You will recall.
There we were, in the garden: some forty-plus sparrows, rapt –you might say,– and I.
I had just finished my “God rest ye merry gentlemen” –“Vox Humana”– recital. The very air was now thick with sparrows: they were darting about between the trellis and the feeder and the hedge on the side and the clothes-line, back and forth.
Suddenly –there was a very large bird in their midst.
Powerful wings outstretched, it had swooped in at great speed from the tall trees to the right, flying –I recollected afterwards– with extraordinary dexterity, wheeling around the hedge, over the trellis, under the branches of the tree beyond, and into the concentrated midst of the sparrows, who now were in the act of scattering frantically to the protection of their thick if leafless hedge.
The large bird’s wing feathers were spread out, separated. Curved back by the wind-resistance. It was, it seemed, actually stopping, in mid air. Braking.
WHAT is that?
For the briefest moment I thought….mourning dove. But immediately dismissed this: much too small, and anyway the flight of the mourning dove is not powerful and aggressive like this.
No –this, this is an attack! This is….a Raptor! A Hawk? A Sparrowhawk? Some kind of Falcon? [Etym. “raptor: one who seizes.”]
Amazingly, for all of the availability of sparrows –the air was literally thick with them in that one spot– the raptor had apparently failed to seize one in its talons, or knock one to the ground –which I was soon to hear it does with larger birds, such as pigeons. Now it had proceeded on a few feet, to the tomato-stakes at the end of the garden, where it perched. Momentarily.
I quickly reached inside the door to where my binoculars were hanging on a nail, careful to be restrained in my actions. I rapidly focussed the glasses on the bird, could see its darker wings and brighter breast plumage and its head in profile, with lethal-looking hooked beak, and bright, glowering, eye….
But, in the space of two or three seconds, it was off again, in the direction of the tall trees. The excited sparrows were twittering more than ever I had heard them. Understandably.
(Oddly, I recalled that when I had been putting out their seed in the feeder earlier, I had –for the nth time– thought: why so timid, sparrows? You know I just put out your seed. I’m not going to attack you, or try to grab you. You know this. You have become quite comfortable, quite used to me, not as frightened as you were at the beginning….)
Now I understood their timidity: “It’s not you,” they were saying, ” It’s…” and they gestured with their beaks over towards the tall trees.
It was a startling incident. To see the reality of the natural world. Last month I saw Puss pounce on a mouse and run off with its prey in its mouth. Now here was this hawk or falcon, with a much more spectacular attack. Neither Puss nor Hawk was breaking any law. Indeed, one might say, they were obeying The Law.
What an added dimension to my little garden.
Later in the day, on my way on my bike to the supermarket, I see Milton, a near neighbor who lives in the old firehouse, and stop to talk. The tall trees are at the back of his house.
Almost the first words out of Milton’s mouth were his account of watching that morning –from his back window– a Peregrine Falcon descend on a pigeon in mid-flight and knock it to the ground, apparently with great force.
It then grabbed the stunned pigeon in one talon, steadying it as it plucked its feathers off with its sharp hooked beak. (Clearly, Milton had been fixated, and somewhat stunned.)
He was much more knowledgable than I about raptors, and about Peregrine Falcons in particular. He knew there were several pairs in Staten Island –one was known to have been hatched in a nest on top of the Verrazano Bridge.
I listened to his gripping tale and then of course told him my own. Of course, he cleared up any question I had about the identity of my raptor.
We both were quite shaken at what we had witnessed.
When we came to the end of our “Tales of Staten Island Raptors”, we just stood there, both slowly shaking our heads in wonder.
Then –still shaking his head– Milton also raised his eyebrows at me.
I realized afterwards: Milton was reassuring me. That’s life, he was saying, with his raised eyebrows.
That’s Raptor Life.