Out of place?

red-tailed hawk with vole

According to a helpful webpage on film sound clichés, “the Red-Tailed Hawk scree signifies outdoors and a big, lonely place.” Anytime a rocky mountainside appears in a movie, you can almost count on hearing that raspy scream, which most people probably assume belongs to an eagle. It’s also used as an all-purpose signifier of impending or just-concluded drama in the typical outdoors adventure flick. So you know that I must’ve photographed this immature redtail in some wild, lonely setting, right?

red-tailed hawk in maple

Wrong. It was hanging out in the heart of Penn State’s University Park campus yesterday, home to some 40,000 students. Which, I suppose, is positively bucolic compared to Manhattan, where Central Park’s famous Pale Male lives, along with a growing number of other redtails. As I watched, the hawk dove at squirrels on the sidewalk four different times without success: fat and pampered as they seem, Penn State’s squirrels are masters of defense, dodging and feinting. It finally dove into the groundcover next to Schwab Auditorium and came up with what appeared to be a meadow vole, whose presence on campus I found much more surprising than the hawk’s.

By this time, classes had let out and the sidewalks were jammed, but most of the students didn’t appear to notice the hawk ripping at its prey on a low limb less than ten feet above the sidewalk. Half a dozen students had been following the drama with interest, and a few more, seeing all of us, paused briefly to snap pictures with their cell phones, but the vast majority didn’t give it a second glance. In fact, when the hawk dove after the vole, it cleared the head of a passing student by less than three inches, but she never looked up.

red-tailed hawk in elms
It seems ironic that I have to go into town to get good views of wildlife that we have here on the mountain in abundance. I’m reasonably sure our resident redtails have never been shot at, but they are still far warier than this one was. Nor is it the first time I’ve seen a hawk on campus acting as if people were nothing but short, loud, ambulatory trees.

The students who took an active interest in the hawk’s activities were as puzzling to me as those who glanced at it and kept walking. I gathered from their conversation that at least a couple of them had been following it around for close to half an hour by the time I came on the scene. “It sure beats going to class,” I heard one of them say. But they weren’t disinterested wildlife watchers; I soon realized that they were actually trying to herd squirrels toward the hawk. Each time it dove at a squirrel, they hooted and cheered like football fans at Beaver Stadium.

They made an odd counterpoint to the half-dozen crows, who were watching and jeering from a somewhat safer distance in the tops of the elms. But within minutes after the hawk finally scored, both the fans and the opposing team drifted away. I stood alone on the auditorium steps, watching this strange and magnificent creature tear its brunch into bite-sized pieces while students streamed by below. A couple of times it paused to return my gaze with that challenging stare all raptors possess, and I felt a little odd — as if it were really I who was out of place. What was I doing, thinking that the human-nature dichotomy is an out-dated construct only adhered to by a few, misguided purists? The hawk might as well have been a visitor from another planet.
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Be sure to check out the short-but-diverse Festival of the Trees #20. And if you have any broader interest in plants, you may be interested to learn that there’s a brand-new blog carnival for plants called Berry Go Round. The first edition is up at Seeds Aside.

25 Comments


  1. this was wonderful in every respect.

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  2. I guess that’s why colleges don’t have nicknames like the Voles or the Squirrels.

    The hawk’s thrust-out chest in the third photo makes him look like he owns the place. But he merely fits in perfectly in the second photo: the paunchy, middle-aged professor with his hands behind his open tweed jacket.

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  3. The first picture is especially fabulous. (I didn’t notice the vole’s butt until I went back to it after the read.) Great story, too.

    (I’ve had Coopers and Sharpies in my backyard. Winn’s book about Pale Male was lovely. I watch for hawks as I drive I-5 between Portland & Eugene. I love hawks. Even when eating rodents. Are voles rodents?)

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  4. Thank you for this photo-essay. I find the intrusion of wild life into urban settings constantly fascinating. I love the expression of single minded greed in the eyes of raptors.

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  5. Thanks for the comments.

    Peter – Hey, I didn’t think of that. Maybe that’s why so few people gave it a second glance!

    …deb – Voles are rodents, yes – see here. I should make it clear that I’m not 100% certain of that i.d. But it’s too big for a shrew, the back feet aren’t right for a mole, and the tail’s too short for a regular mouse.

    So far we haven’t had any sharpies at the bird feeders this winter; usually we do get a few. We often have both sharpies and Cooper’s hawks nesting on the mountain. Mom wrote about watching the latter here.

    Joe Hyam – Single-minded, yes; “greed” I’m not so sure about. Though there are predators that kill more than they need (weasels, housecats), I don’t think raptors are among them.

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  6. I have watched this bird since the mid 1990s. Or, there has been a red-tailed hawk working this corner of campus for many years. Could it be the same bird, year after year?

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  7. Very well-written, thought-provoking post. That first photo is so crisp-clear! Very well done!

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  8. By odd coincidence, I saw again this morning the redtail that hangs out around Waban Square, smack dab in the middle of a T-accessible Boston suburb. Why wouldn’t hawks, coyotes, etc. hang out where there is a proliferation of squirrels?

    After moving to the “wilds” of NH (Hillsboro, not Keene, where I lived across the street from a large state forest), I marveled that I’d seen more birds when I lived in Cambridge, MA and went birding at Mount Auburn Cemetery. At Mount Auburn, the birds were concentrated into a relatively small area; they fed largely in short, well-trimmed trees; and there were hordes of birders out there looking for them, so if you didn’t spot something interesting, someone else would.

    In NH, I had to find my own avian needles in a well-forested haystack, which I suspect is why you see more critters in town than you do in Plummer’s Hollow. With all that space to spread out in, the wildlife in Plummer’s Hollow can avoid humans. In town, hawks etc learn to ignore rather than avoid.

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  9. quiet regular – Well, judging by the coloration, this bird was an immature. But possibly it’s the offspring of the hawk(s) you’ve been watching? Probably anyone in the State College Bird Club could tell us exactly where they nest.

    Jennifer – Thanks. I’m saving the best photo (or at least my personal favorite) for Visual Soma, where it’s scheduled to appear on Feb. 7.

    Lorianne – I’m sure you’re right. Of course, there are plenty of species that are restricted to interior forest habitats — and we shouldn’t forget that some habitat fragments act as sinks, attracting mating pairs of, say, wood thrushes year after year, but rarely allowing them to raise any young due to their nests’ increased vulnerability to edge-loving predators (coyotes, crows, cowbirds, housecats, racoons, red foxes — oh, and red-tailed hawks). Broken-up habitat often teems with wildlife, but it’s always the same few dozen species.

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  10. short, loud, ambulatory trees

    LOVE. This is precisely what I know I am to the majority of the wildlife I encounter.

    These photos are gorgeous. Was trying to remember Pale Male’s name recently – had it in my head as ‘Joe’ or ‘Fred’ or something typically NY blase – have several longtime NYC friends who hang on the instances of adapted city wildlife with the kind of desperate hunger only urban living creates: a thing that is both great (for them, for the animals for figuring out how to survive us) and depressing for the total lack of experience with animals who are not dependent upon us.

    Animals adapted to urban settings are interesting. We do get to see more of them, but what we see is human/urban adapted behavior. Chris’ post about nature photography and the presence of fiction vs. real narrative of our consequence to the animal world was right on – and, I hope everyone is made to have the experience at least once in their life of meeting an animal who has not adapted to us. For humility’s sake.

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  11. btw, on the drive to West Newton (another bustling Boston suburb, this time on the commuter rail rather than T) for lunch this afternoon, J and I saw another redtail fly across the road. I’ve seen a redtail perched on a church steeple in West Newton before–perhaps the same bird, or its mate, or a close neighbor–which means I’m gradually becoming acquainted with the hawks of greater Newton. It’s wilder out there than many folks think.

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  12. Periodically I spot a raptor sitting up on a branch in our courthouse square, which houses the usual pigeons, house finches and small brown birds plus great-tailed grackles in season. And, of course, we have the raven pair that nest on the side of the courthouse year after year. Each time I hear of another species that has adjusted to living in the midst of the dominant species, I want to give it a Survivor Award….

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  13. I hope everyone is made to have the experience at least once in their life of meeting an animal who has not adapted to us. For humility’s sake.

    Amen, sister! But for the sake of their survival as a species, history suggests that animals are much better off if they have adapted to us at least to the point of knowing to flee or hide from us when they encounter us alone in a dark alley of trees. Animals that show no fear whatsoever are taken to be tame — though nothing could be further from the truth — and typically meet the fate of our livestock, without the benefit of a captive breeding program.

    Urban living would be great if the cities were smallish and if one could easily get out into the woods on public transportation. Given that latter condition, I would gladly live in an urban environment. It would certainly be best for the earth if we lived in concetrated settlements, as you imply.

    By the way, I can think of at least two other possible reasons, besides a general lack of interest in nature, for the students’ apparent disinterest in the redtail:
    1) They see it all the time, so its novelty has worn off;
    2) They’ve never seen anything like it at close range before, so they’re unable to assimilate its presence — it has no place in their worldviews. I’m thinking here of the story I think Bill McKibben told somewhere (or was it Jared Diamond?) about the non-reaction of certain Australian Aborigines when large European sailing ships appeared before them for the first time. They acted as if nothing were happening.

    Lorianne – Wow, I should’ve asked you to guest-write this post! I had no idea redtails were growing so common in towns and cities. Then again, the great thing about blogging is that I can write about something where my knowledge is shakey or incomplete and count on y’all to set me straight in the comments.

    Anonymous – Ravens too, eh? It’s funny how fluid many creatures’ habitat preferences are turning out to be. When fishers were reintroduced to Pennsylvania some 15 years ago, it was assumed on the basis of research conducted in the North Woods that they would stick to larger, older forests with lots of conifers. Instead, they’re spreading to all kinds of forested habitat across the commonwealth (including our hollow).

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  14. But for the sake of their survival as a species, history suggests that animals are much better off if they have adapted to us at least to the point of knowing to flee or hide from us when they encounter us alone in a dark alley of trees.

    Very true.

    Have had the opportunity to live in close and long proximity, though, to healthy, non-trash-adapted wild animals who had gotten familiar-ish with humans without getting tied up with them – and what I’ve seen is that some really do analyze individuals over time and come to varying determinations about them (coyotes especially). May have to write more about that.

    Massive affection for the redtails, who do well pretty much everywhere (except highways).

    Now that I’m further north than I was and on the edge of a much larger expanse of real wilderness, I’m seeing a lot more ravens, more peregrines – fewer redtails and bald eagles. Wolf tracks, no coyotes (I’m sure they’re nearby, just not within howling distance). Foxes. Lots more weasel-family critters, the same amount of deer.

    And of course, moose.

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  15. Yeah, I envy you your tantalizing encounters with megafauna (the wolf tracks post last week left me green!) and proximity to real wilderness. But just remember this: boring ol’ Pennsylvania still kicks Vermont’s ass in overall biodiversity. :)

    I don’t doubt what you say about the ability of wild animals to distinguish between individual humans, and even sense something of their motives. I hope you do write about that.

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  16. boring ol’ Pennsylvania still kicks Vermont’s ass in overall biodiversity. :)

    I love boring ol’ Pennsylvania. Someday you’ll invite me over.

    Mainly, once the coyotes had my motives down as being a weird, naked, clumsy, slow, coyote wannabe, their reaction was: “Oh, it’s you again.”

    And then they’d leave.

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  17. Theriomorph – There’s a standing invitation to all regular Via Negativa readers who aren’t crazed stalkers. I am living in a Guest House, after all. Dogs are also welcome. So far Lorianne of Hoarded Ordinaries (with dog) and Tom Montag of the Middlewesterner are the only bloggers to have taken me up on this unadvertised invite.

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  18. Stunning hawk photos, dave. I especially like the first one, but am intrigued by the one you didn’t post and are saving for Visual Soma. I’m looking forward to seeing that one. We have a Red-shouldered hawk that hunts our neighborhood. It always surprises me to see it perched on the roof of our neighbor’s house. People walk by and never even glance up at it. It’s like the wild world has fallen completely off their radar.

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  19. Thanks for stopping by. I always enjoy your red-shouldered reports and pictures. It sounds as if that species is adapting as well as its buteo cousin in the east.

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  20. Fantastic!

    Buzzards are called ‘tourists’ eagles’ in Scotland.

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  21. Wonderful post, Dave. I’m thinking redtails must be THE urban (or people tolerant) hawk, joining other wildlife such as Norway rats, cockroaches, turkey vultures, house sparrows, great horned owls… those that will continue and even prosper in our human environments. Even the “adapted-to-persecution” coyote… It’s nice to know we’ll still have wildlife with us, just a more limited palette than some of us would prefer.

    Great photos and story!

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  22. Hi Sally – Thanks for stopping by. I agree — and the great-horned owl is a good bird-of-prey precedent. Even the barred owl seems to be adapting to a younger and more fragmented forest. These creatures are nowhere near as human-adapted as Norway rats or cockroaches yet, but give them time.

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