A Salute to Our Great Black Hawk

Wed, 02/06/2019 - 7:45am

    The bird didn’t know it was special, but hundreds of people who traveled to see it — and the millions more who heard about it in the news — sure did. It didn’t know that thousands of photos of it were taken while it tore chunks of meat from squirrels in Portland’s Deering Oaks park. The great black hawk that improbably found its way to Maine, and stayed here into the frigid northern winter when the rest of its kind were in warm tropical climes no farther north than Mexico, became a celebrity.

    The red-tailed hawks of Deering Oaks didn’t treat it like a superstar. They fought with it regularly to keep it from what they considered their own rich hunting ground. And some humans didn’t always treat it as they should have — scaring it off by approaching too close in order to get a better photo, not unlike what happens to human luminaries hounded by other people who want photos to sell to the highest bidder.

    Fortunately, the vast majority of people who heard about, saw, tried to see and photograph the great black hawk regarded the bird with joy, and awe and respect. As it became a fixture of the park and word of its presence spread, more and more people arrived to stroll the paved walkways in hopes of seeing the famed wanderer. We had stopped by three times ourselves without actually seeing the bird. But we noticed something soon into our first visit. Despite the cold and the fact that the bird was nowhere to be seen, people were coming together in the park around the idea of seeing this marvelous bird. We made new acquaintances and reconnected with old ones. We shared stories about places and people and trips made to look for other unusual birds. More than once we saw some of the same faces picking up donuts and hot coffee across the street at the Holy Donut where many of the staff themselves had seen the hawk. On the fourth trip down we actually even got to see that beautiful and fascinating bird!

    The hawk touched our lives even when we were far away. Having heard about it on the news, co-workers, friends, family, and sometimes people we barely knew, couldn’t wait to ask us about the great black hawk and relish in its specialness.

    One of the questions many people asked us was, “If the bird is adapted to the tropics, how is it surviving, and can it survive a Maine winter?”

    It was a question that many a birder has asked when a bird shows up far from its normal range, especially when that range is tropical and the bird is in a much colder place. Some birds surprise everyone and do find a way to survive. Others probably fly back to warmer climes when they have a chance.

    But some don’t make it.

    The great black hawk, the bird that became to many “our” beloved great black hawk, was one of those whose tropical adaptations finally reached the limits imposed by a cold and snowy Maine winter. Found moribund and unable to walk, the bird was transported through a snowstorm to Avian Haven, one of the state’s top bird rehabilitation facilities. Sadly, over the ensuring days, the extend of frostbite on its long, exposed legs made it clear that its legs had been frozen too badly to allow it to survive.

    It was a sad day.

    Even its injury and eventual death was reported across the news — we were surprised to hear the story repeated even on the unlikeliest of outlets, including sports talk radio where it is rare to hear of anything but news of football, basketball, hockey and baseball.

    The bird didn’t know what it had done, how it had touched millions of us with its remarkable strength and resilience despite being thousands of miles from its original home. Still we suspect we are not alone in feeling moved to say “thank you” to a great black hawk that made Maine its home and became our neighbor, if even for just a few amazing weeks.

    Jeffrey V. Wells, Ph.D., is a Fellow of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Dr. Wells is one of the nation's leading bird experts and conservation biologists and author of “Birder’s Conservation Handbook. His grandfather, the late John Chase, was a columnist for the Boothbay Register for many years. Allison Childs Wells, formerly of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, is a senior director at the Natural Resources Council of Maine, a nonprofit membership organization working statewide to protect the nature of Maine. Both are widely published natural history writers and are the authors of the book, “Maine’s Favorite Birds” and “Birds of Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao: A Site and Field Guide” from Cornell Press.