The Fellowship of the Talon?

by Jason Tougaw

At first, I thought I was hearing routine chicken squabbling. The hens get loud when they tangle with each other. But Dave (my beloved partner in life and domesticity) seemed to know right away this was something else. Within seconds, the screech was unmistakable: it had something to do with life and death.

This is not the actual hawk. There was no time for cameras. But this is what it looked like.

“Run outside,” Dave said (apparently, though I don’t remember hearing him). I like to think I followed the order unconsciously. I was wearing socks, and the deck was covered in snow. A red-tailed hawk had our Rhode Island Red pinned under a shelf unit where we keep our recycling–in a space about six inches high. The color of the two birds was similar, so at first I didn’t know what I was looking at. Then the hawk glanced my way–looking decidedly ungraceful smushed under the shelf. The beak and eyes gave it away. You probably know just what a red-tailed hawk looks like. They’re gorgeous creatures, with rust-colored breasts and tails, strong wings flecked in browns, reds, greys, and whites, with talons that look a lot like chicken feet, though obviously much more powerful.

I yelled. Dave appeared. The hawk flew into a tree maybe twenty yards away, resuming its usual grace, looked at the scene of its near-kill for a little while, and flew off into the woods. The hen, who’d lost a lot of feathers, crawled out from under the shelf, paused, glanced at us, and trotted to the end of the deck and hopped off. She spent the rest of the day under cover, and went into the coop at dusk, as usual.

I called our friend Melissa, because I thought she’d enjoy the story of our dramatic encounter with this wild creature. I’d never been so near a hawk–about three feet or so. She enjoyed the story, and I enjoyed telling it.

That was a Thursday afternoon. Friday morning, we let the hens out as we normally do. A mistake. It was a melty day, and they spent it picking through soggy grass and leaves, presumably munching on (and of course killing) whatever grubs and bugs they could find. The Rhode Island Red seemed more cautious than usual, but not overly traumatized. (How does a human recognize trauma in a chicken?)

Around 3 o’clock, after Dave had gone to the lumber yard, I heard the screech again: high, loud, relentless, and insistent. I ran outside, with shoes on this time, but I couldn’t find the chicken. After circling the house three times, I saw the head of a black chicken (an Australorp) poking out from under the deck, in an area where there’s only about two or three inches of space between the deck and the earth. She seemed to be trying to crawl out, but there wasn’t enough space. She seemed to run to the other end of the deck, where the bottom is about eight inches above the ground, plenty of space for her to get through. But she didn’t.

I ran inside and got a flashlight. I laid down on the ground, and moved the light around under the deck, until I saw the chicken, pinned by what appeared to be the same hawk, whose beak was nuzzled in the feathers around its neck. If you didn’t know they were predator and prey, you might have thought they were cuddling. I realized the chicken hadn’t been running back and forth under the deck. It had been dragged. Imagine being dragged around by a hawk. Imagine it for a second right now and see what you feel.

I grabbed a pitchfork. Yes, that’s what I did. I laid down on the ground, placed the flashlight where it would illuminate the birds, who were about three feet away from me under the deck. I tried to pry the hawk off the chicken, using the tines of the pitchfork as both tool and weapon. It worked, for a moment. The chicken got loose. It ran toward the edge of the deck. The hawk pulled it back. I went back to work with the pitchfork. I thought to myself, “I will kill this hawk if I have to,” though I really hoped I wouldn’t have to. I knew the hawk was only doing what hawks do to live. I mean–come on–I eat chickens too. But I live with this Australorp, and it was very clear to me  that I’d do anything to save it. This was an instinct, but it was confirmed by conscious reasoning–albeit an adrenaline informed form of rushed reasoning.

I prodded, poked, and stabbed at the hawk for several more rounds. The hen would get free. The hawk would retrieve it. I’d go back to work with the pitchfork. I have no idea how long this went on. Time was invisible. Finally, the chicken made it to the edge of the deck, poking its head through. I dug into the ground to make more space for it to get out. I put my hands and around its neck and tried to pull it through. I was already engaged in the tug of war when I realized what was going on: the hawk had the other end of the chicken and was pulling with what seemed to be strength about equal to mine. I wondered if I was doing something stupid and reckless. I pulled. I dug. I jabbed the hawk with the pitchfork. And I pulled some more, worrying that I might crush the chicken. Finally, I pulled her through. She was free of the hawk and in my hands. She had lost feathers, but seemed okay physically. I took her to the coop and put her into one of the nesting boxes, wondering where the other chickens were.

I went back to the scene of the battle, breathless and filthy. My nerves were atwitter, and I felt like the air around me was buzzing. The hawk was standing near the edge of the deck, looking at me–apparently calm. We stood a couple of feet apart. I yelled at it, but it just looked at me. Was it hurt? Had I hurt it? Did I need to contact somebody who could help it? I loved the idea that somebody might come and take this predator off our property. I ran inside and got the phone. I called Dave. No answer. I called Melissa. No answer. I didn’t expect to reach them, given the spotty cell reception around here.

The hawk went back under the deck. I grabbed the flashlight, but couldn’t see it. Then the screeching: the sound of life and death. Again. There was another chicken under the deck. I finally found the birds with the light and saw that it was our other Australorp. I grabbed the pitchfork. The phone rang. I told Melissa what was going on. She asked if I needed help. I said I wasn’t sure. I hung up and went to work with the pitchfork. The events of the second battle were nearly identical to the first–and lasted about the same amount of time, as far as I can remember.

I didn’t really believe I’d save the first chicken, and I felt the same about the second. But I knew it was possible, since I’d done it once. When I retrieved her, I was exhilarated, spent, and astonished. I took her to the nesting box with her sister. (And yes, it is literally her sister.)

The hawk hopped onto the deck, then the picnic table, leaving claw marks in the snow. It stared at me. It hung out. It flew into the screens of our porch a couple of times–perhaps as dazed as I was? It made its way back under the deck, but on the other side, where there’s more height–two or three feet between it and the ground.

A hawk standing, wings spanned, is a menacingly graceful creature. Just ask Dave.

Dave pulled in the driveway. I’m not sure I’ve ever been quite that relieved to see another human being. I stammered the story. I felt frustrated that I couldn’t quite convey the primal drama I’d been involved in. I was freaked and I wanted him to understand exactly how I felt–something one human can never quite do for another. He tried. He did seem astonished. We looked at the hawk together. It stared back at us. Dave put on some big leather gloves and scooted under the deck. The hawk spread its wings, for the first time since I’d seen it, and started trotting in Dave’s direction. “Get out,” I yelled. He did. The hawk stood still and tucked its wings back in.

Now that there were two of us, I decided to look for the rest of our hens. We have six. A third had already entered the coop. I found the Rhode Island Red and two others (Buff Orpingtons) in the hedges in front of the house. By this time it was dusk and they should have been going into the coop. They didn’t seem to want to make the trek across the yard. Who would?! Finally, they did. The sun had set, the chickens were safe, and the hawk remained under the deck, out of sight. We went inside.

Since that day, nearly two weeks ago, the chickens have been tucked away in the inner, covered part of the coop, a place where they’ve seldom hung out, except to lay eggs, eat, and drink. They seem to want to stay out of sight. We’re keeping them enclosed, but they don’t seem to know they’d be safe in the outer coop. They’re not laying any eggs. We’ve seen hawks fly over the yard a couple of times. We can’t know if we’re seeing the hawk, but people tell me it’s likely that it has a nest nearby, possibly in the woods on our property. Nobody can really estimate how long it may be before the hawk might give up on our chickens as an easy source of food.

The Ladies of Forman Road, ensconced to avoid the notorious hawk eye, their own eyes aglow in the face of my camera phone's flash.

I’d have thought a red-tailed hawk (the famed “chicken hawk”) would have an easier time killing a chicken. I’d have thought a hawk like that would flee when faced with a human wielding a pitchfork.

I wouldn’t have known that I’d fight quite that hard to save a chicken. I didn’t know if what I was doing was stupid. I wasn’t sure the hawk wouldn’t wound me.

I’m aware of the fact that this hawk was doing nothing wrong. It was doing what it does to live. I’ve never understood war. Intellectually, it has always seemed like a big mistake to define distant others as enemies who may be killed because they represent the other side in a battle (for property, wealth, ideas, whatever). But in this case, I acted like a warrior. I don’t mean I was some big hero. I just mean that I was willing to kill for what I wanted: to save the chickens. I’m glad I didn’t have to.

It’s just a basic fact that many species share our world, and that the sharing is often harmonious and often violent. Our cats and chickens hardly acknowledge each other. Various species of bird peck at each other for the seeds in the feeder. Worms poop in the ground and our vegetables feed on it. Our chickens kill and eat those bugs and grubs every day. If you give them table scraps, they’ll always go for the meat first. They kill and eat mice on occasion. Once, we saw the flock tossing a small snake back and forth. If we hadn’t stopped them, they’d have killed it.

Nonetheless, I wanted to save those chickens from a hawk inclined to live by feeding on them. I became territorial–somewhat equivalent to the nationalism I object to when people adopt it to justify conflict between their own cultures and others.

My friend Gabrielle, who’s worked with raptors for years, gave me this advice: “They do call them ‘Chicken Hawks’ for a reason! My best advice (although it may be hard w/ your busy life!) try to be out with the chickens when they are out, if you see ‘him’ yell, shake a aluminum can with change in it, or festively shake garland! The up side is if he doesn’t get ‘rewarded’ eventually he will seek a better hunting ground. . . . I wish I had a better remedy, but as you know, nature can be cruel.” Yup. That much I know. Let’s hope this hawk decides the rewards are not worth the trouble.

My friend Cima joked that I should have snatched one of the hawks talons, to wear around my neck. When I suggested maybe I should have the hawk stuffed, he objected: “Nah… Just a talon hanging around ur neck and some gnarly talon battle scrapes across ur face. Better that the hawk barely made it out alive and looks to someday return for revenge. However, you learn–through a vision–that you must return that talon to the hawk…. for it is the last of its kind. Aaaand, without it’s magic talon–the entire species is in danger of extinction. Thus begins the fellowship of the talon.

Since the battle with the hawk, I seem to be feeling–and acting on–my convictions more emphatically than usual. I seem to have developed a need to defend what I believe in. I’ve been more confrontational in personal and professional situations. These confrontations haven’t all been graceful, but they’ve had a clarity about them that feels like it’s connected to my battle with the hawk. Something about this is good, but I’m not sure I want to sustain it. Conflict between species inevitable, just as it is among members of the same species. Sometimes conflict exhilarating, sometimes satisfying, sometimes troubling, and always exhausting–physically, emotionally, psychologically, and intellectually.

Some conflicts are graceful, some scrappy and mean. When a hawk plucks a rodent from a field, there’s a grace to this violence. When a hawk pins a chicken in an enclosed space, where the predator’s strengths are not at play, the fight is ugly (and the chicken, on its own, actually has a chance of winning the battle).

My favorite definition of grace is a disposition toward kindness, clemency, generosity, and justice. I think those qualities would define The Fellowship of the Talon. Cima’s making a joke about an imagined myth, but it’s one rooted in a longing for graceful interactions among species. For the moment, I’d love a break from conflict. I crave harmony. But when I find myself involved in conflict, I’ll strive for grace.

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