Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Screech and Scratch

Illustration by Tze-Chiang Lim

Dear Ellie,

Some people have alarm clocks to wake them up in the morning.  Some people have roosters who crow at the crack of dawn.  What did I have when I was a teenager?  I had Screech and Scratch, two red tail hawks that used to barnstorm the house every weekend morning right at that precise moment I felt like I could sink into my pillow and sleep forever.

Red tails hawks live a long time, but Screech and Scratch hadn't always been around during my childhood.  They arrived right after your Uncle Zack went off to college.  After the economy began to take a turn for the worse and your grandmother and grandfather began to find it difficult to make ends meet.

Screech was the first to lay claim to the Smith Yard as his own personal hunting territory.  He earned his name by enforcing his territorial claim with an earsplitting screech that would rattle the windows and send the various squirrels, snakes, and lizards in our yard scattering for safety.  The road in front of the house acted as a break from the territories of other hawks, so he'd patrol that line religiously, belting out high notes in every direction so that all the hawks in a 10 mile radius got the picture.  Screech's bark was, indeed, as big as his bite, so all the other birds of prey got the message.  Except for one.

A few months after Screech appeared, a second hawk showed up to stake his claim.  He first settled in across the street in the heavily wooded, vacant lot.  He wasn't nearly as loud as Screech nor nearly as big, but he was swift as a bullet and an avid hunter.  On more than one occasion, I saw him fall toward the ground like a rock, snatch up some unhappy woodland animal in his talons, then relax on a nearby limb to casually tear the squeaking creature to pieces.  At first, Screech and Scratch respected the asphalt boundary that delineated their two territories.  But it didn't last.

Eventually, Scratch began to envy our yard.  The little channels of grass between the islands of trees were the perfect place to snatch up a scurrying rodent or slithering snake.  When he was sure that Screech wasn't looking, Scratch would fly sorties into enemy territory.  Of course, it was only a matter of time before Screech noticed, at which point a pandemonium of squawking and hacking ensued.  The conflicts became frequent enough that their ruckus became an unwelcome soundtrack for a widening conflict down below in primate territory.  Your grandmother and grandfather were cutting into their humble savings and putting a second mortgage on the house.  They stressed endlessly about how they would do best for their children, all the while putting off--- one year after another--- any resources toward retirement.  I remember how they looked day in and day out, their postures a peculiar, alchemical mix of pride and fatigue.  Being a teenager, I was more or less tone deaf to their struggles.  Parental sacrifice: that's just sort of the natural order of things, isn't it?

As time went on, the financial situation deteriorated, along with the situation up above.  One Sunday morning, your grandparents, aunt, and I went outside to witness a terrible racket.  Circling in the sky above the chimney were Screech and Scratch, shrieking and squawking and locked in a World War I style aerial dogfight.  Every few seconds, they'd swoop in at one another and lock their talons.  "There they are, at it again," we muttered.  Like always, we assumed that there would be a winner and a loser.  That Screech would go on to claim the fine bit of hunting realestate like he always had and Scratch would flee.  But that didn't happen.  Instead, the conflict went on far longer than it ever had before.

As the battle continued, we assumed that we would soon have a dead hawk on our hands.  Or two dead hawks.  On one occasion, they locked talons and both went plummeting toward the Earth in a death spiral, only to break off and swoop away at the last minute.  When the battle finally did end, there appeared to be no clear winner and loser.  Neither fled the yard.  We held our breath, ready for the next battle royal to break out at any moment.  Imagine our surprise when we noticed instead that Screech and Scratch... were building a nest together.

Apparently, Screech was not a "he," but a "she."  What's more, while we thought we were bearing witness to a territorial conflict, we were instead bearing witness to a marriage ceremony.  And red tail hawks mate for life.

In a way, the union made perfect sense.  As the days went by, we noticed that Screech and Scratch were perfectly suited for one another.  We often saw them hunting together, each bringing to the hunt their own conspicuous attributes.  Screech was louder and larger.  Once she spotted a squirrel or snake, she'd circle above it, flapping her wings and squawking like a lunatic in order to whip her prey into a state of frantic confusion.  Once the creature was flushed into the open, Scratch, who was swifter and leaner, would swoop down and seize it in his talons.  Once the prey was detained, they'd fly to a nearby limb and argue over who deserved a bigger portion of the catch.  Despite the marriage enduring marital conflicts from time to time, the two eventually completed their nest, situated not far from our driveway.  It became plainly evident that there were eggs inside because whenever we looked up, either Screech or Scratch was sitting there in the nest, staring down at us suspiciously.  And of course, a few months later, we heard the quiet piping of tiny chicks.  

From there, I saw the two parents launch into the chaos of parenthood, a struggle which I've only fully come to appreciate since I became a parent myself.  For weeks, the two birds scoured the neighborhood tirelessly, bringing back all manner of a prey to feed their brood or sticks to mend their nest.  You couldn't see the chicks from the driveway, but sometimes, I'd climb atop the roof of our two story house with a pair of binoculars around my neck and take a peak inside.  Within were two tiny, white balls of fluff that bumbled around amid the nest.  They chattered endlessly.  At regular intervals, Screech and Scratch swooped in, delivered some new item of sustenance, and fluttered away once again.  The only time the chatter seemed to stop was when night came, and the birds all settled in as a family like all of their primate neighbors down below.

As the chicks grew larger, their little cheeps became louder, too.  More demanding.  The back and forth from hunting ground to nest seemed endless for Screech and Scratch, and I often wondered how they even had the time to feed themselves.  After a few weeks, I noticed the chicks lumbering over to the edge of the nest, peeking nervously over the edge before scrambling back to the middle.  In time, they'd be learning to fly.  Or so we thought.  As the weeks passed, the chicks continued to waddle to the edge of the nest.  They'd stretch their little necks over the top and gaze at a limb on a tree on the other side of the driveway as though they were trying to find the courage to make the jump.  But they didn't.  As the weeks passed they still wouldn't fly.  Were they sick? we wondered.  Or perhaps their wings were damaged?  Or they were born with some genetic frailties?

We began to worry for the chicks.  What would happen if the chicks never left?  Or took too long to leave the nest?  In a cold, Darwinian calculation, would Screech and Scratch abandon them?  Or kick them out of the nest and on to the ground to die so that they might try again with another batch of chicks?  The episode haunted me, not just because Screech and Scratch's first foray into parenthood was failing, but because I wouldn't blame the two birds if they did abandon their chicks.  If they did throw their babies from the nest and on to the driveway down below.  Wild animals like Screech and Scratch can't indulge in the same sentimentality that we humans--- we domesticated primates--- can.  Not if Screech and Scratch wanted to survive.  Nature, after all, is a cruel place.

In the end, this sad fact would turn out to be true for the pair of birds, but not in the way that I first thought it would.  As the first days of summer heat rolled in, sure enough, your grandfather and I saw something at the end of the driveway, right below the nest.  It was somewhat large, and from the front door, it looked like it must be a cat.  A cat putting an end to the two chicks which by now, must have been thrown from the nest.  Upon closer inspection, though, it wasn't a cat at all.  It was a bird.  A big bird.  A red-tail hawk.  It was Scratch.  We came closer, but he didn't flutter away.  Initially, we thought he was stunned.  Sometimes birds would act this way when they smacked into our sliding glass door, but then fly away after a few moments of reorientation.  But Scratch wasn't near the house.  He was sitting out in the open.  On his feathered body, there were no signs of damage.  No blood or wounds or broken bones.  Not a feather out of place.  Your grandfather tapped him with his foot.  Still no movement.  We stood there in silence as we finally understood: Scratch was dead.

But how? we both wondered.

We reached down.  Opened his wings and stroked his silky feathers.  Felt the soft down along his torso and touched his talons.  How magnificent--- how majestic--- he appeared up close.  But then we noticed, beneath those fluffy feathers, that the skin of his thighs clung to his bones.  His stomach was sunken.  With these clues, his death was no longer a mystery.  During all the time that Screech and Scratch were feeding their chicks, they hadn't been feeding themselves.  Scratch was returning to his nest to make one last delivery, but never made it.  Instead, when he willed his exhausted wings to flap one last time, they'd refused, and he'd fallen from the sky.  We looked down at his limp, crumpled, tired body.  "Sometimes I feel like him," your grandfather said with a dark little grin, making extra sure that no moment of real life symbolism could go unnoticed.

I found myself wishing that Screech and Scratch had given more to themselves, and less to their chicks.

I looked off toward the sun and saw Screech sitting on a limb by the road, watching.  Can a bird grieve? I found myself wondering.  We gently picked up Scratch's body and buried him near the grape vines.  We didn't want Screech to see her mate consumed by ants and Raccoons.

In the days after, we continued to watch the nest, nervously.  Screech was working alone now.  She was bigger than Scratch so that meant she probably had more fat stored away, but she couldn't have been in much better shape than he was.  We didn't hear her screeching in the morning like we did before.  Would we soon find her, too, limp and crumpled at the end of the driveway?  And since there was no second parent to care for the chicks, were they exposed and alone in the nest while Screech was out hunting?  What would Screech feel if, after losing her mate, she then returned to her nest only to find the scattered, fluffy feathers of her babies?  Eventually, I did hear a flurry of squawking from the nest.  A duo of blackbirds stabbed at the nest with their beaks.  After the blackbirds left, the nest was quiet for the rest of the afternoon.

But then, at dusk, I saw two heads of the chicks appear at the edge of the nest.  They weren't white anymore, but a sort of dull gray.  Most of their adult feathers had already grown in.  I was astonished by how large they'd gotten.  They did their usual ritual at the edge of the nest, bobbing up and down, pretending that this time one of them would leap.  Except this time, one of them did.  He bounced through the air clumsily as though buffeted by turbulence before reaching a limb on the far side of the driveway.  He allowed the victory to sink in for a few moments before he tumbled back through the air to the safety of the nest.

The following day, encouraged by her brother, the other chick followed as well.  With each day that passed, their forays through the air became longer and longer.  They even began swooping down on the squirrels who had grown fat and lazy and out of practice in Scratches' absence.  In time, their flights became longer and longer until, eventually, the two chicks flew off to live lives of their own.

I can't claim to speak Hawkish, but I'm willing to bet they never so much as said goodbye to Screech.  She watched as they left, her head raised but her wings stooped.  After all that had happened--- all that she'd given of herself--- her posture was a peculiar, alchemical mix of pride and fatigue.  Something tickled somewhere in my conscience.  Hadn't I seen this posture somewhere before?

In time, we lost track of Screech.  Having lost her mate and seen her chicks grow up, she probably moved on.  But while I no longer heard her screeching above the house at early morning hours, I didn't stop thinking about her or Scratch.  One evening, while your grandparents and I were out walking, I heard a red tail hawk screeching in the distance.  I stopped.  Turned to your grandmother and grandfather and said "thank you."  "Thank you" for their sacrifices.  "Thank you" for giving of themselves.  "Thank you" for their determined efforts to "do parenthood right."  I'm not sure if I needed to tell them.  Or if I needed to worry about whether they were giving so much to us that they had nothing left to give to themselves.  After all, perhaps the kind of parental sacrifice that I saw in Screech and Scratch--- and in them--- really is just the natural order of things.  Still, I'm glad that I did.

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