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Birds of Prey

One sunny afternoon, Hazel and I watched a red-tailed hawk perch on the sycamore in our front yard holding a large, wiggly fish in its talons. It was too far to tell what kind of fish, but the red-tailed hawk flung the live fish into the air and swallowed it whole. It then defecated on my van parked beneath its bough and flew away.

Hazel’s response to this scene was “Cool” After a beat, she asked, “Mommy, why is bird poop white?”

We live in Maryland a short walk away from the South River. Our area is home to quite a number of predatory birds. Besides the red-tailed hawk (one of the most prevalent and obvious due to its red tail), many other hawk species regularly fish in the South River. When we happen to come across the hawks hunting in the river, my kids are simply gawk-mouth fascinated by the ease of the sea hawks that glide overhead, then dive bomb into the river and emerge with a live fish wiggling in its talons or dangling from its mouth. Bald eagles are regulars to the South River fishing bird club. Above power lines and other tall towers, the birds of prey make their massive nests. At least they look massive from the ground. After dusk, the owls emerge from their nests to hunt, but I see them more often gliding over wooded areas than the river.

The only natural predator of the deer in our area is cars. The scavenging vultures are nature’s undertakers, eagerly devouring the remains of any animal unlucky enough to become road kill. The carcass of a possum or any other woodland creature is rarely intact and undisturbed. Instead, a murder of crows typically joins a wake of vultures dining on the remains. These scenes have led to engaging conversations with my children about the circle of life and nature’s food chain.

Normally, my interest in the birds of prey in my area is a passing curiosity, a mental “that’s cool” when I see a sea hawk emerge from the river with a live fish or real-life context for a conversation with the kids about predator-prey relationships in nature. The teacher in me enjoys these impromptu lessons about whatever observations we can make as we go about our day-to-day lives and the birds of prey in our area simply serve as context.

At least they did, until I decided to climb on the roof of our house to sweep the leaves, and branches, and clear the gutters. It was the first time I climbed up to the top of the roof and I did so with Hazel as my on-the-ground assistant. I wanted to show her that chores shouldn’t be considered “boy jobs” or “girl jobs.” Just because I’m the woman of the household doesn’t make the kitchen and bathrooms my cleaning domain any more than lawn care is Andy’s job because he happens to be the man of the house. Besides, the gutters in the back had sprouted shrubs overnight. Gutters should not look like potted plants.

Once I climbed up on the roof, I was aghast. Our roof looked like a serial killer’s backyard.

I found countless skeletons in various states of decomposition littered across our roof. I couldn’t identify what everything was, but they appeared to be small rodents or fish. Those birds of prey would perch on our roof and leave the skeletal remains of their prey strewn across the roof of our house.

Hazel passed me the broom while I reached down on my belly, then began sweeping. Down came the branches and leaves, the femurs, and skulls. I used a blower with an extension cord to blow off the leaves on the roof along with everything else. I used gloved hands to pull out the handfuls of the sprouting plants and caked dirt that filled the gutters. From the ground, Hazel watched.

I didn’t tell her I found a rodent and fish gravesite on our roof. I merely swept everything off, and finally, when the gutters were cleared, leaves gone, and skeletons swept away, I climbed down and finished sweeping up the debris that landed all around our deck and yard. Honestly, I was hoping that she wouldn’t find the rodent skeletons. Passing a wake of vultures dining on an animal carcass on the side of the road is different from knowing that there was dead prey on the roof, even if they were small animals. I wasn’t sure where my pretend-play imaginative four-year-old would go with that kernel of truth. I swept up everything from the yard and the deck while Hazel played with a soccer ball and picked wildflowers.

She did, however, find one intact fish skeleton. She brought it to me, confused. “Mommy, what is that?”

“Baby, that was a fish. Remember when we saw the hawk eat the fish in the front yard a few weeks ago? It looks like another bird ate this fish, but left its bones behind.”

Hazel laughed. “Mommy, after it ate the fish, it pooped on your car.”

“Yes, baby, it did.”

She thought for a moment. “Mommy, why is bird poop white?”

I guess I should look up the answer to that question if it’s going to keep coming up. Bird poop is white because of uric acid that resembles white paste, although I doubt that explanation would be satisfying to a four year old.


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