Hawk country

Gilbert Byron

June 27, 1991|By Gilbert Byron

Author and poet Gilbert Byron, who contributed dozens of essays and poems to this page, died Tuesday in Easton at age 87. For nearly half a century, Byron lived alone in a waterside cottage near St. Michaels. He reminisced about life on the Eastern Shore and described the plant and animal life around his "cabin." This essay, which Byron taped because his eyesight had failed, was one of his last. "Evening Marshes," the poem following the essay, was written by Byron years ago and was one of his favorites.

BIRDS were certainly a part of my life as I grew up on the Eastern Shore along the Chester River. Numerous gulls flew over the river, and there were always passing blackbirds. In the winter we had ducks and geese.

Among the birds I first knew about were two hawks. One was the fish hawk, today generally called an osprey. I enjoyed watching it cruise high over the river and then dive like a bomber into the water in hopes of getting a fish. The other hawk was the chicken hawk, which had a reputation for stealing chickens. My father told me once that every farmer had a shotgun in back of his kitchen door in case a hawk came calling.

When I moved to live on Old House Cove, I saw numerous birds, including many kinds of hawks. In fact, it seems to me that Maryland's Eastern Shore may be called "hawk country."

My first encounter with a hawk in Talbot County was soon after I came here in the fall of 1946 and we had our first snow. It snowed all night. In the morning while I was eating breakfast, I heard this great clamor of crows outside my door. My dog, Tuppy, who was stretched beside the stove, heard the ruckus, too. She wanted to go out. So I put on my boots and went out to see what was going on.

About 50 crows were perched in a big old gum tree on the edge of our property. All were in full cry, cursing and threatening. Then I saw this bird, rather a large one, perched on a branch about 25 feet from the ground. The bird apparently was not much concerned about the crows; it seemed to be half asleep. The crows continued their clamor until several of their brethren deeper in the woods started to call for help. (I'm convinced that crows have their own extensive vocabulary.)

Some of the crows flew away, which left them with a smaller force against the bird. By this time I decided that the bird must be some kind of a large hawk. Other crows called from the woods until there were only two or three left. Then the big bird stirred, stuck his head up and stretched. This was enough for the remaining crows; they flew off. So I moved over a little closer, still wondering what sort of bird it was. It was almost as large as a fish hawk, and it had a big white clump of feathers on its rump. I later learned when I got to Peterson's guide that this was the marsh hawk, a year-round resident of this area that doesn't go south with the osprey.

Several years after my encounter with the marsh hawk, I met another most unusual hawk that attacked a flock of juncos that were feeding at my place. I was cutting wood in front of my cabin when I looked toward my great oak tree. There must have been 15 or 20 juncos feeding on the ground, having a great time, when all of a sudden, without any warning, a bird came diving into their midst. I knew it was a hawk, and from its narrow pointed wings I thought it might be some sort of falcon. The juncos scattered in all directions, shrieking at the top of their voices. I don't believe the hawk managed to catch even one, as they all disappeared into the woods behind my house. By this time I had Peterson's guide again and concluded that our visitor was a pigeon hawk, a falcon with a striped, brownish-red breast. I still remember how quietly and with such speed it dived into the feeding juncos.

Going to town, I often saw larger hawks sailing over fields, searching for mice, rats and other vermin. These were largely the red-tailed and red-shouldered hawks. Often these were the ones shot by farmers, mainly because they weren't fast-moving birds and made easy targets. But alas, they were not the chicken hawks that often took aim at Eastern Shore poultry.

Today, most people realize hawks are a help to farmers and others, but as late as 1961, Prince George's and Charles counties were still paying bounties on hawks' bills (25 cents per bill). That year in Charles County, 161 hawk bills were presented for bounties, although killing hawks in Maryland has been illegal since 1915.

Even at the time of Henry David Thoreau, people were killing hawks indiscriminately. As he wrote in his journal of June 13, 1853: ". . . I would rather save one of these hawks than have a hundred chickens . . . I would rather see a hawk sailing through the upper air than never taste chickens' meat nor hens' eggs again."

$ I feel the same way.

Evening Marshes

Marsh grass is golden

under a late sun,

and wild ducks' wings

whistle with the wind.

We are one:

wild duck and setting sun,

marsh grass around the pond,

earth smells and shadows,

coming cold and early night,

evening star,

and this great emptiness

within me.

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