When I was growing up in the comfortable, centrally air-conditioned existence of Chicago's northern suburbs, signs of wildlife were limited to the occasional dog running loose in our neighborhood of well-coiffed lawns. Except for those times when our cat would leave dead moles for us on the front steps, I assumed that everything else was extinct, caged at the zoo or living in Africa or Yellowstone Park.
As a result of this sadly sheltered existence, is it any wonder that my knowledge of woodland creatures was limited to gray squirrels, robins, cardinals and blue jays?
One day, after I was a grown woman, married and the mother of children, I happened upon a small, exotic-looking black and white bird sitting in the middle of our driveway. From its looks, I assumed a pet canary of some sort had escaped from its cage. It had a beak like a cardinal and a perfect triangle of fushia, positioned like a decorative accessory on its chest. Catching sight of me, it proceeded to fly up to the branch of a tree where it soon began singing a glorious song.
After calling around to see if anybody was missing a black and white canary, someone told me [gently] that what I had seen was no canary, but a rose-breasted grosbeak -- an actual species of bird that lived in the oak trees around our house.
I was astonished. In my whole ilfe, I had never seen a bird like that before. I went to the bookstore and got Roger Tory Petersen's book, Birds of America. Hey, there's lots of grosbeaks in here. The next day I got out my husband's industrial strength binoculars, went up to the second floor of our house, and while the kids were in school, I spent the first of many, many hours scanning the trees for birds. I was hooked. I probably should have been practicing my homemaking skills, baking bread, ironing sheets, embroidering pillows, but no, I gave all that the, uh, bird, as it were.
I soon learned all I had to do was listen for their songs and track down the bird that was singing. Looking for the "canary birds", with my book in hand, I saw a Baltimore oriole, an indigo bunting, a number of warblers and I soon discovered how many different tunes a robin can chirp. I even got good at recognizing which bird was singing what song.
Every time I saw a new bird, I was oooohing and ahhhhing like a little kid at the circus. From my perch on the second floor, looking through the tops of the trees at the birds on their perches, the view could be rather startling at times. The huge magnification of the binoculars made tiniest little finch look like an eagle.
Then I got divorced, moved, started working, and didn't have time for birdwatching anymore. When you get up and it's dark and get home when it's dark, birdwatching is not an option. The only time I used my Roger Tory Petersen book was to identify what birds the cats had killed -- which is one reason I don't have cats any more. They can decimate the bird population.
Last weekend, many years after my birdwatching days, I was at one of the forest preserves near me. I like to go there to shoot pictures after a fresh snow. [Amazing how someone with a camera can empty a parking lot full of middle-aged men sitting alone in their cars.]
I was having a sandwich in my car, looking around for pictures to take. Soon I started watching a rare black squirrel running from tree to tree. He seemed to be looking for food and using the trees to warm up his feet between his forays onto the snow.
I was enjoying the contrast of his black fur against the white snow. I was also musing to myself that he didn't have much camouflage to protect him from bears, even though I know there are no bears around here, when all of a sudden, a big hawk swooped down and held him on the ground with its talons.
I froze where I was, not twenty feet away from this suburban wildlife moment. The hawk looked around. I got a good view of its face. Those eyes. That beak. Up close and personal. Way cool.
He [or she, I didn't know] hovered with its wings spread wide and pecked at the squirrel's back. Suddenly the bird adjusted its grip. I thought the squirrel was a goner. But then I realized that the hawk was trying to pick the squirrel up and the little black ball of fuzz was too heavy to lift.
Since the only thing I remember from college freshman zoology is that ducks will follow the first thing they see after they hatch, I had to rely on my hours of Animal Planet to remember that hawks usually swoop down, grab their prey and fly up to a tree to eat it.
[Remember that show when some little kid had his pet rat out of its cage on the family picnic table and a hawk swooped down and flew away with it? Or was that on America's Funniest Videos?]
But this hawk had swooped down and couldn't fly away with its catch. The big bird still had the squirrel pinned to the ground, but I was sure the hawk's wings and talons were getting pretty cold from the snow. Soon I was rooting for the squirrel. But I was worried that it had been been mortally wounded. Until suddenly, the squirrel got loose, took off across the snow and climbed a big tree. I thought I saw blood, but basd on how quickly it was moving, I figured maybe not a mortal wound.
The hawk sat there for a second, with a look that can only be described as embarrassed, retracted its wings and flew up to a branch on a nearby tree to sit like the Maltese Falcon. It was as if he were saying "I was only practicing."
I thought it was weird that the hawk continued to perch there, motionless, while not ten feet away, the little black squirrel was scurrying up and down trees, like a wind up toy. He finally found a tree he liked, ran way up to the top and disappeared.
The hawk was still sitting on the branch like nothing had happened when I finished my sandwich and left. [Now it was safe for the lonely men who sit in their cars by themselves to return].
That's when I realized that I hadn't taken a single picture. But watching a raptor bird and a feisty squirrel squaring off in middle of a suburb, I think I got the birdwatching bug again.