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Requiem for the Great White Hawk

Bill Meredith

By watching the calendar, I knew the vernal equinox arrived and spring began on schedule, but it was hard to tell by looking outside. Winter, what there was of it, was gone a long time ago; the only news about it was of things that didnít happen. We did have a couple of snowfalls big enough to require scraping off the driveway and sidewalk, but not worth getting the snowblower out for. It got cold a few times, but not bone-chilling; we retired geezers played golf in January and February. Considering the temperature, grass should have turned green and flowers should have been up earlier than expected; those things didnít materialize because it didnít rain. And for only the second time in the past 20 years, the Great White Hawk didnít come back.

Iíve written about the Great White Hawk before, but for the benefit of those who donít remember, it was an albinistic Red-tailed hawk that I saw for the first time in November, 1982. I can still remember my first sighting of it; it was sitting in the top of a dead elm tree, in a fencerow on the old Frailey farm just southwest of town. Seen through binoculars at a distance, it was unmistakably a hawk because of its size and posture, but it was the wrong color: pure white except for its face, which was charcoal gray, three symmetrically arranged jet-black feathers on its back, and two pale russet-colored feathers in its tail. It stayed around that winter, and reappeared the following year in the pasture across from the bridge on Annandale Road. The year after that, it settled into a permanent winter territory in the cornfield along Mountain View Road; it returned there each winter thereafter, except for 1994-95. Over the next couple of years it lost the few colored feathers and became pure white all over, except for the face. It was well known among local Audubon groups; birders from as far away as Chambersburg regularly asked me about it.

Albinism is a disadvantage of lethal proportion for most animals; the lack of protective coloration draws unwanted attention. Perhaps living at the top of the food chain makes a difference, for this hawk far outlived its life expectancy. Captive birds in zoos have lived well into their 20ís, but banded birds in the wild rarely complete two decades. Mortality is depressingly high in the first year. Fledgling hawks have a full four-foot wingspan when they leave the nest, and their parents continue to feed them for several days. But many do not survive flight school; they break wing bones by flying into things before they learn to steer, especially in stormy weather. Once on their own, they instinctively recognize rabbits, squirrels and field mice as potential meals, but like all adolescents, they are clumsy. Catching prey is a learned skill, and even experienced adult hawks miss their prey more often than they catch it. Juvenile hawks go hungry often. Those that survive the first summer are faced with the perils of migration; again, instinct directs them along the timeless paths southward, but bad weather, harassment by crows, predation by great horned owls, flying into power lines or microwave towers, human hunters, and assorted other misfortunes take a heavy toll. And when they finally reach a suitable wintering area, they find all of the best territories are already taken by older hawks that are decidedly unfriendly. They spend their first winter wandering about the edges, living marginally on what they can catch before being chased away by crows or aggressive territorial adults. If that first winter happens to be a harsh one, most of them will not survive.

For those that make it through the first winter, life improves. There is a year or two of carefree bachelorhood before settling down for life with a mate. After that, summers spent raising young and winters in the south, usually in the same place, follow in succession until the string runs out. Disease, parasites, territorial battles with others of their own kind, or the accumulation of toxic pesticides in their body tissues eventually catches up with them. You donít have to be too much of an ecologist to figure out that of all the offspring a pair of hawks have in their lifetime, the population will remain stable if only two survive to adulthood (a harsh reality that also applies to us humans, and that results in problems we have yet to deal with successfully). Since hawk populations are actually declining, it is clear that fewer than two per pair of parents are surviving. My hawk is all the more remarkable for that reason.

I was two years short of grandparenthood when the white hawk first came to Emmitsburg, and over the years it became a sort of storybook creature for my grandchildren. For me, it was really just an albinistic red-tail, a freak of nature, a real-life example of something usually seen only in textbooks; but for them, it was the Great White Hawk, a being of mythic stature, and in turn each of them was taken to look for it when they visited during the winter months. We liked to believe that it found a mate and lived a normal life in its summer quarters to the north, and we made up stories about it. I suspect that, as the kids got older and more worldly-wise, I was the only one who believed them.

Dragons, we are told, live forever, but not so, red-tailed hawks. When it didnít appear last fall, I held out hopes that maybe it was because of the weather; perhaps it simply didnít migrate as far south as usual this year. Maybe, like Mark Twain, reports of its demise are exaggerated; maybe it will come back again next fall, as it did in í95. But that is unlikely; it has already beaten the odds by many years. As The Preacher knew when he wrote Ecclesiastes 3,000 years ago, time and chance happeneth to us all.


Read other articles by Bill Meredith