’s live here.”