Monthly Archives: March 2015

The Defamiliarization of Hawks

I’ve been thinking a lot about transformation, both here and elsewhere. How is it that we become the people we are? Some of it is, of course, planned and meticulously executed, a step-by-step approach. I knew early on, for instance, that I wanted a higher education and I worked toward that goal logically, with purpose. What I’m talking about, though, are the transformations one never could have imagined or planned for or conceptualized in our wildest dreams.

That my home-office would have not one but two bird calendars, a diptych by the Inuit artist David Morrisseau depicting–you guessed it– mythological birds, and an oversized poster of Sibley’s backyard birds, and that I would stare at these while I type, and that my closet, to the left of my desk would be home to a scarf with wild hens, bird tshirts by the talented Paul Riss, an owl skirt, and–my latest and greatest acquisition–a sandpiper dress, I never could have predicted.

It’s the strangest thing, this process of scrutinizing one’s own becoming, or the recognition that the person we once were wouldn’t have the imagination to fathom the person we’d become.

This weekend, we went to Beamer’s Conservation area, in Grimsby, to see the red-shouldered hawks, and I was initially skeptical. Two things about hawks: they terrify me and I can’t seem to tell any of them apart. Luckily whenever I see a hawk in the city, I alternate between calling it a Cooper’s and Red-tailed, and often I’m correct in my ID because Cooper’s like to hang out at feeders and red-tailed seem to be all the rest. Not a great system for ID-ing, I recognize. What can I say, this birding thing is an eternal work-in-progress.

And then I recently read Helen MacDonald’s H is for Hawk, a brilliant memoir that manages the impossible: the author, a falconer, weaves together a narrative about grieving for her father’s death, training a goshawk, and T.H.White’s tormented life and misadventures in hawk-training. Reading about MacDonald’s experiences training Mabel (the charmingly named ferocious goshawk), both the hawk and falconry as an age-old artform came to life:

Half the time she seems as alien as a snake, a thing hammered of metal and scales and glass. But then I see ineffably birdlike things about her, familiar qualities that turn her into something loveable and close. She scratches her fluffy chin with one awkward, taloned foot; sneezes when bits of errant down get up her nose. And when I look again she seems neither bird nor reptile, but a creature shaped by a million years of evolution for a life she’s not yet lived. Those long, barred tail-feathers and short, broad wings are perfectly shaped for sharp turns and brutal acceleration through a world of woodland obstacles; the patterns on her plumage will hide her in perfect, camouflaging drifts of light and shade. The tiny, hair-like feathers between her beak and eye–crines–are for catching blood so that it will dry, and flake, and fall away, and the frowning eyebrows that lend her face its hollow rapacious intensity are bony projections to protect her eyes when crashing into undergrowth after prey.

Helen MacDonald is a master of prose rhythm, but beyond that, she’s internalized what Viktor Shklovsky so admired in Leo Tolstoy — the ability to defamiliarize an object or experience so as to make the reader perceive it as if for the first time. Here, reading about the goshawk, MacDonald has forced me to see the bird anew, she’s jarred my senses, estranged me from all former notions of what I thought of as “hawk-like” and replaced them with something fascinating, full of torrential energy, and utterly new. This was a close-up of a hawk unlike any I had ever imagined.

H is for Hawk has entirely coloured my understanding of birds of prey and even before finishing the book, I found myself warming to the idea of spending time at a hawk watch.

An aside: Sometimes when I’m out watching birds, staring at a cedar waxwing’s perfectly nonchalant hairdo, I imagine what life might have been like had I pursued the natural sciences rather than literature and had I learned the names for things earlier. I imagine how things might look through a scientific lens, and how much richer my knowledge might be if I weren’t so prone to anthropomorphizing the world around me. And then I stop, and realize that it couldn’t possibly be any other way. Words are what lured me toward birds in the first place; if it hadn’t been for Jonathan Franzen’s casual mention of Phoebe Snetsinger and the coincidence that we had all spent time in Missouri, and if that synchronicity hadn’t surfaced on my radar (in the form of his essay “My Bird Problem”) at a particular time when I felt at my most fragile and desperate for access to new ways of seeing, I might have never even considered looking at a bird in earnest. Truth is, I am not a natural scientist nor will I ever be; narrative threads lie at the root of all perception for me, no matter how much I may dream of it being otherwise.

I’ve seen a Cooper’s hawk in the hand at the banding station and much as I marvelled at the bird’s physiognomy, I couldn’t bear to touch it or even entertain the thought of examining it up-close. A ravenous beast, she seemed to me.Why is it that a literary device (defamiliarization) in the right hands, of course, has the power to slowly acclimate me to hawks, to teach me to appreciate them, and see them anew.

At Beamer’s, we saw three red-shoulders, a sharpie and at least two dozen turkey vultures. The sharpie terrified me: he shot out of the woods, just slightly above my head, pierced the air with such precision I feared he might take out my nose (thankfully he was headed for something to the left of my head and had absolutely no interest in my olfactory organ). We watched the red-shouldered hawks flying in along the escarpment from a viewing platform and I got great looks at their reddish-orange breast, and the brilliant black and white bands on its tail and from below the wings alight like a checker board.

Red-shouldered hawk. Buteo lineatus. Not the hawk I saw, but a decent approximation. Photo from here.

Red-shouldered hawk. Buteo lineatus. Not the hawk I saw, but a decent approximation. Photo from here.

An unexpectedly freezing spring day, brilliant sun and not a cloud in sight. And the hawks soared above me. As if for the first time.


Small Confession

Dearest birders,

I have a small confession to make. We’ve had a long and hard winter and I’ve loved every minute of it, particularly the birding. The other day a friend innocently asked whether winter birding was better than spring birding. Her question didn’t come from sheer ignorance but rather in response to my overblown, outsized enthusiasm for birding in freezing conditions. I started laughing because of course here in southern Ontario nothing compares to the delights of spring birding, neither in terms of quantity or quality. Spring is where things are at: warblers, thrushes, sparrows, raptors, an embarrassment of riches, really.

Don’t get me wrong. Birding has skewed my internal calendar: I now live for the month of May. But it’s with a tinge of anxiety that I approach this high season because I know how short lived it is, and I also know how daunting things get when the sky alights with birds, when I’m faced with so many songs at once that all I start to hear is warbling cacophony. I’ll be honest here: spring birding intimidates me. Every year it reminds me that I haven’t quite done enough homework when I fail to ID songs of even the most common of warblers. Among many other things, Spring is all about (re)learning humility, about accepting where I’m at and working from that place, about not giving up, about (re)learning patience, about process. Although I look forward to May-madness, much of spring birding hovers around frustration–that’s the downside of sensory overload.

And here’s where winter birding enters the equation: For me, winter birding revolves around pure pleasure. The stakes are lower, I’m thrilled if I see anything, and the number of species is reduced to something more or less manageable. I’m a little ashamed of my disproportionate love of winter birding because I think my adoration might be a byproduct of my ego. I don’t feel (as much) like a bumbling beginner in the winter. I’m at the point where I can easily identify over a dozen waterfowl species, and where I can even go out by myself and actually find birds. I (almost) feel like a bona fide birder. I suppose rather than feel ashamed about it, I’ll continue to embrace it, and relish every Snowy owl sighting that’s left of 2015. (Here, by the way, is my panegyric to Winter birding, published on Ontario Nature’s blog.)

And now just might be the time to start listening to those warbler song cd’s! Maybe I am ready for spring after all!