I know it’s winter because I saw a species of bird I’d never seen before. It’s not that we get new species only in winter, it’s that I notice only in winter. The rest of the year we’re busy with other things, and our bird-watching falls by the wayside. We started keeping a list of species sighted this past January 1. We had thirty-six by the beginning of May, and not a single one after.
Until yesterday. This one was a small, duck-like, black job with a white beak. It swam by as Kevin and I were looking out at the water, wondering if it were a trout-fishing day. “That’s new!” I said, and grabbed the binoculars. Unfortunately, it swam out of sight before I could get a bead.
“I wish I’d gotten a better look,” I said to Kevin as I leafed through The Sibley Guide to Birds trying to make an ID. I didn’t know then that, before long, I’d get the chance.
It was an uncharacteristically warm and still day, and we took advantage of it to – what else? – get food. I went oystering. Kevin opted for trout fishing and emptied the snow out of our skiff to set out. We both did well. I got a half-peck of oysters and, just as I came home, I saw Kevin land a fish right outside our bedroom window.
I went into the kitchen to clean the oysters and fold the laundry (our washer and dryer are in a closet off our kitchen, and we fold clothes on the kitchen table) as Kevin put the boat away. I heard him open the kitchen door and turned around to see him leaning in, holding the fish out to me.
“Could you take this?” he asked. “My boots are all muddy.”
I took the fish, which was still very much alive.
We usually leave the head on our trout, and just gut them to prep them for poaching or smoking. But I couldn’t bring myself to gut a living fish, so I decided to cut off its head with one strong, quick, painless stroke. This didn’t appeal to me either, but it seemed my best choice.
I got a cutting board and the heaviest knife a could find, a big Farberware cleaver. I held the fish on the board and took careful aim. “Sorry,” I said to the fish, and brought the cleaver down, hard.
Hand-eye coordination has never been my long suit, and I cut the poor thing’s face off. I still killed it instantly, I think, because it abruptly stopped moving. Whether that was from actual death, or just the indignity of facelessness, I’ll never know.
What I didn’t count on was the blood. If you bring a cleaver down hard on a living creature, there is inevitably going to be spattering. This fish was no exception, and it brought home to me a key disadvantage of having your kitchen double as your laundry room.
I cut the rest of the fish’s head off using the sawing method, and I was removing its innards when Kevin stuck his head back in the kitchen.
“You’ve got to come see this,” he said. “It’s total Wild Kingdom out there.” He pointed to the woods behind the garage.
I thought I’d had enough blood and guts for one day, but I figured I could take another episode as long as I was just a spectator. I put on my boots and followed him into the woods.
We’d gone in about thirty feet when he stopped and pointed to the snow-covered ground. There, with black feathers scattered all around it, was the mystery bird. Black with white beak, and very, very dead.
Kevin pointed to a nearby tree. There was the killer, a red-tail hawk, not more than twenty feet away. The hawk looked at us, he looked at the dead bird, he looked back at us. He didn’t move.
“I saw him get the bird when I was out in the boat,” Kevin said. “He was flying by and, all of a sudden, he tucked in his wings and dove. I didn’t think he’d still be here, but I had to check.”
I was amazed at how close we were, and how little our presence seemed to bother the hawk. “I have to get the camera,” I whispered to Kevin, I ran back to the house, and was just returning with the camera when the hawk flew down, picked up the dead bird in its talons, and hopped up on the dead log that was right next to us.
Right next to us. He was seven feet away, max.
We watched as he (which is not to say we’re sure he was male; this is the generic avian ‘he’) started pulling feathers off the bird’s neck, scattering them in the snow. When he’d cleared a bare spot, he started eating, tearing off big hunks and gulping them down. He did it very methodically, starting with the neck and head (white beak and all!) and working his way down the carcass.
No other species balks at killing things to eat; squeamishness is unique to humans. We inhabit the top of the food chain, keeping company with ruthless hunters like lions and grizzly bears. Chimpanzees, our closest primate relatives, kill without balking. So why do so many of us have a hard time with something as simple as cutting a head off a fish? How did a revulsion for blood and guts and death get into our evolutionary make-up? What kind of survival advantage could it possibly have conferred?
This hawk didn’t spare a thought for the life of the bird he’d killed, and had no qualms whatsoever about dismembering it, which he did very skillfully – he didn’t even get any on his laundry.
When we got back to the house, I checked Sibley again. It was an American coot.