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Accipiter post mortum

November 12, 2009

Last Monday morning, while returning to my office following a productive morning birding on the grounds of the museum at which I work, I can across a crime scene.  A juvenile male Sharp-shinned Hawk, one no doubt filled with both the intensity of youth and of being a Sharp-shinned Hawk (one more intense than the other, and if you’re a birder you know exactly which one…) had collided with one of the glass doors leading into the main building was now lying still, and still warm, on the ground in front of them.

The doors are not the sort that would immediately strike one as dangerous for birds.  But the holly bushes surrounding them, planted to hide dumpsters and a service entrance to the building, were in full fruit and had for the last couple weeks been attended to by all the Yellow-rumped Warblers, Kinglets, and various Sparrows you’d expect.  The veritable buffet could certainly not have been more appealing for a Sharpie, and had undoubtedly drawn the recently arrived and inexperienced bird to it’s ultimate and untimely demise.

Sharpie dorsal view

I usually pride myself on having a pragmatic view of the life of birds.  I know that, with few exceptions, that that life is difficult, brutal, and short.  Nature doesn’t play favorites and it doesn’t give handouts, and though we often love to anthopomorphize the birds we love, whatever feelings we attribute to that tenacious Chickadee or that gentle Thrush are only a projection of the joy we find in observing birds.  Our world.  The world birds inhabit, and then so so tenuously, is one predisposed with survival above all.  It doesn’t have time for diversion and distraction, because more often than not that means death.

If we’re being honest, it’s the fate reserved for the vast majority of this year’s birds.  It may not always be glass.  It could just as easily be a car, or a bigger hawk, or a combination of an empty stomach and an ill-timed weather system.  I know all of this, and yet I can’t help but feel that pang in my heart for this bird, this beautiful example of Sharpie-dom, who in such great abundance found only a heavy pane of glass in north Durham.  It’s an end it didn’t deserve, none of them “deserve” it in any way we think about the word, but one it found nonetheless.  It’s the way things go.


There’s a happy ending though, such that death can have one.  This bird, by sheer luck that I was the one that came upon it and by the good graces of my loving wife’s lenient freezer rules, has a story that is still to be written.  It’s off to the research collection at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences to be made into a study skin.  It’s reassuring that such a beautiful bird can be put to good use after death.  A shelf in the basement of a museum can’t compare to a grove of pines near a bustling feeding station, but it’s the best possible outcome.

One I feel some honor in being able to give.

  1. November 12, 2009 7:48 am


    If the death of a bird wasn’t involved, I’d start to worry Carrie could possibly have tremendous mental powers that govern the movements and fate of all living things in North America. Look, her recent post and your finding can barely be a pure coincidence, right?
    But as I said, she’d never make a hawk fly into a window, so the Big Power of Bird & Birding Fate remains as yet unidentified.

    Could this be a specific birder’s version of a goat’s head though, and thus relate to your latest Outer Banks discussion (see October retrospecticus)?

  2. Nate permalink*
    November 12, 2009 12:08 pm

    @Jochen- I dunno. I would hope the beach-driving advocates would have some decency, and wouldn’t act out the implied danger to my welfare on a harmless hawk. Not that I’d put it past them though…

  3. November 12, 2009 3:18 pm

    That bird is in the 70% of hatch year birds that die rather than the lucky few that live. It was probably too busy chasing prey to notice the building or glass doors. It’s good that you found it in time to preserve it.

  4. November 12, 2009 3:46 pm

    Thanks for sharing your story.

  5. Nate permalink*
    November 12, 2009 9:54 pm

    @John- Yeah, it’s a silver lining that the bird can still be put to some use.

    @Zen Birdfeeder- My pleasure! Thanks for stopping by.

  6. November 13, 2009 9:30 am

    You’re right, they wouldn’t kill a Sharpie: they eat Piping Plovers.

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