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HAWKS IN THE ATTIC
William O'Hallaren
June 05, 1961
Every spring, in late March, a pair of soaring shadows flit across the big window of our living room, and a bit later there is a sound from the skies like-high and triumphant bugles. For man, bird and beast on our hilltop the shadows and the bugle cries mean but one thing: our hawks are back. If we look out we can see the pair of them swinging on the highest tip of the blue spruce, as glittering as lord chamberlains, giving their spring home a cold and careful eye.
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June 05, 1961

Hawks In The Attic

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Every spring, in late March, a pair of soaring shadows flit across the big window of our living room, and a bit later there is a sound from the skies like-high and triumphant bugles. For man, bird and beast on our hilltop the shadows and the bugle cries mean but one thing: our hawks are back. If we look out we can see the pair of them swinging on the highest tip of the blue spruce, as glittering as lord chamberlains, giving their spring home a cold and careful eye.

As befits their lofty station, the hawks are never quite sure the accommodations are going to be suitable, even though they have stayed with us many times before and the quarters are expressly reserved for them. For the first day they spend most of their time simply looking at the red-tiled vent to the attic of our big old house atop one of the Hollywood hills. The opening is about eight inches across and is the door to their nesting area. Once or twice the male will swing down, land on the tiles for a flashing moment, then sail back to report to his lady. Perhaps some time before nightfall, perhaps not until the next morning, she will make her own inspection, haughty as a duchess just in from the country seat, and once that is completed they are officially in residence for another season.

Our hawks are kestrels, creatures colored brown, green and red, also known as windhovers, sparrow hawks, and to the precise bird watcher, Falco sparverius. Hawks aren't supposed to live in houses, of course, but none of the finches, sparrows, mockingbirds, wrens, jays, cats or collies that flit and thresh about at lower levels are about to pass this word along to the lordly lodgers, and neither are we.

The kestrels are small, if a belittling adjective can be applied to such majesty, the male no bigger than a young lark, his mate perhaps a third larger, but they are hawks from the tips of their talons to the points of their curved beaks. As far as they are concerned, they are big enough to command the skies and the useful parts of the earth reaching into the skies, and the eagles on their mountaintops can say no more.

For the most part the lesser birds accept this dominion without quibble, though once in a while an upstart has to be put in place. For about a week after the hawks establish residence the bird life in the lower levels is tuned far down. The sparrows flit about on their preposterous and ceaseless business at a subdued pace, the mockingbird Guild of Parodists, Satirists & Cat Taunters forgets to meet, the bluebirds act as though it were raining, and the turtledoves muffle their mourning. But then the tempo moves back to normal, demons again possess the sparrows, the mockingbirds heap impossible abuse on the cat and stand on their heads at the wit of one another's satires, the bluebirds fly like grapeshot, and the turtledoves, fat and contented as aldermen, croon their sad notes over the hilltop. The hawks watch and listen from on high, their bluish heads turning just enough to take it all in.

Usually it will be the blue jay who calls down the thunder. On a May afternoon he will arrive full of pride and the neighbor's bread crumbs. He will screech at the sparrows, caw coarsely at the mockingbirds and finally take a place in the spruce and demand that all hands turn and admire him. For minute upon minute he will screech of his beauty and of the admiration in which he is held by the giver of bread crumbs.

At the point when it seems that neither man nor bird can take any more, a stone will drop from the sky. Before the jay knows what is happening he will be on the ground, and a beak as wicked as a grappling hook will be tattooing across his back. The punishment is over in a flash and the jay flutters away, pained in body and soul. The male kestrel soars back to the side of his mate, who seems to give him a small nod of appreciation. Later when the jay threatens to get out of hand again, the male will simply stand up and flex his wings in a peculiarly hawklike gesture and the jay collapses like the empty bully he is. The male hawk is hardly more than half the jay's size, but in this case size could hardly be less relevant.

Our hawks seem without natural enemies. There are bigger hawks in the hills of Griffith Park to the east, but they cannot approach the speed of our kestrels. A stray crow may have the temerity to caw at the male as he flies by on his morning hunt, but the male doesn't even notice such vulgar braying. If he had the inclination he could probably transform the crow into black confetti.

The European brothers of our kestrels were among the best of the falcons, quick, sure, fierce and intelligent. They were also, surprisingly, genuinely affectionate. In the great days of falconry a rigid caste system prevailed, with a man's rank determining the size of bird he could fly. The big hawks were reserved for the nobles, and it worked down until only kestrels were allowed to ride on the wrists of commoners. It wasn't too bad a bargain for the lowly, though, because the little hawks were more nimble than their bigger relatives. Sad to say, their principal targets were unsuspecting larks.

There is a huge body of prejudice against hawks deeply rooted in man, and part of this legacy of ignorance says that sparrow hawks drive away lesser birds and devour their young. Our hawks, at least, have no objection at all to other birds, providing they mind their manners, and have never bothered the young.

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