Red in tooth and claw

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.

Red-tail hawk lunching on a coot from Tamar Haspel on Vimeo.

14 people are having a conversation about “Red in tooth and claw

  1. Actually… We do get new species of birds in winter.
    They fly down from places even colder than here on Cape Cod. While it’s true we tend to be busy and neglect our bird watching duties during the warmer months the birds in winter seem to be from farther afield and for that reason alone get more attention.
    Kevin F.

  2. beachnitpicker says:

    I’d guess that squeamishness about killing–probably because of a tendency to identify with our prey, or with anything that shows signs we associate with suffering in humans–is a by-product of consciousness and may be of no earthly use. Although that sort of empathy may make society more civil, especially in modern, crowded conditions where very few of your neighbors are your relatives or even resemble you very closely. The hawk’s got no worries though. What an amazing video!

  3. I accidentally shot a coot last week which was flying with some duck. Not illegal but I felt dreadful. By all accounts not the most edible bird so I left it for the buzzards.

    We have the common buzzard that fills the same ecological niche as the red-tailed hawk. They look similar. I’ve often wondered if that’s where the name for Buzzard’s Bay came from, if it was given by the new arrivals from England.

    I dread to think how many wounded pheasants I have to despatch every shoot season, and I still apologise to every bird before delivering the fatal blow. Knowing they’ll all be eaten makes it more palatable (no pun intended).

    There’s a fish priest for despatching fresh catch – one swift whack on top of the head between the eyes for trout. If you’d like one I’m happy to send one on for you, though anything heavy will work.

  4. I agree with Jen, and was just about to give you the same advice. I knock out or kill all fish with a head-whack – better than to let them drown gasping for water!

  5. Great story and video, Tamar. The red tail is gorgeous, and what would not be after a duck dinner. I looked up the American coot, and recall seeing them now and then in NE waters. The between-the-eyes whack really works – my hd. used to use the metal edge of the fishing net, bringing it down like a hammer. No more suffering.
    Reading your blog regularly is more educational (and entertaining) than perusing most nature magazines.

  6. Kevin — It is true that we get interesting birds in the winter, but I’m not sure we know how interesting our summer birds are. I think we should start paying more attention.

    CCD — I haven’t even scratched the surface of bird calls yet, but it’s on my list.

    BNP — I wonder if squeamishness pre-dates or post-dates civilization. When I read about the Egyptians or the Romans, it always strikes me that they’re more cavalier about death. Is it possible the squeamishness only confers a survival benefit (or success benefit) in a civilized world? And could it have evolved in a mere 3000 years?

    Jen, Beth, and Mimi — Thanks for the fish-killing tip. I’m going to make sure I know how to do it, and have the appropriate tool. I’ve always hated hearing them flopping around in the well.

  7. beachnitpicker says:

    No, I think the squeamishness was always there–it goes with a theory of mind–the knowledge that other creatures have their own motives, ideas, etc. In less “civilized” eras, however, everyone saw killing and got used to it. Yes, I remember bopping fish on the head with a hammer during fishing expeditions as a child. “Fish priest” is a wonderful name for the implement.

  8. I think it’s truly impressive when life gives you bookends for the life story you’re writing. Great storytelling here. I was with you every step of the way. Even back to the laundry room for a re-wash of the fish bloodied towels.

    Happy New Year, Tamar. Your words and newly minted friendship made 2009 so much better!

  9. We have two hawks in Tompkins Square Park and one of them is a real camera hog. I have seen people gathering and when he thinks the audience is sufficient, he flies down for his close up. Very tame seeming, but I have also seen them hunting for pigeons on rooftops. They swoop down and the next instant they are in the sky again, birds in claws. They are really beautiful creatures and I love that I can watch this process with the Empire State and Chrysler buildings in my peripheral sight! I was also thinking that you are noticing new birds because most of the trees are bare and they are easier to spot.
    Wishing you and Kevin a wonderful New Year, Tamar.

  10. Brooke — Thanks. Very much thanks. And ditto.

    Susan — I’m so glad to get the view from Manhattan, which I miss!

    Interesting that your hawks don’t seem to be any more initimidated by people than ours are. But I guess there’s no real reason for hawks to fear people — they’re safe from us, for the most part.

    Continue to keep me apprised of NY wildlife, please!

  11. There was a documentary some time ago about a red tailed hawk that lived in NYC whose name was Pale Male. I think I saw it on public television. I wonder if it’s the same hawk?

    I think the squeamishness is a fairly recent phenomenon, on the evolutionary scale. As late as the 19th century, before the advent of the refrigerator car, Birdseye, and the supermarket, a lot more food was grown, raised, and butchered at home. Because we’re so removed from the source of our food, we’re sensitized to the reality of how it becomes food. Three out of four sisters of mine have become vegetarian (and one is threatening veganism) because they just don’t like the idea of something dieing in order for them to be able to eat. I seem to be going the other way. Last night I watched a trailer from a documentary despite being warned that the guy kills and skins a rabbit in his backyard. I’m thinking of keeping rabbits for meat, and thought to myself, well if you can’t watch a guy dispatch a bunny, how do you expect to be able to do it yourself? So I watched and it wasn’t that bad. I’m not sure about actually doing it myself yet, but I think there’s hope, given my convictions about food production.

  12. Just to say that, to my knowledge, Pale Male and his mate, Lola, are still residing on a ledge on a very swank building on Central Park, as they have done for years. (Mary Tyler Moore lives there, among other la-di-da types).
    There was quite a to-do when the co-op board tried to remove the hawks by destroying their nest. There was picketing and much uproar as the building management were soundly spanked by the citizens of New York and the Audubon people and they were forced to encourage to re-nesting by installing a special ledge on which the birds could build. I believe it took the birds two breeding seasons to settle down and get back to producing, but they finally did. Our hawks are true Alphabet City denizens and they nest where they damn well please!

  13. Paula — I’m going in your direction. For me, it’s a combination of wanting to be less squeamish, and living in closer proximity to my food supply, which has made me internalize the food-chain ethos. I still haven’t killed a mammal, though, or even a bird. Just fish so far, but I’m working up to it.

    Susan — We followed Pale Male’s exploits when we lived in Manhattan, and Kevin named our hawk Pell-Mell in his honor.

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