A Cape Cod Notebook 9/11/07

listenA 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.