A buzzard

In the middle of a mind-bending technological transaction yesterday, which had him stuck on a telephone, my son gently nudged me, pointing to the window. With a slow swivel of my head, I saw. There was, perched majestically on my balconata railing, an Buteo lagopus. That’s a rough-legged buzzard (or “hawk” to the Yankees). Though slightly bedraggled and unkempt, he appeared nevertheless serenely self-confident, surveying the street scene a hundred feet below. He held still quite a while — only the head slightly shifting like an owl’s — as I tried to memorize every possible distinguishing feature. Then suddenly without warning he dived out of view.

I had never seen one before, anywhere in the city, though on checking with the ornithological authorities I see his kind are not that uncommon here. Most of them are spotted in the outer suburbs, especially around the airport with its open fields, full of little rodents for the taking. Those who stray downtown do not usually do balconatas, or take in the opera either I suppose, preferring roof-edges which are more like cliffs, and where the pigeons make plenty of room for them. To my northern buzzard, this is down south for winter: in spring he will return well above the tree-line.

Entirely an arctic bird: lagopus means “hare’s foot” and refers to his feathered legs, that fit him for extreme cold. The talons looked well-suited to the immediate dispatch of a lemming or a vole; and the eyes, which I caught from an acute angle, belonged in a Ted Hughes poem.

Definitely male, though even so, the largest bird ever to alight on my railing, during my watch. The ladies are bigger, and half-again the weight. You don’t want to steal eggs from them, I learn from a source I am not inclined to challenge. (But stealing them from chickens is no fun at all.) Makes a sound like a cat, I gather — a cat with anger management issues — and should you earn some mother’s ire, I’m told, she can come screaming down deafening on your head, pass after pass like a goshawk. For birds of prey seem generally to have quite advanced family values (including monogamy).

Though fearsome, I was also endeared by the eyes, which spell death on their food sources, yet may never be seen by them. Those eyes had also the earnest attentiveness of a fine student. I thought of the eagle of Saint John on Patmos, symbol of courage and contemplative faith; and of the Psalm — “thy youth is renewed like the eagle’s.”

I spoke once with a falconer, who said his bird could convey a remarkable range of perceptions through his eyes, and an emotion like companionship. Too, he said there is no companionship like two creatures who would kill for each other.

But they are not sentimental. It goes deeper than that, and even in the eyes of so fierce a predator, there is also something of the rudiments of love.