Rough-Legged Hawks and the Blizzard that Wasn’t

Before Christmas - before I began this whole experiment - I went shopping prior to a snow storm. Less than a foot was called for, but the roads would be dicey for a few days, and so, while not packed, the supermarket was a bit more crowded than usual. The produce and meat cases were noticeably depleted, but it didn’t look like there had been a run on canned goods, and when I got home I commented to Alanna that this struck me as fairly rational behavior, since fresh foods might actually be lacking in people's fridges.

But yesterday she went shopping, and the same store was mobbed, a fact I can only attribute to national coverage of the blizzard hitting the east coast. This was decidedly less rational, since we were supposed to get a maximum of five inches. (As of this writing one or two have fallen, and it doesn’t look like we’ll be getting a whole lot more.)

With my diet untethered from the store, I cannot trick myself into thinking that I’ll be desperate for baked beans if I get stuck inside for two days, but I still feel anxiety at the prospect of snow piling on top of snow. I may have a lot of food stored up, but it is still a finite amount, and the ease or difficulty of transitioning from the root cellar and freezer to the garden will be almost entirely dependent on the weather. Like the turkeys and the cows I am just trying to hang on until things start growing again.

By contrast, the rough-legged hawks that come poking around the farm in the winter are here by choice. A place that feels so depleted to me and, I imagine, to the land-bound wildlife, to them looks mild and bountiful. Considering they summer in the arctic, I suppose that makes sense, but I still find it remarkable that they, upon flying over the bare trees and snow covered fields of the farm, see signs (copious vole urine?) that it is a good place to pass a winter.

Though Sibley and Peterson and various online sources I’ve consulted disagree about their size relative to a red-tailed hawk, the ones around here certainly look bigger to me, though this might be in part a matter of their lankier proportions. They have striking plumage, particularly the dark morph that seems particularly common among our local residents, but what I find most remarkable is their habit of hovering over one spot as they search for prey. It’s a tactic you may have seen kestrels employ, but it is somehow more impressive when executed by a large hawk, particularly when it culminates in a series of swooping dives and a final plunge to the ground.

When it’s gray and cold and snowing and windy, as I trudge up the hill to see the pigs with thoughts of endless winter on my mind, nothing makes me pause in wonder quite so much as seeing an indistinct silhouette slowly resolve out of the leaden sky into a huge hawk, going about its daily search for food in this land of plenty. It’s chosen to be here, and ultimately, so have I. Neither of us would stay if we couldn't make it through.

Garth Brown

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