A bird's-eye view.
On the river it is still dark, but above the canyon rim the starlings catch the dawn. At first they are three separate flocks, but as I watch they merge into two, then one. Like a formation of fighter jets, they dive and bank and climb in perfect synchronicity. A thousand birds, maybe more, blooming sudden gold then flashing to black as each snapping turn of their wings catches and then releases the rising sun. Mesmerized by the swirling, flickering beauty, it is some time before I notice the larger, faster, darker bird wheeling around the flock’s edges, probing, hunting, looking for a meal.
From under a thick spruce I watch the starlings and the hawk dance their intricate ballet. Left and right, up and down, they use all of the sky. Then, the hawk gets above, gains the hunter’s stand it needs. Hovering an instant only, it slicks its wings and slashes down like a sword through silk, splitting the flock, turning the giant black-gold rose into spinning bits of flotsam. Though made ungainly by its new fluttering burden, the hawk, like a bird dog retrieving a shot grouse, is somehow regal as it drops to the ground.
A staccato screeching grows until it fills the air. To kill the bird, the hawk, instead of pecking as I’d supposed, grabs with its hooked beak at the bird wriggling in one clenched talon and yanks—again and again and again. The screeching diminishes with each yank and I realize that I am not hearing a hunter voicing exuberant triumph, but prey screaming in pain and fear. I wonder if the strike of the hawk has crippled the little bird; I hope it can still fly. Impulsively I stand to drive the hawk away, but then drop back down.
I haven’t the right.
Watching the trapped, fluttering bird grow ever more still, I think of animals I have hunted, of the elk I hoped to find on the river today.
The screeching and then even the fluttering stops. The hawk dips its head again, this time to eat.
I think further, of animals I have not killed cleanly, animals I have watched struggle and die, animals standing individual in my mind. Carefully, to not disturb the hawk, I stand and unload my rifle.
I will hunt—and kill—again. But not today.