A Labor Day Fatality
By Robert Finch
With the coming of the Labor Day weekend, the traffic rotaries on the Cape's highways always seem to
pick up speed. They suck in and spin off the cars with a centrifugal impatience characteristic of the
drivers themselves. From the sidelines, the whole revolving vehicular spectacle appears to have the
makings of a giant tornado or waterspout. In fact, it's likely that the rush and whirl of the cars around
these rotaries do create significant and sudden air currents above them, and that these may have
consequences for other creatures.
Over the holiday weekend, I was walking beside one of these rotaries when I came upon the dead form
of a small hawk lying just inches from the crunch of speeding tires. I stooped down for a closer look
and saw that the bird was an adult broad-winged hawk, a crow-sized bird easily recognizable by the
broad brown and white bands on its tail. The hawk was only just dead, and when I picked it up its body
was still warm. One eye had been scraped on the asphalt where it had fallen, but the other was still
black and clear. There was a small wound on the inside of the left wing where it had been hit and
broken, but that was all. The fierceness of its face had a stunned quality to it, as if it had not been
defeated but somehow tricked, or cheated of a life.
The hawk's body was incredibly soft and beautiful. The insides of its broad wings were snowy white,
the tips a dark brown. I stroked its soft, multi-layered breast, the lovely broadwing breast that is
flecked with spots of reddish-brown at the tips. It smelled faintly musky, and not unpleasant, like a
dog, or an attic. There was no sign of the strong, powerful flight muscles in the limp form, and the neck
hung loose, like a piece of cracked spaghetti. In death only the sharp tips of the beak and talons
retained in the hard, curved, tapered fierceness of hawk-life. I slipped it into the loose pocket of my
jacket and later laid it to rest in the woods.
What had caused its death? It's not unlikely that the bird had been caught in a sudden downdraft or
current from the cars' circling rush, and had collided with one of them. Perhaps it had been swooping
in for a mouse or small bird in the grass in the center of the rotary, though broadwings generally prefer
deep woods to open country.
Broad-winged hawks were once fairly common nesters in southeastern Massachusetts, but as our
woods have been increasingly chopped up for subdivisions, their numbers, like most of our birds of
prey, have declined. Occasionally, in fall or spring, we get a few of these birds passing over the Cape as
transients. The dead hawk at the rotary may very well have been an early fall migrant.
Not much of a loss, I suppose, by National Safety Council standards for a holiday weekend. A minor
Labor Day Fatality. But in these latter days, we here on the Cape and Islands increasingly mark our
gains and losses in small handfuls, whether of sand, water, leaves, or the limp, fallen form of a hawk.