Cheryl Kimball's Nature Talks: The sad incident of the hawk along the road

By CHERYL KIMBALL September 29. 2017 11:08PM

The sharp shinned hawk is a small, acrobatic flyer and attacks its prey by swooping in from low perches. (Courtesy/Cheryl LeBlanc)

HEADED TO AN appointment in Portsmouth one recent afternoon, I drove past yet another dead animal on the side of the road. As I went by it, I saw that it was a large bird. A few yards beyond the bird, my brain registered that it might be a pileated woodpecker. Should I turn around? Just as I thought about it, coincidentally, wide turnouts appeared on both sides of the road. I swung around. Just beyond the bird, another wide turnoff on the right allowed me to safely swing around back in the direction I had been heading and come to a stop right before the bird. This all seemed meant to be.

I admit that I was both curious and reluctant to see if it was a pileated. The pileated woodpecker is the animal I have chosen to believe serves as a “messenger” for my beloved late dog, Tex (I am not “mystical” at all, this is just one of my personal ways of dealing with grief), and it may be too sad to see one dead. But this would be the closest I would ever have been to a pileated, so I could not resist the possibility of seeing this bird close up in the flesh.

The bird was, it turned out, a small hawk. This is apparently a common thing — a hawk swoops from the forest across the road highly focused on the trail of prey and smacks into a car. As I pulled my car up in front of it, I thought I could see the bird take very slow, very labored breaths.

My mind then raced to the decision-making process. What if this bird is still alive? I could envision the two small cat crates I had at home; damn, why had I never put one in my car as I had always intended? If it’s alive, would I miss my already-once-postponed appointment to get it to a wildlife rehabilitation center? Absolutely. I looked in the back seat of my car for a towel or something I could wrap the bird in. The only thing there was a nice light gray jacket I had worn to work; I grabbed it.

The hawk did not move when I approached. The bird’s yellow eye was wide open but did not blink. The labored breathing seemed to have stopped. The shoulder of the road was very hot in the early afternoon sun. I draped my jacket over the hawk’s body and carefully picked it up, making sure to gently but firmly hold its wings against its body. If this bird suddenly came to life, I wanted to be in control. Not only did I not want to be subject to its defensive tactics, whatever those might be, but I also didn’t want to cause further injury.

I carried the unresponsive bird a few yards off the road to a shaded opening in a stone wall with soft dirt from rotted wood. I gently put it down and removed the jacket. The bird’s head stayed to the side, right eye up. There were no detectable further attempts at breathing. I watched it for a moment. Its beak was large and it had terrifying legs and claws that were large for its body size. Ever so slowly the hawk’s right eye closed. The hawk was dead.

I stroked the feathers along the hawk’s back; they were as soft and silky as rabbit fur. I told the hawk how sorry I was that this had happened — one minute you are soaring along like the king of the forest and the next, lights out. I stroked it a few more times. And I could only hope that even a wild hawk who would have lived a good full life without ever laying eyes on a human, appreciated a kind touch and death in the shade. I was humbled to bear witness to this lovely animal’s unfortunate, and clearly premature, death.

The amazing toll that our vehicles take on wildlife and the heartache I feel seeing all the dead animals along the roads everywhere I go — let alone the crushing blow on the occasion I hit one myself — will be the one thing that will make it easier to give up my driver’s license if I live to an age when that time comes. Wherever little hawks go when they die, I hope this one is soaring high and the gentle breeze on its back perhaps reminds it of the touch of the human who tried to give it a peaceful transition from this world to the next.

Cheryl Kimball is a freelance writer who lives north of Rochester. Email her at

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