Monday, June 16, 2014

Hawk story

Cornell Lab hosts a couple of cameras that have been keeping watch on a red-tailed hawk nest. Three young hawks hatched back in April, and--this being the fifth observed brood from this pair, were christened E1, E2, and E3, in order of hatching. This past weekend there was much excitement, as E2, the first young hawk to leave the nest (or "fledge") returned, while E1 and E3 were strutting and flapping their wings, making like they were going to fledge at any moment. The cameras are accompanied by a chat room, where chatters anxiously anticipated the first flights of these birds. Any time I looked in on the proceedings, there were about 2000 other people viewing the camera feed at the same time.

Think about that for a minute. 2000 people, all focused on one hawk's nest in Ithaca, NY--many of those people hundreds or thousands of miles from Ithaca. At Cornell, there are also volunteers who observe and help ensure the safety of the nest, and there are volunteers who moderate the chats and educate people about hawks.

On Saturday morning, E2 flew off the nest again, followed shortly by E1's maiden flight. After a few hours of having the nest all to himself for the first time in his life, during which he mostly stared pensively off the edge of the nest ledge, E3 fledged also.

The hawks spend their early fledgling time figuring out how to fly--their mistakes and clumsiness, their earnest flapping before they can become airborne, a reminder of what a miracle flight is. Birds learn quickly, so most of the birds we've seen in our lives are accomplished fliers who make it look easy. The fledglings remind us that, like much else in life, it takes practice.

Sadly, after only a day off the nest, E3 had a mishap when he perched under an automated greenhouse window vent. It closed on his right wing, breaking the bone. The hawk-watching community agonized over the fate of the injured bird, which was ultimately rescued by a wildlife rehabber and taken to an animal hospital. (E3 is now undergoing treatment; the vets are hopeful they can repair the wing and ultimately return him to the wild.)

I have been marveling at the resources, the care, the energy, that have gone into tending this one family of hawks. And here's my point: this is the power of story, the power of specific characters. Biologists could lecture all day long about the importance of hawks or any other animal, their magnificence, their role in the ecosystem--and most people's eyes would glaze over. But when you can show people a specific nest with individual animals, when people can watch and get to know one family, when they can follow a few birds' lives and root for an egg to hatch, a bird to take its first flight, a wing to heal--then they care in a way that grows into a more general understanding and caring about a much larger population.

That's what story does. We zoom in on a few characters and tell a specific story, encouraging readers to bond, hoping that the story's meaning will be extrapolated and generalized deeper and farther.