Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Hawk and the Squirrel

The Hawk begins the systematic process of eating the Squirrel. (photo by Lon Horwedel)

It happened so fast it was as if it didn’t happen at all.

A small spark of red and gold set against the deep emerald green of a lush, mid-summer forest. So quiet, it nearly slipped away, if not for the corner of my eye.

I was heading in for the day. I’d had enough. Not something I often say while on the golf course, but this day I’d hit my limit. A slow foursome at Leslie Park had congealed before me, thwarting any further progress in my round or my rhythm.

My fate was sealed. Five holes were all I could take. I picked up my bag and began walking in, cutting through the woods, this way and that, on my way to the clubhouse.

Had I been a blind man, the event that unfolded before me would have been lost. Only the flash of red and gold had made me stop. Ten more degrees in the other direction and it would have escaped my periphery too, but it didn’t.

The events and the timing of the day had brought me here - to the edge of the woods on the ninth hole; a place I’d been many times as a golfer, but only once as Mother Nature’s witness.

The flash of warm colors that caught my eye now rolled in the grass at the edge of the woods, still not making a sound.

Slowly, I crept toward the rolling ball of red and gold until I recognized one of the colors to be a hawk, the other a squirrel.

I set down my bag and moved closer. Now I was 10-feet from the raptor and the rodent, and both felt my presence. The hawk spun his regal head in my direction, looked me square in the eye, puffed out his feathers and opened his beak. Still, he made not a sound.

Beneath his grasp, the squirrel had felt the break in concentration and snap-rolled himself free. The edge of the thick woods and freedom were only a few feet away. Quickly, he made a dash for the life-saving cover.

I had intervened with the natural order, but not long enough for the squirrel. My disruption of the hawk’s hunting process was only momentary. Again, without so much as a rustle, the hawk pounced on the squirrel with an awkward little hop that completely contradicted any grace he might have while in flight. On land, the hawk was more wrestler than raptor. His short pounce had trapped the squirrel once more, only inches from freedom. But this time there would be no second chance.

The hawk gripped the head of the squirrel in his razor sharp talons the way a professional basketball player might palm a basketball. His bright yellow foot and the squirrel’s head were a perfect match, each talon firmly locked in place around the curvature of the squirrel’s skull like a steel prison bars; the thumb talon painfully piercing the eye socket of his hapless prey.

Every twist or turn of the squirrel’s body was met with equal or greater force from the hawk as he pinned the squirrel on his back. To gain leverage, the hawk spread his feathers and squatted over the squirrel in a sit-down move.

Now all that remained for the poor squirrel was death. Like a car accident, it was hard to watch, but I couldn’t turn away. I waited for the hawk to deliver the fatal blow, not knowing what it might be. I guessed he might rip out the squirrel’s throat, much like a lion does to its prey, or maybe pierce the squirrel’s heart or lungs with its deadly talons.

None of that happened. Instead, the hawk simply waited for the squirrel to give up and die. It took a while, probably ten minutes or so; then without warning, it was over. The small flinches and twists below the hawk’s talons melted away and the squirrel went limp. It was sad when it happened. A life had slipped away, and yet, it was beautiful in its simplicity - quiet and peaceful.

This was a necessary death, the hawk is not a vegetarian. But this squirrel was relatively large and there was no way this bird was going to fly away with such a large kill … at least not in his talons. The only way this squirrel was leaving the premises was in the hawk’s stomach.

To watch a hawk systematically eat a squirrel is a study in efficiency. Starting with his prey's left front leg, the hawk used his sharp beak to strip the fur and skin neatly to the bone before severing the limb completely with a sharp snap.

The orifice formed by the clean amputation of the leg became a portal for the rest of the hawk’s meal. Using his beak like a surgical instrument, he snipped away at the hole, making it bigger and easier to remove the squirrel’s organs.

For the next ten minutes I found myself in science class trying to identify each organ upon removal. There was no mess, in fact, very little blood at all. Occasionally, the hawk would stop and look around, but he no longer paid any attention to me; only the sound of a far off golf cart or another soaring hawk screeching in the distance seemed to make him pause. This was his meal and he wasn’t about to lose it ... or share it.

As he moved on past the delicacy of the internal organs, I decided to leave the hawk with his meal and finally head for home. Nearly a half hour had passed since I’d walked off the fifth green. The slow foursome that forced me off the course still had not reached the ninth hole and not one group had passed by since I had witnessed Mother Nature's massacre at the edge of the forest.

It was an amazing 30 minutes on the golf course - a time frame that didn't involve any golf.  The hawk had struck down the squirrel at the perfect moment. If not for me, he would have done so in complete anonymity. I felt privileged to witness the horror, and the beauty, of life and death as it unfolded.

Three days later I returned to the course. This time I played all 18. When I reached the ninth hole I hit my drive in the middle of the fairway, but before I walked to my ball I detoured to the edge of the woods to try and find any evidence from the events that took place earlier in the week.

I thought I knew exactly where to look, but there was nothing to be found. No fur, no bones, no entrails, nothing. It was if it never happened. Then, as I was getting ready to leave, I spotted a small, downy feather sticking up out of the tall grass. It was a feather from one of the hawk’s legs – the only clue either had been there.

Above me soared a pair of hawks screeching in the hot August sky. In the woods to my left, a group of squirrels chased each other up and down a tree. On the spot where I stood, both species had clashed three days earlier. An hour later, only one had left.



  1. A moment where you can observe the natural order of things, and feel blessed that you are where you are in your secure place in the universe. One of the reasons that I would rather not believe in reincarnation, because there is as good as a chance I could come back and be a squirrel.

    Oh, don't think you are getting away without telling you score!!

  2. Reminds me of the Fetal Pig we literally tore apart in Senior Biology....