Birds of Prey (also known as raptors) have characteristics that distinguish them from other birds. A bird of prey has a sharp, hooked beak for tearing food, sharp, curved talons, powerful feet for killing its’ prey, and binocular vision. Thirty-eight species of raptors are found in the geographic limits of the United States and Canada. These species are divided into categories: Buteos, accipiters, falcons, harriers, kites, eagles, ospreys, and owls.
A brisk, wintry wind whistled along the South Carolina coast. It rattled the ice-tipped, yellowed spartina grass and rolled a thick, steely gray fog in from the sea. The old black man paused in his walk and cocked his ear toward the sky. He heard the whispers of change in the wind. Hunching his shoulders, he turned the collar of his threadbare woolen jacket high up to the brim of his fedora then dug his hands deep into his pockets. He resumed walking but he kept his eyes skyward.
The old man had walked nearly half a mile when he heard a high, plaintive whistle over the wind’s song. He stopped abruptly, rigid with expectation, staring out at the heavy shroud that hovered over the wetlands. It was a still morning; the pale night moon lingered in the dusty sky. Suddenly, a magnificent, white-crested eagle broke through the mist. Its broad, plank-straight wings stretched long as it soared over the water.
“There you be,” he muttered with deep satisfaction. Bringing his large, gnarled hands to cup his mouth, he whistled sharp and clear, mimicking the birdcall.
The bald eagle circled wide, flapping its powerful wings with a majesty reserved for royalty. The great bird took a lap around the marsh before deigning to return the call.
The effect was not lost on the old man. Heartened, he rushed his hands to his mouth and whistled again, louder this time, more insistently. This time, the eagle banked, then flew unwaveringly toward him.
* * *
This was the moment Harris Henderson relished. He squinted and let his gaze slowly traverse the wide, open meadow encircled by tall, leggy pines. The grasses were crisp and the ground was hard with the early morning frost. In only one day’s time, winter had blustered into the Lowcountry, plummeting temperatures from balmy to freezing. He took a long deep breath, feeling the moist chill go straight to his lungs. The morning air carried the scent of burning wood–cedar, he thought—so strong he could almost taste it.
Turning his head, he gazed upon the sleek red-tailed hawk held firm against his chest by his thick, leather gloves. Maggie Mims, a robust woman with hair almost the same color red as the hawk’s tail, looked up at him with eyes sparkling with excitement.
She gave a curt nod.
Harris moved his gloved hands so that his left wrapped around the hawk’s wings and the right maintained a firm hold of the hawk’s feet. Instantly, the hawk’s dark gaze sharpened, her mouth opened and she jerked her wings hard for freedom.
“So, you’re eager to be off,” he said in a low voice.
He waited patiently for the bird to calm itself, all the while looking on with admiration. She was a beautiful specimen, creamy breasted with a dark bellyband and the brick red tail feathers that gave the species its name. Red-taileds were superb hunters, “the black warriors” J.J. Audubon had called them. It was hard to believe, looking at her sleek, healthy form, that she’d been brought into the clinic with gunshot wounds a mere two months earlier. “Well, it won’t be long now.”
The bird cocked its head at the sound of his voice, glaring, ferocious–the right attitude for survival. Every instinct in its body was on alert for flight. Harris could feel the bird’s anticipation in his own veins.
In this brief moment before flight, Harris sought to merge spirits with the bird. He’d read stories of shamans who practiced this ancient art, myths of Indians whose spirits soared with eagles, tales that he’d only heard spoken of in passing or in jest. Though he’d tell this to no one, deep down he’d always believed that at the core of legends and myths lay a kernel of truth. There were individuals who communicated at some visceral level with birds. He knew it. Witnessed it.
And it was his private pain that he was not one of them. Although highly skilled, he didn’t possess the rare instinct—the gift—of connection. The art of truly flying the birds.
The closest he came to it was at lift-off. The seconds when the bird’s wings stretched out and he heard the whup whup of their flapping and felt the quick fluttering of air against his cheek as the bird flew fearlessly into the wind. At that stolen moment in time he caught an exhilarating glimpse of what it might be like to fly–to feel the lift, then the air glide over him like water.
“Ready?” asked Maggie.
Sensing freedom at hand, the red-tailed tightened its talons on his arm. The brisk wind gusted, rifling the feathers on its head. She didn’t flinch. Her eyes were focused. A faint stream of breath clouded the air like steam as her chest rose and fell. The moment had come.
“Okay, my beauty,” he said softly to the hawk. “Let’s send you home.”
With a lift of his arm, he let go his hands. Instantly the talons released their grip. Wings fluttered, stirring the air. Harris released a sigh as the hawk took flight.
Up, up, the red-tailed climbed. Harris tracked the bird, assessing her strength and looking for any tipping which would indicate the broken wing hadn’t completely healed. The margin for survival was very slim in the wild. A raptor had to be one hundred percent to successfully hunt. There was nothing tentative about this bird’s flying, however, and Harris felt a bone deep satisfaction that their work at the rehabilitation center had been successful.
This bird, number 1985, was successfully released to the wild.
* * *
“We’re not s’posed to hunt in there.”
Brady Simmons pointed the business end of his.22 caliber rifle toward the No Hunting sign posted on the gnarled bark of a bare leafed live oak. “It says right here, see?” he said, careful to make it more question than statement.
His father rubbed his bristled jaw and drawled, “I don’t see no sign.”
“Billy Trumplin’s dad says we could get in big trouble if we hunt in there. ‘Specially birds. It ain’t even the season.”
Roy Simmons slowly turned his head, narrowing his eyes as he focused on his eldest son. His voice was low but lethal. “You tellin’ me what to do now, boy?”
Brady took a step back. “N…no, sir.”
The spark in his father’s eyes banked as he acknowledged the respect. “Our family’s been huntin’ this here land longer than anyone can remember. There ain’t nothing wrong with takin’ a little of what’s there for the takin’.” He hoisted his rifle. “Besides, we ain’t here for sport. We’re here to put food on the table. And I’ll be dog damned if some tree hugger’s gonna up and tell me I can’t.”
Brady gave a curt nod and kept an eye on his father’s balled fists. The stench of stale whiskey on his father’s breath kept the boy mute with fear and contempt.
His father reached out to rip the sign from the tree bark and throw it on the ground.
Brady’s face was a portrait of teenage apathy as he watched his father ground the muddy heel of his boot on the federal sign. What a jerk, he thought. He was sick of hearing his father grouse about land that had been “stolen” from the people. How could someone steal what wasn’t theirs in the first place? Besides, what did he care about the land and who owned it? All he wanted was to get as far away from this hellhole as he could.
Satisfied, his father turned and pushed into the federally protected land. “Well, come on, then,” he said over his shoulder “Don’t lag behind.”
The woods were still dark in the dank hush of early morning. The crush of Brady’s boots in the layers of frosted, composting leaves sounded violent in the quiet forest. There were lots of loblolly pines, growing thin and so close together it would be easy to get lost if one didn’t know the territory. Brady always preferred the longleaf pine and the way its long needles stirred in the breeze. There was something regal about them, the way they stood ten stories tall, six feet around and straight-backed—the kings of the pine forest. He liked them even if his father hated them, calling them nothin’ better than wood weeds on account of the fact that the fire resistant bark was no good for firewood. He’d heard tell of a time when longleafs used to dominate the woods, back before the buzzsaws did their work. Brady would like to have seen that.
As he walked around the clustered trunks, he noticed how the light of the rising sun dappled through the leaves, making the melting frost sparkle like diamonds. In the thick branches over his head, he could hear fox squirrels chattering and, farther off, a red-cockaded woodpecker hammering into the sapwood.
“Quit draggin’ your feet back there! If you didn’t stay up all night with that rowdy bunch of no-counts you call friends you wouldn’t be so damned worthless in the morning’. Took a bomb to get you outta that bed this morning. I told you we was going huntin’ this mornin’.”
Brady hacked and spit out the sour taste of his breakfast of cold biscuits and jerky, then picked up his pace behind the bulky, wide shouldered man in the camouflage jacket. At least it would be the last thing he’d hear from the old man for a while, he thought. From here on in, he’d be telling him what to do in hissed whispers and jabs with his index finger so as not to spook the game.
Roy Simmons never asked his son where he might think was a good place to hunt or even what game he’d like to go after. Brady felt little more than a lackey behind the skilled huntsman who knew better than most where to find the first buck of the season, or a fertile oyster bed, or where to flush out birds. That’s what they were after this morning. Some pheasant, or maybe quail…something special to put on the Christmas dinner table tomorrow.
Most of the food on their table came from what his daddy hunted or fished. It was pretty much a hand-to-mouth existence for the family of seven. His mama did all she could with whatever his father brought home, but he never seemed satisfied. And lately, with the neighboring land just made into a national preserve, places to hunt were hard to come by. More and more folks were after what little game was left. Roy Simmons had to hunt longer and smarter to bring less to the table, even as his young were growing bigger and eating more.
He preferred hunting alone, but for the past few days since school was out for the holiday he’d dragged Brady, the eldest son, along on his early morning hunting trips. They’d come up empty handed each time. It being the holiday, the stakes were higher. Every day Brady saw his father’s desperation turn to anger. As he followed the pounding footfall of his father, Brady hoped he wouldn’t take that anger out on him.
Brady and his father walked without luck for over an hour into the Marion National Forest, miles from the small spread of ramshackle house and barn that his family called home. The scrap of land was deeded to his great grandfather back when this place on earth was considered nowhere. Now the sprawl from Charleston was spreading its tentacles their way causing environmentalists to scoop up whatever they could as protected land. Their scrubby bit of earth was a small speck of private land bordered by thousands of acres of national forest, what his daddy smugly called “the thorn in the ass of the feds.”
“You think maybe we should head back?” he asked, foot weary.
“We’re not going back without we get something for dinner.”
Brady silently groaned. His eyelids were drooping and his toes were cold in his boots as he silently kept up. He hated being forced to get up early in the morning. He hated being stuck in these godforsaken woods, hungry and tired, when all he wanted to do was go back to his warm bed, even if he did have to share the room with his brother and the dog. And though he’d never admit it to his father, he hated hunting. It was boring and pointless, like most things in his life.
At last they came to where the flat woodlands opened up to a wide expanse of open marshland. His father stopped here, his shotgun hanging from his arm, to survey the landscape with an eagle eye.
A brisk wind was blowing in from the ocean, stinging Brady’s cheeks with crisp freshness and waking him to the beauty of the eastern sky. He lowered his rifle in quiet awe. The dawn had already declared itself. Pink streaks softly shadowed a pearly blue sky, but an approaching armada of low lying, gray clouds and fog stretched threatening fingers across the horizon.
“Look! There!” His father jabbed his side and pointed.
“There. Over that stretch of marsh. At nine o’clock.”
Brady turned his head to see an enormous black bird soaring on a great expanse of wing. The beauty of the sight was awesome.
“Go on, son. Take the shot!”
Frozen with shock that his father was actually offering him the rare opportunity to take the shot, Brady fumbled as he raised the barrel, losing precious seconds.
“Hurry up! You’ll lose it.”
I’m not gonna lose it, he thought to himself, aware that actually speaking the words could cause him to lose his train on the bird. He could hear the blood roar in his ears and excitement thrummed in his veins as he brought his eye to the scope.
“It’s bankin’,” his father said. “Comin’ right for you.”
“I can’t see it!”
“It went back into the fog. Don’t matter. Wait for him. Be cocked and ready.”
Brady eased off the safety, put his right forefinger on the trigger and placed his site squarely on the spot he figured the bird would emerge. He tried to calm himself, to take slow breaths and make certain he got the shot. His father wouldn’t give him a second chance.
Okay, where are you? One…two…three… Suddenly, out from the fog, the bird emerged—right where Brady figured it would. Oh yeah, it was a big bird. A real big bird. He told himself to take it slow and careful as he trailed the soaring bird and focused. His finger applied pressure. He held his breath.
Brady released his breath with the curse, lowering his rifle. “I can’t shoot. It’s an eagle.”
“A what? Goddamn… That’s all that’s left in these goddamn government woods.” Roy shook his head and mumbled a curse. “They won’t let us hunt nowhere or shoot nothing no more. Look up there! It’s comin’ straight for us. Bold as can be, knowin’ we can’t shoot. Probably gonna steal some decent farmer’s chickens. Well, hell. Go on, son. Take it.”
“What? I can’t. It’s against the law.”
“What’s the law got to do with my god given right to hunt like my father and my father before him? I’m tellin’ you, that bird is the enemy, you hear me?”
“That bird ain’t done nothing.”
“I’m not playin’ with you, boy.” He looked his son in the eyes with steely rage and said in a low, threatening voice, “You’re either with me on this or against me.”
His father muttered with disgust that he was as weak as a woman, bringing his own shotgun to his shoulder.
Brady felt his chest constrict and brought his eye back to the scope of his rifle and his finger to the trigger. Life with his father had always been an endless, agonizing series of tests.
Was he with his father—or against him? In that moment, one that seemed to linger in the air without regard to time or judgment, Brady knew that, whatever action he took, his life was going to change forever.
* * *
The old man smiled from ear to ear in elation at the magnificent sight of seven feet of wingspan riding a thermal. The Good Lord sure knew what he was doing when he made the eagle, he thought to himself. Powerful wings, a razor sharp beak and talons as long and sharp as tiger claws. And the way she flew… It was like she knew she was queen of the skies. There weren’t no creature more beautiful in the whole world, he thought.
He whistled again and reached into the pouch hanging from his side to pull out a wide mouth bass he’d brought just for this bird. He knew she was busy with her nest, knew she was hungry.
“Well, come on and get yourself some bittle,” he told the bird as he raised the fish high into the air. He whistled again, loud and clear, wiggled the outstretched fish and began walking through the field. She saw it. He could tell by the way she was circling.
Suddenly, the unmistakable thundering of gunshot shattered the morning’s peace. The old man stumbled. His arms jerked outstretched, dropping the fish to the field. He watched with helpless horror as the eagle’s great wings fluttered against the bruise colored sky. His breath choked in his throat as the bird seemed to hang in the air. Then the wings crumpled and the eagle dropped like a stone to the earth.
His cry of anguish mingled with the shrieking wind that streaked across the wetlands, whisking away the old man’s hat to reveal a head of snowy white hair. Spurred forward, he took off at a stiff-legged gait across the frosted fields straight for the fallen bird.