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
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.
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
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.