Deep snow is hard on the birds. A mile north of Lostine, my mom’s buffet of thistle and corn and sunflowers seed—aswarm this time of year with finches, juncos, sparrows, doves, starlings and melodious red-winged blackbirds—has prompted two pedestrian neighbors to name her place, wishfully, “Springtime Corners.” Most mornings, a pair of flickers shows up to patiently worry the stock in my own bird feeder in Lostine proper. The juncos tumble around the flickers like disciples. There’s something magical about bird feeders: present an offering and the wild things come.
That’s not the whole story, of course. I have barn owl feathers and frigate bird bones on my windowsill, and I understand that I’m feeding birds who will go on, many of them, to be eaten themselves. Raptor populations in Wallowa County are still recovering from the winter of 2015, when the snow was so deep and stayed so long that the only prey available to hunting birds was other birds. The Hungarian partridges disappeared that year—we found little clots of feet and feathers every morning on the roads—and eventually, when the partridges and quail and pheasants (and some folks’ chickens) were gone, many of the hawks and owls starved.
Snow causes problem for some humans, too, of course. Others thrive in it (of course, we hunt for food at the Dollar Stretcher). Many of my friends backcountry ski; they’ve been raving these last few weeks about the powder in the mountains. I haven’t downhill skied since I snapped my ACL in a chute at Anthony Lakes a couple of years ago. I used to dive down the slopes like a peregrine. These days, instead, I cross-country ski. It’s easy on the joints and a nice way to be out quietly in the winter.
So, on the ninth of February, I headed north from Lostine, across the snowy bunchgrass and wheat-stubble hills of the Leap country. Flocks of juncos bounced from teasel to teasel to fencepost along the lane. I turned onto Hick Springs Road and drove into the forest and stopped where they’d stopped plowing. It was quiet and not too cold. An abandoned truck—an elegant old International with a tank in the bed—crouched in the woods where Hick Springs Road crosses the middle fork of Whiskey Creek. I took a photo and skied down the creek until I hit a gate: Private Property. Thwarted, I turned and shuffled up a tributary drainage, stepping gingerly over ice pockets and burbling water, until I hit a network of logging roads that afforded easier passage. I climbed until I had a view of the snowy valley and then I coasted back down, following my own tracks. The whine and stutter of a snowmobile echoed from somewhere over the ridge. As I approached the snowbound International again, I got a round of cranky hooting from a great horned owl. I didn’t see him but I stopped to listen.
I drove slowly out of the woods, putting the car in low gear for the descent down the icy hill
toward Leap Lane. At the junction there was something in the snow, something rust colored. I nearly drove over it before I understood what it was. I backed up the car and turned it off and got out.
It was a tail: the whole tail of a red-tailed hawk, lying in the snow on the road. I picked it up and turned it over. It was trailing a little bloody tendon.
I looked around, looked up, bewildered. What had happened here? This tail had not been here on my way up the hill: I was sure of that.
Then I found the hawk. He was lying on the berm of snow beside the road. He was dead. I climbed the berm and looked at him. He was tragic without his tail. I touched him. He was still a little warm. He was soft and flexible and almost weightless and his talons and beak were sharp enough to tear a smaller animal apart. That’s what he did with his life, and that’s how he died, somehow: torn in two. But I couldn’t find a mark on him besides his missing tail. His wings articulated perfectly. I spread them out—not clinically but with reverence. All bodies are perfect, and touch is a powerful way to understand that.
But he was tragic without his tail. I looked around, I tried to understand. There was a power line just above us. I guess I tend to blame humans and our infrastructure for things; so I guessed that maybe the hawk had hit the power line, had somehow torn himself apart, just a moment ago, and fallen here. My mom, when I talked with her later, suggested that an eagle or coyote might have grabbed him by the tail—but if so, why was he still here, warm in the snow? I hadn’t scared up any eagle or coyote when I emerged from the woods—if some other animal caught this hawk, why leave him?
I don’t know. There’s a lot I don’t know. I stood over the hawk for a while, I touched his breast feathers, I thought about what to do with him. Ultimately I left him there. Something was going to eat him. Everybody needs a meal this time of year.