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A Nature Journal

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The Year of the Hawks and the Fox

Posted by Maddy Kangas -

2016 was the year of the hawks and the fox at our home in southeast Urbana. We saw four fledging hawks grow to adulthood in July and August. And late in the fall we watched transfixed as a red fox enjoyed a little me-time in the fallen leaves outside our kitchen window.

When my wife Lois first spotted the young hawks in mid-July, they were hanging out under the hedge of rose of sharon and witch hazel in the side yard. They hopped and danced and lifted their wings and dropped them again, looking like teenagers trying on personalities for the start of real life.

Over the next several weeks the youngsters (most likely either Cooper's or sharp-shinned hawks) spent less time together, got bigger and flew around more, but still stayed close by in several contiguous back yards.They seemed to be partial to two locust trees whose dying tops gave them an unobstructed view.

We would look up from breakfast and suddenly — wildlife always seems to appear suddenly to city dwellers — we'd realize that a thickly drawn exclamation point in the treetop was actually a hawk. Ir was upright and perfectly still except for the head, which turned quickly and stopped,waited, turned again to cover a new sector, seemingly able to rotate in a nearly complete circle.

One day in August we realized we hadn't seen a hawk for a while. Adult hawks seem to be solitary unless mating. When we drive to Chicago on I-57, we see a red-tailed hawk only about every seven or eight miles,perched on a fence post or in a tree in the right-of-way, waiting for a vole or a field mouse to make the mistake of a lifetime. So presumably our four hawks had flown off to establish their own territories. Our neighborhood must have had at least a few desirable characteristics,so we hope to see more fledglings next year.

We've seen foxes in the neighborhood from time to time since we moved here six years ago — but they were only a red blur, sharp on one end and bushy on the other, running lickety-split across the yard. Once I stepped out on the porch at dawn to pick up the News-Gazette and saw one streaking down the deserted middle of our street, headed for the neighborhood park at the end of the block.

But this fox held our gaze for a long time — five minutes at least, though it seemed like more. To determine the sex of foxes, you pretty much have to flip them on their backs and look at their genitals, so I'll call this one a she for simplicity's sake. She was beautiful, with thick, soft, sleek fur,mostly rust-red, but with white here and there, and a long, full, bushy tail.

Stepping gracefully on small black feet from one place to another, she poked through the fallen leaves with her nose, as if looking for something to eat. She had a good long scratch, and then another. Finally,she stretched, yawned, walked five paces, pooped very quickly and economically, and loped off toward the cover of the hedge.

The fact that we are so startled and intrigued when we see wildlife in the city is interesting. Is it solely because there's more urban wildlife these days? Naturalists point to habitat destruction by mono-crop agriculture,surmising that urban trees, hedges and flower gardens look pretty good to wild creatures, compared to corn and soy fields stretching miles.

But it's also possible that wildlife has been closer than we think all along — but we don't see it because it doesn't fit into the cubby-holes in our heads? "Wildlife," we tend to think, belongs in Alaska, Peru, and all those other beautiful and expensive places we travel to or see on television. When reality pulls on our sleeve and we do notice a fox in the yard or four young hawks goofing off under a hedge, we pay attention.Then we admire. Then we begin to ask — what else is there, just yards away, that I'm not seeing?

John Palen (2012)

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