Once I asked a falconer, “How come the red tail hawks hang out in the trees beside the Thruway?”
He didn’t know for sure. “Maybe the passing cars scare up prey,” he guessed. “Or maybe it’s warmer there.”
Today on the bus to New York City, I counted eleven red tails, another large raptor that might have been an owl, and one eagle. On the return trip, I spotted three more red tails. Two were a mating pair dancing circles in the sky.
It’s mating time now in early March. Soon the leaves will obscure the hawks perched in the trees. They’ll be hunting in earnest to feed fledglings. Later, in mid-summer, we’ll be hearing the shrieks of the young just learning to fly, still demanding to be fed by their harried parents.
I love the hawks. They lift my heart in awe that these birds continue their life cycles against the backdrop of shrinking habitat and pollution.
As I count hawks, the others on the bus do other things. Every few miles, the guy behind startles me with a horrible honking cough. A woman works on her laptop, while her nine-year-old daughter watches The Lady and the Tramp on her iPad.
The couple in front gets a lot of my speculation. He is shaved bald, portly, with a scraggly beard and glasses. The woman is Asian, appears younger. He asks if she wants to listen to a podcast together. She touches his cheek with fingernails painted gold.
Behind the girl and her mother, an African-American woman with amazing fingernails and enhanced eyelashes taps on her iPhone. She’s wearing a baseball cap and sweatpants. She looks kind. When her outlet loses electricity, I invite her to sit beside me, but she declines. I’m a little disappointed.
I imagine leaning across the aisle to invite the girl to count hawks with me. “You can watch that Disney movie anytime,” I’d say to her, “but now’s the best time to count hawks.”
A springtime school story from 2008, from when I taught ENL K-1.
Outside my window this early April morning, I see two gray squirrels playing chase. The first one goes up a tree and across a branch, then makes a daring dive to the next tree with the other in hot pursuit.
No matter how many times I witness these rituals of spring, I still watch with delight and amusement. All around males are wooing females. Squirrels play tag in the treetops. Birds mark their airy territories with song: “This branch is mine, mine, mine!”
Solitary red tail hawks pair up as the snow melts. I see them making figure eights against the wide pale sky. I spy two hawks sitting next to each other on a bare branch, a rare sight. Each bird looks away, staring in opposite directions. A mating pair, I have no doubt, and I smile at their appearance of unease, like a couple on a blind date. When the raising of the brood is over, they will return to their more accustomed solitude.
The pileated woodpeckers are back with their manic laughter echoing through the backyard woods. Looking like red-headed pterosaurs, they cling high on tree trunks, pounding away. The hammering rings out all day. Near our stream, I see a fallen tree, a victim of the recent strong winds, with fresh wood chips scattered all around. A day or two later I am surprised to see the pileated there, working at ground level, pecking away at the log.
Spring rites appear everywhere, even in the school where I work. Each day at 1:30, I collect two girls from their recess time. A few days ago, I called for Chelsea and she came to me red-faced and panting.
“What game are you playing?” I asked.
“The boys are chasing us,” she answered.
“Ah, yes,” I thought. “I remember.” When I taught second grade, I knew spring had really arrived when the boys began chasing the girls on the playground. Sometimes the chasing was couched in a current popular context: Ninja turtles, monsters, the Lion King, but it was always boys chasing girls.
And now I discover that the springtime chasing ritual belongs to the youngest students of all, the kindergarteners.
What deep human instinct surfaces in these rituals of spring? Somewhere in our large brains there’s a switch that gets turned on by longer daylight hours, the sun’s new position, the sap flowing, the birds’ return.
Even little boys and girls, years away from puberty and the tyranny of sexual hormones, feel the urge. They run and shriek back and forth across the black top. Sometimes it’s a whole pack of boys, gathering a harem on the doorstep. They even elect one boy to act as guard while the others chase down swifter females.
To me, the ritual is both astonishingly ancient, and also reassuring. The boys are chasing the girls again. It must be spring.