Freeing the fish hawk

WE think of a spring morning as being characterized by the loud singing of birds, nesting creatures of the prettily appealing variety, and of new-laid eggs of pink or bright blue. But no new-laid egg can compare with the decorative, multi-hued or marbleized egg of the osprey, or fish hawk. When I think of nests, I think of the lone nest of an osprey that once sat astride the branches of a tree towering over a neat harbor on an island of Maine. Years back, after Rachel Carson's book ``Silent Spring'' was published, and before its startling message had leached down to our consciousness and consciences, we in Maine were aware that our fish hawks were rarely seen. True, there were several great conservation societies extant at the time, but there were none of the sterner environmentalists around, or the lobbyists that clutter the halls of government today, and certainly no special departments turned over to the review of the issues of conservation. The osprey was considered an ``endangered species'' before that reference became a clich'e. The sighting of the nest excited some interest in local circles, and bird watchers came over from the mainland with their binoculars around their necks. Soon a fledgling could be seen in the hollow of the nest, and all concerned for the survival of the birds hoped for its continued good health.

Weeks later, when the summer had just begun, I wandered up from my cottage to my sister's farmhouse on the hill to clean it and air it out before she came for her vacation. The farmhouse, long and narrow as a brick and the same color, stood in the middle of a meadow of tall grass. It looked over the bay to the distant hills, its southern patch of woods hiding the vista of the salt marsh. I had planned to open a few doors and windows and find a broom, but I was arrested by the sight of a large bird beating its wings against and inside the kitchen window.

It was a typical Maine window, small-paned, its sills scattered with bits of white coral, dried herbs, spider webs, and mason jars filled with frosted glass, and against this background of mild decay, the osprey looked both lively and fierce. Its claws could find little on which to perch, and its outspread wings with their white underfeathers batted helplessly against the glass. The house had been tightly closed for months, so how had the bird been trapped inside? From my own experience of finding bird carcasses in my cottage after a long winter, I surmised that this young osprey, following the thermal air currents to get to a meal of little fish in the salt marsh, had lost its confidence in its new art of flight and fallen down the chimney.

Hitchcock's ``The Birds'' flashed uncomfortably to mind and I cravenly decided against helping this creature of beak and claw. I remembered that, at my cottage, I could trust the occasional bat to exit by its radar if my doors were wide open, so I flung open the doors of the farmhouse.

I went back to my place to give the osprey time to find the large spaces of the open doors, but was soon alarmed by the gusts of an approaching summer thunderstorm. Visions of soaked rugs and damaged upholstery came to mind: I had to go back and find a way. I climbed up the dirt driveway again as clouds the color of charcoal rose high in the west. The panic-stricken bird hadn't budged. It was still in the kitchen window, its mock-scowling face distorted by the lavender, hand-blown glass of the panes. It's folly to ascribe human expression to the naturally vulturine aspect of a fish hawk; here was a frightened youngster. I recalled that falcons, in order to be handled, had to be hooded. I had once returned a recalcitrant parakeet to its cage by throwing a scarf over its head so I armed myself with a good thick towel. I threw it over the flapping bird, which quieted down immediately, and raced toward the front door, holding my valuable and moving burden tightly. With a motion rather like throwing water out of a bucket, I tossed my captive out toward the meadow, whereupon he took wing and flew upward to the gathering clouds.

I look back on the incident with good feelings: I had handled myself with a cocksureness alien to my nature in an unfamiliar situation and saved a key member of a growing family. Now fish hawks are a familiar sight, with their five-feathered wing points outspread, over the woods and coves of Maine. I still enjoy the memory of being in the vanguard, however small, of one of our humanitarian movements, and of helping to resurrect a dying species. Louise Langdon

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