5 Lessons from Hawk Totem: The Harriers Who Live Here

Harrier hawk on eucalyptusFor months now we’ve been learning from a pair of Northern Harrier hawks nesting near our three townhouse balconies, which overlook the San Diego River Gorge. Hawk totem. Teaching us how to be fierce in our creative commitments.

Whoosh! I was standing on the small balcony outside our bedroom when from behind the wall on my left swooped a v-shaped pair of grey wings that soared up into a tall eucalyptus, about four trees to my right. A few minutes later, I could see him soaring back with a stick held perpendicularly in his beak, like a trapeze artist’s balancing bar, longer than his body length. It was early March, nesting season.

How can he fly with that thing? I wondered. He landed in another eucalyptus just off our port bow, a few yards away.

Hawks tend to surprise me. I think of them as flying miles above, soaring on the air currents. But I’ve also had the startling realization that one was sitting on the fence four or five feet away, watching me water the garden bank long before I noticed his magnificent presence. Only then did he choose to open his wings and veer away, slipping easily into obscurity among the back yard tangles of suburbia.

That was two houses ago, and a different species. He taught me to Pay Attention.

Hawk is one of my totem animals—a messenger who speaks to me of things I might be neglecting or forgetting. If you've read my post about rabbits, or beetles, you know that I believe animal encounters relate to our current state of mind and body. They are not as random as we might think, and they almost always have something to teach us about our life at the moment.

Breaking the Rules

Although the non-native eucalyptus planted along our street are noted for their tall narrow trunks and relatively sparse clumps of flammable (and hence undesirable) foliage, the Harriers’ chosen tree features green billows of long narrow leaves at its top, approximately three stories above street level. Koala food. The leaf clumps are rounded enough at the widest point to hide the nest from our view. I imagine it to be wide and flat. Later on, experts will tell me it’s about 24 inches on the outside and maybe 8 inches deep.

Soon I saw the second half of the mated pair. His back was blue-gray, but hers, coffee brown. That day they worked for hours, back and forth in a circular path, totally ignoring my presence. They would glide past my balcony and up into the source tree, chew off the perfect branch, then slip back on a higher route directly into the nesting tree. I suppose they didn’t want to reduce the cover in their home tree, so they were stripping another for their needs.

Shortly after, I read in the local paper that migrating Northern Harrier hawks were spotted hunting low over the meadows of nearby Mission Trails Regional Park. I recognized the photo. So that’s who my new neighbors were! I quickly looked them up online and discovered that

(a) they weren’t supposed to breed here, and

(b) they were supposed to build their nest on the ground, near a water source.

Rebel hawks! Or very wise old hawks who might have passed through this land before. Indeed, there's a coyote den down the bank that falls away from their home tree, closer to the river. We've since spotted Mama Coyote prowling near the tree in the early morning. Coyotes are primary predators for Harriers, say the experts. Imagine if that nest were lying on the ground . . .

Lesson One: Don't be afraid to make course corrections if current conditions warrant. Pay attention, yes, but also break rules if you have to!
But what would happen when their eggs hatched? Would the hawk-lets (aka eyas) try to walk out of the nest that should have been on the ground and fall to their deaths from the unexpected height? At least they'd chosen a spot near water and good hunting grounds.

I contacted my online source, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, to tell them of the discrepancy. They answered kindly and linked me to an interactive range map, as well as a cool Merlin Bird ID app that I haven't yet tried. I've been too busy watching the dramas unfolding before us, as Papa guarded the area and kept Mama, patient Mama, well fed for weeks on end. And then, he got personal.

Close Encounter

I was writing in my downstairs office when I heard a commotion on the balcony upstairs. I stepped out on the office balcony and saw bright yellow hawk claws clattering over the wooden slats above me. Seriously? What was he doing? I dashed quietly up the stairs and there he was, perched grandly on the upper balcony’s railing, watching me approach as if he’d been expecting me, as if his fuss had been purely to gain my attention. I saw no sign of predator-prey struggle. So I crept across the room, landing my bare feet silently, toes first, like the second step of a waltz.

I stopped before I got too close to the sliding door, not wanting to startle him. I stared in awe. He stared in command.

Day after day I’d been going out on the balconies to water plants, eat, or to watch him on the nearby branches waiting for his family to be born. He didn’t seem to mind. I’d talk to him, not knowing then that Harrier Hawks have very sensitive hearing, which is why they have owlish indentations in their faces. They hunt with their ears as much as their eyes, finding small mammals scurrying beneath the brush. He could hear me. He probably also heard our music and TV.

This day his piercing gaze said, “My offspring are coming. Do not bother them, Human. Keep your distance!” After staring long enough to be sure I’d received his command, he deliberately turned his back to me, stretched his beautiful wings, and glided silently away.

Lesson Two: Protect what matters most to you. Be fearless in this.

Losing Hope, Learning Diligence

We kept waiting for the promised fledglings to appear while Joseph, knowing my nature, tried to prepare me for the worst possibilities. Thankfully, we witnessed no disasters. But after weeks went by, we thought perhaps the eggs didn’t hatch, despite Mama and Papa’s constant diligence. Or maybe a crow got them? Or they fell and the coyote ...

Eventually, we thought all the drama was over and stopped paying close attention. When I counted the weeks, I was sure the fledglings should have been birthed long before. This unusual nesting location must have sadly failed.

But my writing desk faces the home tree. Out of the corner of my eyes, I caught a lot of activity around the supposedly abandoned nest. Mama was flying in and out, Papa was still in the neighborhood (even though experts said he could be tending other Mamas as well). Soon we heard what sounded like a baby version of the Harriers’ regular call. A lot of baby versions. Were we imagining them? Had the hawk-lets finally arrived? Was it a second brood?

Then we saw Mama carry strips of food into the nest, followed by visible rustling commotion among the long leaves. Baby food!

Lesson Three: If you want to birth a creation, you’ve got to give it your all, your constant energy and attention. And most of all: have patience.
We thought of our writing projects in the gestation period. Hm. Yes. Sitting on our nests for months on end, cancelling all other distractions. Were we dedicated enough to bring them into being?

"But I'm Scared, Mama!"

At last the day arrived when we hear one baby screaming so loudly, “Feed me feed me feed me hungry hungry hungry feed me hungry feed me hungry,” that it drew us outside. Mama perched placidly on a high branch down the street, three trees away, unfazed by the little one's cries.

Suddenly, one by one, three juvenile hawk-lets clatter and fluster their way from the nest to the tree next door. We are stunned!

A little more than half Mama’s size, they land sloppily but manage to grip their branches and stay aloft. All are brown, with rufous bellies and the distinctive white tail patch of the Harrier. Later on, males will turn grey and females will stay coffee brown with belly stripes. Now they are restless, stretching their wide wings and losing their balance in the process, then regaining it. After a lot of struggle, they settle down, hidden inside clusters of wind-twittering leaves where we can't see them clearly.

Why did they fly another tree further away from Mama? Was this their first flight?

Then we hear that pitiful cry come from the nest again. Mama still hasn’t moved. Not three babies--four!

Mama is resolute. “If you’re hungry, fly to me.”

Baby cries, “No, that’s too hard! I can’t do it! I will die! Feed me feed me feed me! Hungry hungry hungry now!!” And we imagine a coda, “Mama why don’t you love me any more? Why are you tormenting me like this? Feed me feed me feed me.”

Still, the three siblings sit quietly among the glimmering leaves next door. Occasionally one flusters to a new branch, more falling than flying. But they are free of the nest! Not yet ready to hunt but free. We wonder how Mama will teach them the next move but she’s busy right now with her reluctant fourth.

At home tree, we see her fly to a lower branch, landing awkwardly. The cries above her are piercing. She does not relent. She slips to another limb, staying below the nest.

We sit on the balcony eating our lunch, feeling a little guilty about that.

Suddenly she swoops straight down the trunk of the tree to the acacia bushes at its base, stretching her wings, landing for a moment. Then she soars straight back up again to the lower branches. And again, she startles us from our conversation with another uncharacteristically noisy commotion as she flies down to the ground and up again, making sure we all notice.

At first we catch our breath—did the baby fall? Normally, Mama glides swiftly and silently. Then we get it: Is she demonstrating that, If you go down, you can also fly back up again?

She sits on a bare limb and now we see why she's landing funny. In her left claw she holds a big chunk of bloody meat and bone, hewn into a perfect square. Probably a piece of ground squirrel, Joseph speculates.

“Fly to me if you’re hungry,” she says. “I have your food here.” She never touches it. Never dips that sharp beak to take a bite. “It’s not far. You can do it. See? Watch me.”

This drama goes on so long, we must go inside and tend to our own lives.

Lesson Four: If you fall, you can fly up again.

The Final Lesson

Next morning at my desk, the fledgling is crying so steadily that I can barely think. It pains me. Poor thing must eat or die! Fly or die! Leave the safety and comfort of the nest! Risk everything it knows in order to survive. I wonder how Mama can stand to hear those cries and never give in. Or does she?

After a while, flapping erupts from the nest, drawing my attention. Big wings expand; birds clash. Are the older fledglings harassing the younger one? Is it Mama? The cries soon change pitch and fade. Did she feed the reluctant fledgling? Will she try again later to lure it from the nest? Will it find its courage to survive?

The other siblings aren't traveling far in their test flights. They mostly sit in nearby trees. They flap noisily now and then. Mama spends most of her time now several trees away, but watching, watching, watching, as hawks do.

Eat or die! Fly or die! Leave the safety and comfort of the nest! Risk everything you know in order to survive. Your spirit, your soul requires that you must leave all that you have ever known in your brief life, risk it all. Discard it! Leave it behind! Embrace an entirely new way of surviving in the world.

Lesson Five: Let go of your safety and soar. Stay mired in your familiarity and die. The choice is yours. And the courage must be yours as well.
That is the hawk totem lesson I’m learning this week from my five hawk neighbors.

5 Lessons for Creative Accomplishment:

  1. Don't be afraid to make course corrections if current conditions warrant. Pay attention, yes, but also break rules if you have to!
  2. Protect what matters most to you. Be fearless in this.
  3. If you want to birth a creation, you’ve got to give it your all, your constant energy and attention. And most of all: have patience.
  4. If you fall, you can fly up again.
  5. Let go of your safety and soar. Stay mired in your familiarity and die. The choice is yours. And the courage must be yours as well.