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?
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.
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.
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.