A red tailed hawk with its kill

Our Backyard Predator

Sometime in June when I was visiting the Cowell Provost House (before moving in), I spied a red-tailed hawk in the backyard, perched upon one of the picnic table benches, disemboweling a ground squirrel. It had turned its back to the house, unconcerned about those of us walking around, talking in normal voices, as if it was at the top of the local food chain. Which at that moment it was.

A red tailed hawk with its kill
Red Tailed Hawk, E-10, with its kill. Photo by Tosh Tanaka.

Later, on a beautiful July afternoon, I was sitting at a table in the backyard with three friends, enjoying a delicious lunch of cheese, roasted vegetables, cured meats and wine when suddenly we heard the panicked screech of a ground squirrel. We turned our heads toward the grass to see two or three squirrels racing away to the right. Behind them, under a small tree to the left, we saw a hulking figure somewhat camouflaged by the background and the light. In no time, however, the object of the squirrels’ terror came out from under the tree and jumped up onto a bench: our red-tailed hawk. Tosh, Conner and Stephen jumped up—Tosh with his camera—and began a hunter’s squat walk toward the hawk. As before, the hawk seemed unconcerned. Gutting the fresh kill was obviously more interesting. As Tosh set up with a camera about 10 or 15 feet away, the hawk tore into the former squirrel, talons holding the body still, beak ripping out its innards. Between tears, after dropping unwanted bits to the ground below, the hawk fixed Tosh with a stare that seemed to say, “Am I not magnificent? Are you getting good shots?” This lasted about ten minutes before the hawk carried the choicest remains up into the redwoods and took its meal on a branch. We went back to our food with our heads constantly turning up toward the tree, admiring the bird.

While we watched the bird, we saw that someone had placed bands on its legs, but we were so fixated on the bird’s actions that we failed to consciously register them. When Tosh sent me his pictures, I saw that we could make out the markings on its leg band and I realized I might be able to find out something more about my neighbor, but I wasn’t sure where to start. So I began with an email to Glenn Stewart at the Santa Cruz Predatory Bird Research Group to see if he could steer me right. Glenn’s speciality—and that of the SCPBRG— is peregrine falcons. According to their website, they were formed in 1975 to see if they could bring back the peregrine falcon “from the brink of extinction.” Happily, they achieved their goal: the peregrine falcon was removed from the federal endangered list in 1999 and the California endangered list in 2009. Glenn noted that the red tailed hawk was not part of his group’s mandate, but he pointed me to the “bird banding lab” online as the place to go.

Bird Banding Lab Certificate
What one gets when one submits a sighting to the USGS Bird Banding Lab.

The Bird Banding Laboratory is managed by the United States Geological Survey (USGS), and had clear instructions for reporting a sighting of a banded bird. So I submitted the details of the band and waited. A couple weeks later I received this certificate. I learned that the hawk had hatched in 2015 near Sausalito in Marin County, over 75 miles away, and I learned the name of the bander (I’ve obscured the name here in case that person does not want to be identified) who I hope to contact to learn more about the banding program.

As Glenn remarked in his reply, this is a good moment to reflect on the fact that we share this campus with a lot of wildlife which “we can appreciate if we just give them an opportunity to live their lives.” As a provost, who is interested in helping students find their passions, I can also see the hawk and think of all the ways we can appreciate it.

There is another way to think about this red tailed hawk, the other fauna around us and our shared living space. This summer I was re-reading a book I love by a colleague in Anthropology here at UC Santa Cruz: Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection, by Anna Tsing. One of my favorite chapters of that book is called “A History of Weediness.” Challenging the constellations of concepts we use to think about natural spaces and social spaces—whether in the language of conservationists or developmentalists—that seek clear “demarcation” between human and natural spheres, Prof. Tsing encourages us to think about human-animal-plant relations through places where they co-habitate. Writing about the central Meratus Mountains in Indonesia in the 1980s and 1990s, Tsing describes a landscape that “is both ‘social’ (created within human projects) and ‘natural’ (outside of human control; populated by nonhuman species)” (p. 174) This looks like a middle zone, a zone of “weediness” that exists in a gap between what we think of as purely human and purely natural landscapes. But when we think in these “weedy” zones, we begin to see how rich and complex they actually are. The notion of “weeds” as contaminant, something that needs to be cleared away so that a pure desired state of control (by humans or by “nature”) can emerge begins to seem profoundly out of touch with reality.

2015 was the 50th anniversary of the founding of the UC Santa Cruz campus. As part of our commemorations, emeriti Professors James Clifford, Michael Cowen and Virginia Jansen, with emeritus Campus Architect Frank Zwart, put together a wonderful exhibition called “An Uncommon Place” on the history of campus planning that was shown at both the Mary Porter Sesnon Gallery and the Eloise Pickard Smith Gallery and is now available for viewing online. In a companion volume, In the Ecotone: The UC Santa Cruz Campus, Clifford defines an “ecotone” as “a border area between ecologies, where life-worlds meet and integrate. The word combines eco and tone (from the Greek, tonos or tension).” He quotes a key planning document by Thomas Dolliver Church, the Consulting Landscape Architect for the campus after his first visit to the site where it would be built. Church wrote: “Among all the natural features which make the site both provocative and difficult, it is the size of the redwood groves which must concern us the most. The towers of trees are ‘out-scale’ and more related to the rugged knolls and deep ravines than they are to an academic landscape…To accept them as trees in the normal building-landscape relationship would be a miscalculation of their potential in the grand design…To a greater extent than any of us have faced heretofor, the buildings are less important in the visual composition than the trees. Instead of remaking the land, the land must remake our standard conceptions of building and plaza and parking lot….It must be kept in mind, to avoid future recrimination, that one of the inevitable results of building in a forest is that as man enters, nature recedes. Romantics must be warned that covers of fern, johny jump-ups and shooting stars prefer to disappear rather than face our advanced civilization. With the exception of areas especially preserved in their natural state the general effect in the main campus areas must be one of sensitive collaboration between the designer and this spectacular environment with the intent that neither shall impose unduly upon the other.”

Whether you see this as a “weedy” zone or an ecotone, one of the most remarkable things about this campus is this environment and our plant-animal cohabitants.

A couple days ago, as my wife and I were leaving the Cowell House on an errand, we heard a loud commotion in the little thicket of trees on the hill next to the building with the Cowell Press. A couple of acorn woodpeckers were screeching their danger calls, with more than the usual urgency. It went on long enough that I thought the predator might still be nearby, so I quietly walked around the corner of the driveway to see if I could spy the creature, expecting a bobcat. Instead, I saw a red tailed hawk, hopping through the leaves, indifferent to the din of the woodpeckers. Was it E-10? I couldn’t see. But there are hawks aplenty on our campus.