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Winged Messenger

Nature was red in beak and claw in my neighborhood last week. I was walking home, rushed and chilly, along Delaware Avenue, passing Lincoln Park, and I saw movement out of the corner of my eye—something big. A massive bird of prey was less than 40 feet away, on the bare muddy ground under one of the pine trees, ripping at the remains of some small mammal under its feet. (A glimpse of gray fluff suggested squirrel.)

I stood transfixed. I come from a bird-watching family, but I never learned my birds of prey very well, and I’m used to seeing raptors only circling high in the sky or perched at the top of highway-side trees. I’d rarely seen one this close. It had white, fluffy feathers around its legs and all along its underbelly. Its back was grayish-brown with splotches of white, irregular enough to suggest a young ’un. Its tail was dark; head, brown; beak, yellowish and possessed of that practical predator curve that we like to interpret as proud or cruel.

My rational reason for continuing to stand there in the cold when I had somewhere else to be, watching a bird rip bright red sinews out of a freshly dead squirrel, was that I was trying to commit all the relevant details of color and pattern to memory so I could identify the species when I got home.

But really I was just fascinated—it was a wholly unexpected sight, and the kind that today’s urban/suburban dwellers tend to spend a lot of time taking on faith still exists. I was just settling into my usual internal commentary, as I do when I spot a rainbow (Why in the world are all these people walking by without noticing this incredibly cool thing?) when a voice appeared at my left ear. A reeking-of-cigarette-smoke cab driver had just parked his cab—passenger inside—across the street to come get a better view.

“That’s not a hawk,” he said firmly, as if I’d been insisting it was. “That’s an eagle. A young one.” I instantly believed him. “I’d just been wondering if that might be the case,” I said sagely. I wanted to believe him because I wanted to trust the first person who’d stopped to look. I wanted to believe him because I loved the idea of the rough blue-collar cab driver knowing his birds of prey. I wanted to believe him because I suddenly wanted really badly for that bird to be an eagle.

Not that a hawk is an everyday sight, of course. But the difference between seeing a hawk and seeing an eagle would be like the difference between seeing a possum or deer in the city and seeing a timber wolf.

To see an eagle in Lincoln Park would have been unutterably cool, a Truly Grand Thing. It would’ve been Kucinich winning the presidency, or same-sex marriage going forward without the hateful backlash, or a cure for AIDS. It would’ve been all those things that I get exhausted hoping for, knowing how unlikely they are and knowing I need to not give up on them anyway. Except it would’ve been one of those that I hadn’t even thought to put energy into. An unlooked-for dramatic affirmation from the universe that sometimes things do happen in leaps and bounds, sometimes the unlikely does happen on its own, etc.

I walked the three blocks home, picked up my Peterson’s A Field Guide to the Birds, and walked right back out again. The bird was still there. When a meal will last you several days, you don’t rush it. I opened to the raptors. There’s no way that bird was an eagle. Wrong size, wrong colors, wrong food and/or location (balds eat fish, goldens are mostly out west). Nothing matched the profile for a young eagle. It was an immature red-tail hawk, one of the most common around these parts, and yet I stood there fishing and fishing for how it might work out, feeling like for it to have been an eagle would’ve made A Difference.

When a woman yelled out of her car window, “What’s that? Is it an eagle?” I felt like I was crushing her day when I told her the pedestrian truth. OK, so I was projecting a little.

Then a man with two pre-teen boys headed up the sidewalk. The boys spotted the bird to great oohs and aahs. Even now, video games are no match for real flesh and blood.

The man, seeing me perched on a snow bank for a better view called over “Is that yours?” Is that mine? Mine? The sheer ludicrousness of this statement pulled me back from the brink. So it’s not an eagle. It’s still the same bird that stopped me in my tracks before I had any idea what it was.

I took a deep breath, and went over to show the boys the picture of what the bird would look like when it was full grown. A clamor arose as we all tried to determine if we could see the red coming in on its tail. The boys exclaimed in wonder as they caught a glimpse of the powerful talons as the bird shifted its position and took glancing notice of us.

I was starting to find my feet again, after my delusions of wildlife-spotting grandeur. I got caught up looking for metaphors in nature, and so sheer perversity guaranteed that it showed me things far less exciting than what I was grasping for: Don’t get ahead of yourself, don’t overlook garnets in a search for rubies, celebrate the small victories. . . . Good lessons, but ones destined to shift my attention quickly back to the straight-up birdwatchers’ hey-neat- creature viewpoint.

As if on cue, a man leaned out of his pickup truck window and shouted to the driver of the U-Haul in front of him in awed tones, “Did you see that hawk? There! Right back there!” He didn’t sound disappointed at all.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

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