A Gift of Wings

Merak's feather, beautifully beaded for me by my friend Mireille Lapointe

Long ago, through the Ministry of Natural Resources, my husband and I were given the gift of caring for, and hopefully rewilding, a young red-tailed hawk, whom we called Merak. I wrote about this remarkable adventure in my book A Wing in the Door, Life With a Red-tailed Hawk.

As it turned out, two year old Merak was completely imprinted on humans, and in spite of our efforts to avoid bonding with her came to see Barry and me and our sons as her family. In most ways, she matured, learned to soar, had a territory, which was roughly the 800 acre Foley Mountain Conservation Area where we lived and worked. Before our eyes she learned to hunt, capturing everything from grasshoppers to chipmunks, to once a rabbit. After her yearly moult, in fair summer weather she disappeared for days at a time. But perhaps her far-seeing eyes kept more of a watch on us than we knew. When her favourite person, our son Jeremy,  returned from university, she would immediately sail in, calling to him in greeting. 

Tragically, although she tried to attract a mate, one look at her chosen nest site on our back porch roof was enough to drive him off. Every year she laid two large, white speckled but infertile eggs in this messy stick nest, and waited for us to feed her, as a mate would have done.

In the whole, I believe Merak had a good, hawkish life, living to be seventeen, teaching and inspiring hundreds of park visitors, and even radio and television audiences across Canada, and most certainly giving us joy. But I never got over the tragedy that she could not attract a mate and did not get to raise young. Because of the young, well-meaning, would-be falconer,  who had taken her illegally from the nest, hoping to use her for falconry, she was damaged.

But this is where the happy ending comes in. For the past six years, thanks to the web cams at Cornell University, I have had the delight of watching close-up the most intimate goings on of Big Red and Arthur, the mated pair of red-tails who raise their young and fledge them on campus. I have shared the tenderness and companionship of the pair, been amazed at 20 year old Big Red delicately feeding her new babies tiny snippets of prey with her beak, have laughed at the young hawks “flappercizing”, have held my breath over the perilous first flight of the year’s newly fledging babies, have wept over injured infant hawks who did not make it. (The first year is by far the riskiest for young birds.) 

Although I will never not miss Merak, the magnificent red-tailed hawk who was family and who taught us and many others so much, thanks to Cornell, I have the joy of happy endings every spring. And you can too: on twitter @CornellHawks; on facebook https://www.allaboutbirds.org/cams/red-tailed-hawks/

Collage remembering Merak and the many of her students who learned about her in person, Created by teacher Nancy Stokes

Small with Great Love

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