Showdown at San Crainte Creek

It’s early, 5:00 am. Earlier than the sounds of cars whooshing down the street outside my window. Earlier than the voices of neighborhood mothers lassoing their children in from the street, the voices of commuters greeting each other, the soft thud of their car doors. About the only sound I hear is birdsong, This morning, the song is hardly a song and the lead singer isn’t a songbird, but a Cooper’s hawk — keh! keh! keh! keh! keh! And again, keh! keh! keh!. Then sounded the faint yet piercing begging call of the juvenile, something like the squeal of a rusty hinge.

Both the adult female hawk and a female juvenile were in my yard yesterday morning. First was the juvenile perched classically on top of the arbor, posed as if by design, regal and calm, watching the cautious finches. I say cautious because they weren’t altogether gone, out of the area, just subdued, warily watching the young hawk. She didn’t seem in a rush to find breakfast, just as the finches weren’t in a frenzy to decamp. But they stayed aloof in the birch fronds, not venturing to the feeder.

Then, suddenly, the hawk was alert, attention riveted on a movement on the deck just outside the back window. The deck is bordered by 3-foot high latticed wood panels, and behind the diagonal slats of the panel, a California grey ground squirrel had ventured onto the deck and was moving stealthily among the forest of container plants. The hawk was in the air and in one swift glide was within inches of the squirrel—but on the other side of the lattice. The young hawk dropped to the flowerbed just as the adult hawk appeared, gliding to the rim of a weathered wine barrel flower pot near the younger hawk. The older hawk watched as the young Coopie made several unsuccessful attempts to reach the squirrel through the slats. If the older hawk had any correctives to make to the young hawk’s hunting trials, she wasn’t revealing them.

Meanwhile, a red fox squirrel descended the trunk of the birch tree and foraged seeds underneath the feeder as if it hadn’t a care in the world, even thought the adult hawk was scarcely ten feet away. Apparently, a tree squirrel is too large a prey for a Cooper’s hawk, which is a medium sized raptor usually preying on small birds, mice, and lizards. A centuries-old detente has no doubt developed between the fox squirrel and the Cooper’s. But then, as if to put the lie to my assumption, the squirrel shot like a bottle rocket across the yard, making a beeline for the ash tree in back. The hawk as quickly gave pursuit and was only a split second behind the fleeing squirrel until I lost sight of them in the profusion of ivy at the far end of the yard. The squirrel emerged unscathed moments later, scaling the trunk of the ash as if it were just another day at the office. And then, the mother hawk was gone into the valley oaks above the creek.

The young hawk, during all the excitement, had taken up her mother’s perch on the rim of the old wine barrel and was preening herself. She then settled into a quiet stance, calmly watching the finches who were now chancing darting visits to grab a seed and dash away. They weren’t deterred but neither did they dawdle for long on the perch as they normally would. The hawk watched with a studied insouciance, as if she couldn’t be bothered to exert herself for her breakfast. But then she was up and the game with the ground squirrel was on again. After a few exhausting attempts, she returned to the wine barrel perch to meditate. The squirrel ventured out into the open on the deck and stood on its haunches, ramrod straight, taking in the mood of the hawk from relative safety behind the slats.

Finally, after a few minutes, the squirrel scampered over to a cloth mat in the center of the deck, in full view of the hawk. The squirrel lazily stretched and yawned as if it were a morning at the beach and it was time to get up for a quick swim. It’s called “pandiculation,” a full-body stretch, what a cat does dozens of times in the course of a day, forelegs thrust forward and flat against the ground, rump in the air, a yawn, a shudder, and then a stretch forward and done. It keeps a cat limber, but I’d never seen a squirrel enact it. Was he readying himself for a mad dash? I never found out. The squirrel slowly advanced to the first stoop of the deck and turned to face the hawk, now only a few feet away. The hawk turned and there was a brief stare down. Then she raised her wings, was aloft, and made an easy glide to the arm of a dark green lawn chair on the far side of the yard.

The entire scene seemed to me to have been nothing more than play. No serious intent on the part of the hawk to catch a meal and no real concern on the part of the squirrel to avoid becoming such. And yet, there was an encounter, an interaction, a bemused awareness on the part of both. Each saw and acknowledged the other, but the narrative ended there. I’ve seen many attempts on the part of the Cooper’s hawks in our neighborhood over the past few years, but no direct kills. I’ve seen the remains of kills beneath the feeder and around the yard. And once, as I lay in bed early one morning, the back window of our two-story house in Oakland framing the giant live oaks in the backyard, I watched as a slow downy snow of feathers floated down past the window. A Coopie eating a woodpecker on the branch just above the window.

Which all leads me to believe that most attempts at a kill fall short. But the theatre of predator and prey is about more than the kill. “For my sake,” the hawk seems to say in a tongue unfathomable to us, “be quick, be wary. Keep me forever the beautiful essence of hawk. Help me preserve my magnificence with your own.”