Authors: Mary Alice Monroe
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 nothin’ 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.”
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 for 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.
Buteos: The Soaring Hawks.
Buteos are medium-to-large hawks with broad wings and a short tail. Although slow flyers, they excel in soaring and hunt on the wing. They are a diverse group with a wide range of habitats and prey. Buteos include red-tailed hawks, red-shouldered hawks, broad-winged hawks, Swainson’s hawks, rough-legged hawks and ferruginous hawks.
HARRIS STOOD IN THE BRISK WIND WATCHING the sky until the tiny speck of brown that was the hawk disappeared from view. Scanning the horizon, there wasn’t another hawk in sight; only a broad-winged vulture coasted over the treetops.
He could remember his grandfather telling him of the days when he could walk a mile through a country field like this one and see every kind of hawk: sharp-shinned, Cooper’s, red-tailed and red-shouldered, kestrel and harrier—though his grandfather called those small but quick birds “marsh hawks.” Harris was no older than five when his grandfather began walking the fields with him. His grandfather would pause, point to the sky and ask, “What’s that?” Harris would shout out an answer with boyish confidence and never feel rebuked when his grandfather, more often than not, gently corrected him. Those walks were some of the most memorable in his life and fired a lifelong devotion to birds of prey. His grandfather had loved raptors, hawks especially, and taught him that identifying a hawk in the air was not as much a skill as it was an art. Color of plumage wasn’t a key, as it was in smaller birds. He was a shrewd and patient teacher, instructing Harris to take his time to read the subtle signs—the cant of a wing, the speed of the flap—and to trust his intuitive sense of how a bird appeared in flight before making his call. By the time his grandfather passed away Harris was only twelve years of age, but he could unerringly spot and name a raptor from a distance.
Harris was born in the early 1960s, a decade that recognized the devastation DDT brought to the environment. Since his boyhood he’d worked to help rebuild the birds of prey population from near extinction. They still had a long way to go before the skies would be as filled with raptors as his grandfather remembered, but they were on the right track. Each time he released a bird back to the wild he felt his entire being stir with hope.
He reluctantly turned from the sky to see a young, black, teenage girl neatly dressed in jeans and fleece trotting toward him from the edge of the open meadow. He waved an arm in silent acknowledgment, then cast a final glance toward the sky. The hawk was long gone. Beyond the circle of meadow, the fog was closing in.
“Mr. Henderson?” the girl called again, breathless from her run. “I’m supposed to tell you that Sherry needs you back at the clinic right away. Someone’s brought in a bird that’s been shot.”
Harris cursed softly.
“I’ll take this one,” Maggie said, bending to pick up the gear. “Aren’t you supposed to take Marion Christmas shopping? That little darling’s been talking about nothing else all week.”
He nodded with acknowledgment as he helped gather the gear. His five-year-old daughter had woken him at dawn that morning, already dressed in her best pants and sweater, her hair haphazardly pulled back with a pink plastic headband. She was so excited about their holiday outing that she only nibbled at her breakfast, preferring to drink several glasses of orange juice that kept her running back and forth from the bathroom. He chuckled quietly as he walked, recalling how he’d asked if she had a valve open in her plumbing. His last view before leaving the house was of Marion’s forlorn face staring back at him from the front window. He’d waved and called out that he’d be back soon, but she hadn’t smiled. He’d had to go to release the hawk, but the memory still tugged at his heartstrings.
“You haven’t bought a thing for that child yet, have you?” Maggie asked in response to his long silence. They’d walked across the field to the truck and she was regarding him skeptically. When he didn’t reply she added, “Good Lord, Harris. Do you even have a Christmas tree up?”
“Yep. The tree’s up and it’s even got lights on it, so don’t you worry, Mother Maggie,” he said with a teasing grin, and was pleased to see her face soften in response. Once Maggie got going, it was hard to derail her. “Marion and I amble into town every Christmas Eve, just the two of us, and she gets to pick out something special. It’s kind of our ritual.”
“Ritual?” Maggie looked at him disbelievingly. “Come on, Henderson, you can’t fool me. I’ve known you too long. You’re a hermit who’d never leave the woods if you didn’t have to, and this so-called ritual is your excuse for not having to face going into stores more than you absolutely have to.” She was nearly as tall as he was and her green eyes were fiery as they bore into his. “No more excuses today. You go on and leave that bird to me and give that poor child a Merry Christmas.”
Harris held up his hands in mock defeat. “All right, all right, I’ll go. You can take this one.”
“But Sherry said she needs
Harris,” the young girl interrupted. “It’s an eagle. She said for you to hurry.” The cold wind puckered the volunteer’s lips but her brown eyes were soft with worry.
Harris gave Maggie a knowing look and took off at a trot for his truck parked at the edge of the field. He treated all kinds of raptors at the center: hawks, owls, ospreys and falcons. But it was the eagle that he had the greatest affinity for. In his opinion, no other raptor could compare with the eagle’s grace and power. And it was that very power that made them so dangerous to handle. Unlike substantial Maggie, Sherry was older and as small and delicate as a peregrine falcon. And though just as clever and quick, she didn’t have the physical strength to handle eagles. When an injured one was brought in, Harris took the call.
Silenced by duty, Maggie jumped into the cab beside him. The gravel flew as his wheels dug in and he took off down the dirt road. The bird-flying field was only a short drive down the main road from the Coastal Carolina Center for Birds of Prey. He parked his truck at the house and trotted through the small tangle of trees straight toward the small white frame house mounted on cinder blocks that was the clinic. Immediately, he spotted Sherry Dodds, his senior volunteer, in full leather protective gear hovering uncertainly near a tall, slender black man with snowy white hair. Harris’s eyes fell to the man’s arms and his step faltered.
Maggie grasped his arm tight. “Oh, my God…”
Harris swallowed hard. He couldn’t believe what he was seeing. The old man carried a full-size bald eagle in his bare arms. That eagle’s talons could rip apart the man’s thin coat and arms, and its razor-sharp beak could slash his face with the speed of a bullet.
“Slow down,” Harris said to Maggie as they approached. They didn’t want to startle the eagle. It seemed to be in shock, not moving a muscle save for its glaring yellow eyes that followed their approach with typical intensity.
“Thank God you’re here,” Sherry exclaimed, straining to keep her voice down. It was rare to see her flustered. “This man…he just walked in here with the eagle…in his arms! I got the gloves out, but with him holding it like that, unprotected… I didn’t know what to do!”
Harris nodded curtly. He understood too well the dangers. The old man was holding on to the eagle’s feet with one hand, which was good, but he cradled the bird too damn close to his chest and face.
Sherry slipped out of the leather chest protector and long gloves and handed them to Harris, keeping her eyes on the bird all the while. As he stuck his arms into the protective gear, Harris assessed the bird with an experienced eye. It was a very large eagle, with shiny plumage, obviously healthy before the gunshot wounds. The white head feathers marked it as an adult, at least five years of age.
“Excuse me, sir. But you the doctor?” the old man asked. His long, weathered face was heavily creased with age and worry. He had a distinguished bearing, dressed almost entirely in faded black, yet he cradled the bird in his arms and large, gnarled hands as tenderly as a nursemaid with a baby. Harris figured he was either a fearless old coot or just plain ignorant to the danger he’d put himself into. At least he had the sense to keep a firm grip on the talons.
“Yes, but don’t talk. The sound of human voices is distressing to wild birds, and right now we don’t want to do anything unnecessary to rile this ol’ boy.”
Harris narrowed his eyes. From the size of the bird, the old man was likely right. “I’ve got to get that eagle out of your arms. Now, I want you to listen carefully. I’m going to approach the bird and get a firm grip on its talons with these gloves. When I say go, I mean just that. You let go of the bird and get away as fast as you can. Understand?”
“You think Santee’s gonna hurt me?” he asked. The old man shook his head slightly. “No, she ain’t. She knows me.”
He nodded solemnly. “I be the one that called her. She was coming straight to me when someone shot her from the sky. I tracked her and found her lying on the ground. Alive, praise Jesus! I heard about you folks here. How you help the birds. I’m grateful you were somewheres I could walk to.”
the bird here?”
“Came down the big road, straight as the crow flies.”
“How far did you come?”
“Not far. That way, back yonder a few miles, maybe. But it was slow going through the marsh.”
He almost laughed at the absurdity of it all. “How long have you been carrying that eagle?”
“Since after sunup.”
It was already almost nine. That meant the eagle had been wounded for hours. Harris shifted his gaze to the eagle. The large bird continued to stare at him, not lethargically or with head dangling, as one would expect from a bird in shock, but with an unnerving calm. Yet only shock could explain its nonresponsiveness—and shock was a killer. He had to act quickly to save the eagle’s life. He cast a worried glance at Sherry, who had returned wearing another set of long leather gloves. She was waiting, hands in the ready.
“The bird’s in shock,” he told her.
“I figured. I’ve got the body wrap and dex ready.”
He took a deep breath to squelch the flicker of anxiety in his chest. He met the old man’s steady gaze. He seemed to have no fear at all. “Okay, then…ready?”
With slow, deliberate movements, Harris moved his gloved hands to get a secure grip on the feather-coated legs. “I’ve got her. Let go.”
When the old man retracted his hands, the bird flinched its enormous talons and squirmed in Harris’s grip. In a flash, Harris cupped his free hand under and around the wings, then lifted the bird from the old man’s arms. Even with shot in its wings, the eagle had surprising strength as it flexed its talons and jerked to escape during the transfer. Harris’s experience quickly brought the bird under control.
Once stilled, however, its breathing grew more labored and its mouth gaped with stress. Sherry moved to place a light towel over the eagle’s head.
“What for you did that?” the old man asked.
“It helps reduce stress,” she replied.
“You’re a lucky man,” Harris said, exhaling with relief. “If this bird wasn’t in shock, you could be in the hospital yourself. Never forget these are wild creatures. Don’t make the mistake of trusting them.”
“Trust ain’t never a mistake,” the old man replied.
The man’s gaze held him with the same unnerving intensity of the eagle’s. Harris abruptly turned to the two women standing close by. “Can you get the intake information from this gentleman?”
“Will do,” Maggie replied, stepping forward.
Harris turned again to the old man. “We’re grateful you brought the eagle to us. I’m taking it into surgery now. You can give your name and phone number to Maggie and we’ll call you once we know how things turn out. Thanks again for taking the trouble to bring the bird in.” He moved toward the treatment room, dismissing him.
“We don’t have a waiting area,” Maggie replied kindly. “Don’t worry. We’ll call you right after surgery. It could take hours.”
“No matter. I’ll just wait outside.”
Maggie looked questioningly at Harris. His eyes flashed with annoyance, but he didn’t have time to argue the point. “He can wait in my office,” he said briskly, then turned and carried the eagle indoors.
The sun was beginning its descent by the time Harris’s duties in surgery were completed. It had been an unusually busy day. Two barred owls and a black vulture had also been admitted, all with head traumas from being hit by cars—a result of the heavy holiday traffic. After surgery, the birds were placed in the critical-care unit, a small, narrow room off the treatment room comprised of two long shelves holding two rows of kennels. Each kennel was draped with a cloth for darkness and quiet. Stress in captivity was a killer for wild birds, and at the center they did everything possible to minimize it.
Before closing up, Harris went to check the eagle one more time. In the darkness of her large kennel, she lay on her side, groggy from the anesthesia. She was hurt pretty badly with pellet wounds, some of them lodged where they could still cause trouble. There was also head trauma from the fall. Whether she’d be able to hunt again remained to be seen.
He ran his hands through his hair as he stepped from the treatment room, then let them slip down to rub the small of his back. His muscles ached from the hours of standing bent over the treatment table. He wanted nothing more than to strip from his dirty flannel shirt and jeans, kick off his hiking boots, shower, grab a bite to eat and collapse. The phone was blissfully silent and he was ready to call it a day. Yawning, he stopped short when he spotted the old black man still sitting in his office, elbows on his knees and his long, gnarled fingers worrying the brim of his hat. The man leapt to his feet when Harris walked in.
“How is she?”
“Amazingly good for a bird that just had a bucket of buckshot taken from its wings. It was slow, tedious work.” He shook his head. “But I’ve got to tell you, despite several punctures of lead shot, not a bone was broken. It’s pretty damn unbelievable. I’d have thought there’d be at least one break. This was one lucky bird.”