Stopping for a Hawk In Migration

On our way across Nevada's Great Basin two weeks ago on U.S. Highway 50, "America's Loneliest Road," my husband Richard and I passed through spring hawk migration. It seemed that golden eagles soared on impossibly long wings over each wide, flat-bottomed valley; red-tailed hawks rode the air over each up-tilted mountain range.

We had stopped counting migrating raptors by the time we climbed into yet another skinny line of snow-crested peaks rising high above the sagebrush desert. Just over the rocky summit, Richard suddenly braked the car and pulled a quick U-turn.

"Roadkill?" I asked.

"A hawk," he said.

We drove back. There on the gravel shoulder lay a gorgeous adult red-tailed hawk, the wings that normally span four feet tip-to-tip crumpled at awkward angles. As we approached, the bird's head moved. It was alive.

We inched closer. The hawk merely lifted its head and stared at us out of fierce dark-gold eyes. Its body was immobile, both wings and back broken, apparently by a collision with a passing vehicle.

We pulled a blanket from the car and wrapped the hawk in it. Richard carried the big bird - so light for such wide wings! - down a steep bank, and set it gently in the thin shade of a sagebrush. It hissed, showing a wedge of pink tongue, and blinked its eyes. We stood in the dry air for a long moment, tears running down our faces, saying goodbye.

I've picked up roadkill for decades, stopping to move the broken bodies out of harm's way as a sign of respect, and to allow the dead of whatever species to decay in peace and thus feed other lives without danger of being hit themselves. It's been my ritual of atonement for the harm we humans wreak in our race through life.

Never in all of that time though, have I felt so helpless. I don't grieve leaving that red-tailed hawk to die - moving it into the desert to slip away naturally was the kindest thing to do. I do grieve my species' killing haste and callousness, the self-absorbed pace of our lives.

I hope that the hawk passed peacefully into dreams of free flight under the spring sun. In my dreams, the world has room for red-tailed hawks to soar and dive - without ending up on the roadside, wings crumpled, backs broken and fierce eyes still open.

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