Hawk Mountain Sanctuary is a private holding of some 2,000 acres in the Kittatinny Ridge area of east-central Pennsylvania. The heart of the preserve, its raison d'�tre, is a jumble of bare, windswept and almost always cold boulders at the very top of the mountain. In the fall of the year these rocks are to the bird-watching fraternity what the clubhouse veranda at Augusta, Ga. is to golf freaks in April. It is the place to be, the scene to make, if you have pretensions to being anybody in the birding Establishment, or if you simply want to spectate at the year's classiest ornithological event.
Virtually everyone who knows how to use a Peterson bird guide and binoculars has heard about Hawk Mountain and the show there. Each year between September and December more than 20,000 birders come to sit on the sanctuary rocks—for a few hours, days or even weeks—to watch a great natural pageant, the southerly flight of migrating birds of prey. Why hawks, eagles and falcons fly close by the mountain is easy to explain. Despite environmental alterations, poisons and harassment, there are still thousands of these birds breeding in the woodlands of the northeastern United States and Canada. In late summer they move south leisurely, following the curving line of the Appalachians. They do so for sound aerodynamic reasons. As the wind strikes the ridges, updrafts are created. The birds of prey—or as they are known collectively, Raptores—ride the buoyant air, almost effortlessly soaring and drifting toward their winter grounds. Over the years certain knolls, balds and outcroppings in Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania and New Jersey have become popular as places where hawk watchers go to meet the birds. Hawk Mountain is the best known and best located of these natural spectating stands. There, because of peculiarities of terrain, the air currents cause the birds to float within a few feet of the rocks on which the watchers sit and from which they identify and log in 20,000 or more birds of prey every season.
Why people should be at Hawk Mountain watching these birds is not such a simple matter; it is a phenomenon tangled up with history, psyche and illusions. The best that can be said is that for a very longtime birds of prey have fascinated men to a degree and in a way that no other creatures have. In animistic times past, hawks, eagles and falcons were deified and worshiped. Flags, battle standards, seals, coins and memorials have been adorned with figures of these birds. They have a place in our poetry, drama, art, language and metaphysics. We have adopted the Raptores as pluperfect symbols, living embodiments of certain cherished concepts and virtues. The sight of a hawk aloft sets many people contemplating such things as fierceness, wildness and freedom, and sets some brooding about personal ambition and deficiency.
Perhaps because they are so often asked to explain themselves, hawk watchers have analyzed their passion. "I suppose we seem like nuts," said a Philadelphia attorney sitting on a Hawk Mountain rock one brisk Sunday. "Here we are freezing our behinds just to watch some birds. But there are going to be 50,000 or more people who are just as cold this afternoon watching a bad football game in Veterans Stadium. Why are they there? Supposedly because they like the action—the running, throwing and collisions. I'm up here for the same reason. To me, a couple of redtails sailing along the ridge look better than John Reaves. It's a matter of taste. I get a bigger kick out of one golden eagle than I do out of 11 Philadelphia Eagles even if they are playing 11 Atlanta Falcons."
"I'm what you call a bird watcher, I guess," said a Defense Department employee who had driven up for the day from his Silver Spring, Md. home. "I get out a couple of weekends a month, take a walk, go down to the shore or come up here. I'm not a life-lister; I don't measure enthusiasm by the number of species I sight. It's just a nice thing to do. I come because one peregrine falcon riding the wind is worth a ton of warblers to me. I don't know why, but it's true."
In the relationship between men and birds of prey there often seems to be the companion emotion of hate as well as love. Just as many people have admired the Raptores excessively, there are others who have persistently persecuted and slaughtered them, despising them as varmints and telling wild tales about a hawk's ability and inclination to kill things that we would like to kill. In some areas of the country certain species are all but extinct because of the ferocity with which they were hunted, and not infrequently by men who regarded themselves as conservationists.
In point of fact, the existence of the sanctuary owes as much to hawk haters as to hawk lovers. For the same reason that the ridge is a good place from which to watch the Raptores, it was also a great stand from which to shoot them. In the late 1920s several hundred gunners might sit up in the rocks on a weekend and bang away at the migrating birds, killing or crippling thousands. These shoots were publicized favorably in the local press and recommended as outings for sportsmen, enabling them to do their bit against pests while at the same time enjoying an afternoon of fellowship.
Ornithologists had been aware of these carryings-on for years but their efforts to halt them were ineffectual. Laws protecting the birds of prey were nonexistent or feeble, and game wardens and local politicians, many of whom were hawk shooters, thought well of the proceedings. By 1934 the slaughter at Hawk Mountain had reached atrocity proportions. It came to the attention of Mrs. Rosalie Edge, a wealthy and militant New York conservationist. Mrs. Edge took an option on and later helped purchase the mountaintop that now comprises the sanctuary. In addition, realizing that "No Hunting" signs were unlikely to change the habits of local gunners, she persuaded a Boston ornithologist, Maurice Broun, to live on the mountain every autumn and serve as a warden and sanctuary director.
Fortunately for him, Broun was an aggressive and gritty man. When he showed up in the Pennsylvania hills, the feeling was that his career would be short and violent. Local outdoor writers, hunting clubs and sporting-goods suppliers railed against him as an outside agitator. During Broun's first two seasons he was constantly confronting trespassing gunners, whose reaction to the sanctuary status of their most productive shooting stand ranged from sullen to forceful. But Broun and his wife, sometimes backed up by muscular bird watchers, eventually cleared the gunners from the ridge. Despite the dire predictions, he survived and stayed on to oversee the preserve for 30 years.
Today the Hawk Mountain Sanctuary Association has 4,500 members. There is an office headquarters at the sanctuary and an exhibit and lecture hall. A full-time staff of four conducts a year-round program, arranging natural-history lectures for members and school groups. Beginning with Broun, who was an energetic writer and wide-ranging lecturer, the sanctuary has been concerned with all birds of prey, not just those that fly past Kittatinny Ridge. The Hawk Mountain group so stirred up conservationists elsewhere that all Raptores are now protected by federal law.