Photo by Jimmy Tohill.
“I hate birds,” the woman says. A stranger, she sips coffee with me before our writing workshop begins. To make small talk, I’ve mentioned a hawk I spotted on my morning bird walk. “You hate all birds?” I ask, thinking sparrows, warblers, eagles, ducks.
She leans into me, her voice rising as her eyes grow wide behind thick, black-framed glasses. All birds, she says. Send them to zoos. Lock them in cages. They’re dirty and unpredictable. “I avoid them at all costs,” she says, though by now her meaning is abundantly clear. “Why would anyone go looking for them?”
Without noting that I’m among some 45 million Americans who engage in this vile pastime, per U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates, I assess her by birdwatching standards. Long nose, sharp like a beak, blue-black hair, strident squawk. Even her hands, hooked and knobbed by arthritis, clench like birds’ feet wrapped around a branch. She reminds me of a crow, a bird that is brainy, brash, social, and loud, with a reputation in some cultures as a harbinger of death. A twisted rendering of a mythological Crow Woman—from here on out, that’s how I’ll think of her.
In all my years of birding, I’ve never met anyone with such a violent hatred of birds. What turned her against them, Crow Woman says, was Alfred Hitchcock’s classic 1963 thriller The Birds, a masterpiece of tension and terror. Set in a small California coastal town, a mysterious force turns seemingly benign birds into vicious killers. In one scene, a flock of crows amasses in a school playground. When the children leave the building, the crows swoop down, attacking their necks, heads, backs, and eyes. The cause of this strange bird behavior is never revealed.
Like Crow Woman, I watched The Birds when I was young. But I haven’t thought of it in decades. Hitchcock’s murderous flocks never squelched my enthusiasm for songs and plumages, or my respect for how birds survive incredible hardships and phenomenal migrations.
I pity her, missing out on the beauty of birds in flight, and the joy of birdsong, her ornithophobia not triggered by an actual bird attack, but by one conjured up in Hollywood.
When birds attack
One morning in early July, my friend Kathy and I leave our sleeping husbands at a cabin in Homer and head for one of our favorite trails. Back in Alaska for a summer visit, Kathy is my hiking buddy, my birding friend, my coffee partner. Two years ago, she ended a 30-year love affair with Alaska and moved with her husband to Colorado for shorter winters and proximity to family. I’ve missed her companionship and cherish this time alone with her before she leaves again, doing what we both love—rambling along a trail. No mountains to scale, no rivers to ford, no great physical challenges this morning, just a path through spruce forest, over streams and across meadows, marsh, and wetland. We’ll scout for bog wildflowers and try to identify songbirds by their calls.
We’ve heard from a local birding friend that there are goshawks nesting near the trail. I’ve seen goshawks from a distance, but never close up. They’re stealthy gray and white hunters with a distinctive white stripe over the eyes. I wonder what one’s nest looks like, whether it’s as big as an eagle’s. This late in the summer, there should be chicks. This could be my chance for a picture of chicks in the nest.
It’s also my chance to show Kathy her first goshawk. She’s a beginning birder, the kind who does not yet wear a pair of binoculars like a necklace all summer, the way I do. She looks to me as the expert. “What’s that bird?” she’ll ask me, pointing to a faraway blur, or hearing a trill somewhere in the trees. I do my best to be accurate—trying to find the bird with my binoculars, checking my bird app, comparing screen shots, playing recorded calls—but I have yet to reach the precision of the pros at the local Audubon Society with their keen eyes and ears.
A night of heavy rain has turned the empty parking lot at the trailhead into brown soupy puddles. Though the rain stopped not long ago, and the sun now filters through a weak layer of clouds, we don rain pants, jackets, rubber boots, and rain hats to protect us from the wet grass and boggy path ahead.
We begin on high ground in a stand of mature spruce—a fairytale copse dense enough to block the rain and smelling of pitch, needles, and fungus. The ground springs beneath our feet, softened by thick layers of spruce needles and the outer shells of spruce cones picked apart by generations of industrious squirrels. At a footbridge spanning a clear brook, we linger in the soft light beneath the trees, admiring a patch of yellow monkeyflowers, a kind of wild snapdragon that thrives along the edges of streams.
The trail enters the bright light of a meadow, lush with chest-high grass and cow parsnip, a tall, celery-like stalk with flat, dinner-plate-sized leaves. As we step out of the trees, we hear a loud kak, kak, from the edge of the clearing. My first thought is a yellowlegs, a large sandpiper that nests in marshes. But the call is much too loud.
Kak, kak, kak, kak. A gray streak hurtles toward us, inches above the grass, heading straight between our heads. Goshawk.
We drop, knees to the muck, arms crossed, shielding our eyes. “My god!” I say. “Out of nowhere.”
“It almost hit me,” says Kathy.
We struggle off the ground, stumbling in our awkward boots. Out in the open, we’re easy targets. We can’t turn back—the bird flew that way. If we can just get across the field…
Kak, kak, kak.
I freeze as the distant shape shoots toward us, becoming eyes, beak, and talons. I marvel at its outstretched wings, unflapping, tilting slightly side to side, correcting course. Aiming straight for me. Straight for my eyes.
We duck. A breeze from the bird’s wings glances my cheek. Crouching as low as our cranky knees will allow, we stumble across the field, boots slurping in the mud, rain pants swishing as they flap against our legs. Reaching a clutch of ragged black spruce, we huddle beneath the thin branches.
We’ve been cowered by a bird a tenth our size. The scene from The Birds flashes back. The schoolyard, the children, their eyes. That hawk has murder on its mind. Even here, we may not be safe. With their broad tails and wide wing spans, goshawks are masters of maneuvering among trees.
Kathy rotates her fanny pack and water bottle back into place. With trembling hands, I adjust my twisted binoculars straps and straighten the brim of my hat. I’ve been dive-bombed by arctic terns protecting their nests, but those were false charges, the terns never coming closer than a foot from my head.
“No one will believe this,” I say.
“The guys will think we’re exaggerating,” says Kathy.
Minutes pass. A story flashes back, one I’d forgotten till now. A friend, on a kayak trip to a remote Alaskan island, told of coming ashore, hauling her gear along the trail to a rented Forest Service cabin, and being dive-bombed by a bird that ripped the hat from her head. A goshawk. Not so surprising, then, that Attila the Hun carried the image of a northern goshawk on his helmet.
With my binoculars, I scan the clearing behind us. No sight of the bird. A varied thrush whistles from a distance. All else is silent. We could retreat, but we’d risk getting strafed again. Plus, we’ve looked forward to this hike, saving it until the end of Kathy’s trip, and neither one of us likes to back down on a goal once we’ve made up our minds.
“I’m not turning around,” Kathy says.
“Maybe it will be hunting when we come back.”
“Or feeding the chicks in the nest,” I say, but then I remember that both goshawk parents tend the chicks, one hunting while the other stays at the nest. And we have no idea exactly where the nest is.
We continue over roots, through puddles, around alders until we come upon a squirrel lying in the middle of the path, on its side, legs stretched out, eye unblinking. It looks intact. No sign of injury. When I nudge it with my foot, it flinches and blinks. It’s either paralyzed or stunned.
“The goshawk?” Kathy offers.
I envision the squirrel in freefall, dropped for later by a bird taking on human intruders, chilling evidence of the hawk’s lethal ferocity. The goshawk has such a ruthless reputation for killing rodents and other birds that an early ornithologist, George Miksch Sutton, referred to it as “thoroughly undesirable” and “a savage destroyer of small game and poultry.”
“Thank god we’re not squirrels,” I say.
Waterfowl and wildlife
We reach a wooden walkway that carries us over the boggiest part of the trail to where a small reward awaits us, a viewing platform that overlooks Beluga Lake and a vast wetland, a chance to see waterfowl, moose, eagles, and bog wildflowers. Here, I’ve seen moose, swans, and, one time, an osprey returning from fishing on the lake.
I scan the grasses with my binoculars and spot a moose, his head and shoulders poking above the grass. On hearing our voices, he raises his head, revealing an immense rack of antlers. He decides we’re too far away to bother him, lowers his head and goes back to grazing.
We take our time at the lake, discussing Kathy’s new hiking group in Colorado, dallying to examine the ripening cloud berries growing on single stems in the dark marshy soil, admiring the just-opening claret-colored marsh cinquefoils, and scanning the treetops for the white-crowned sparrow calling nearby.
We’re procrastinating. Reaching our destination is not as sweet as we’d hoped, knowing we may get slashed by the knifelike talons of an enraged hawk on our way back. Our options are few—slogging through water over our boots or following a side trail we’ve never taken, one that comes out a long way from the car.
Finally, the mosquitoes feasting on our ears and necks force us to move. We climb over slippery roots, raingear drenched from the wet brush and dampened with sweat at the prospect of another attack. I unzip my jacket but leave it on for protection. My heart thumps against the binoculars bouncing on my chest. I tighten the chin strap on my thin rain hat, its broad black brim with red center a perfect bull’s eye from above.
We reach the edge of the meadow. Silence. The coast seems clear. We dash a few steps.
Kak, kak, kak.
The gray bullet streaks toward us. Now we’re squirrels running for our lives. The hawk swoops low. Drop! Drop! We crumple to the earth as a feathered wind blasts over our heads. We struggle up and stumble a few steps before the bird rockets back for us.
Bent at the waist, we two grandmothers in heavy gear sprint for the trees as if our lives depend on it. We reach the parking lot streaked with mud, dripping with sweat, but intact.
My hands tremble as I fumble in my pack for the car keys. “It aimed right for my eyes.”
“I thought it would rip off my scalp,” says Kathy.
‘Keep out. Nesting goshawks.’
The next day, an article in the Homer Tribune reports that our trail has been closed. Posted: Keep out. Nesting goshawks. Attacks have occurred.
A narrow escape, as they say. Yet I admire the goshawk’s fierce protection of its young. And its restraint, to which I’m a testimony, still having my eyes and my scalp.
Crow Woman comes to mind, her horror not so pathetic, her hatred not so far-fetched. But I can’t turn against birds.
Which is not to say I’d go back, not while the goshawks are nesting.