Essays, Recent

Field Note: Birds of Prey on the Highway

by M. Soledad Caballero | Contributing Writer

My Abuela had a birdcage for most of the childhood I remember in Santiago: a walk-in birdcage as big as a small house, made of wood and wire netting, with discrete rooms for different birds, quails, finches, doves, and birds that didn’t get along with any other birds. This birdcage dominated my childhood in Chile, but for most of my life, if you’d asked me if I loved or even liked birds, I would have said no. Even on the few visits I took to Chile when my Abuela was alive and still kept cages of song birds and canaries on the balcony—the walk-in bird cage was no longer part of the story after my Tata died and the house was sold—even then I would have said birds were not part of my life.

I am not in any traditional sense a birder. I do not keep a life list. I do not plan vacations around what birds may be around. I do not get up early on weekend mornings to bird watch in Frick Park, a few blocks from my house. Although I have binoculars (two pairs, actually) at least half the time I forget to pack them when I travel places known for birding. I have piles of books about birds all over the house, including a guide to North American birds, but I could not tell you where they are. A few years ago, my husband got me a bird feeder, and for a time, we watched sparrows, robins, and cardinals (plus a lot of squirrels) make their way to it. It was fun to watch parties of feathers and flapping wings. One time a bird showed up that seemed different from the usual crowd, so I actually found the guidebook and tried identifying it. It’s a good thing it was hungry and untroubled by city noises because it took me forty-five minutes to identity it as a regular house finch. I read once about a girl who trained blackbirds to bring her presents. I wish I were that disciplined about birds. But I’m not.  

What I have discovered in my adult life, in my driving and commuting life, is that I love birds of prey. My work commute is eighty-six miles to and from Pittsburgh on Interstate 79. On that stretch of road, I watch for and become enamored with the birds of prey that fly overhead looking for kills. Over the years, I’ve seen falcons, red tailed hawks, bald eagles, black vultures—they fly above the divided highway, sometimes right over the car and areas with low shrubs and bushes, swooping into the grass median to grab whatever animal they are chasing. They often perch on highway light posts. I’m usually driving seventy miles an hour, with no time to stop or slow down when I do see them, but the flash of their wings, their bodies, their existence in my weekly travel is what led me to volunteer at the National Aviary during my first sabbatical.

It was unglamourous work. I showed up once a week, cleaned out cages, took away the previous night’s food, put new food out, helped with interactive bird shows, and talked to visitors, though my bird knowledge was limited. I tried memorizing the binder of bird facts they gave me, but I never could. I cheated, told people to use the colorful informational plaques. My injuries included falling on the slick floor of a bird habitat while trying to turn on the rain system for an interactive bird show, being harassed and leg-pecked by the wattled curassow who roamed freely in her wetland space and had a rabid dislike of anyone who was not her trainer, and being attacked in the face by a bird who hated long hair even when it was pulled back. These attacks drew blood. At the Aviary, I realized how much I loved birds, especially the owls I fed frozen mice to and whose cages I cleaned, and all the raptors, caged or part of free flight shows. Bald-headed vultures, snowy owls, great horned owls, Coopers hawks, red tailed hawks, bald eagles, Steller eagles—these were the gorgeous, strange, big-eyed, sharp-beaked birds I wanted to be around.

For a person who claims to adore them, I don’t know many facts or figures about birds of prey, and I’ve come to realize my love of birds of prey isn’t about knowledge. It’s about breathing. My breath still catches when I see them glide by as I drive along 79. The first time I saw a bald eagle I bawled in the car, still barreling down the highway. When I see a hawk and then another perched on a light post as I come out of a tunnel, I know it’s a sign, a prayer I didn’t know I needed. In the last decade I have read about birds of prey and then forgotten everything. I still cannot tell them apart very well, and I almost never have binoculars when I see one. But the feeling remains pure elation. Birds of prey do not care about me, and I have no way of truly knowing them, but watching them, knowing they fly, hunt, and move across sky, feels like it makes something complete.

I now realize that my Abuela’s birds were always part of my history. Looking back, they are the anchors for my stories about childhood and immigration. It is highly unlikely I will ever be a birder who remembers migration patterns or data or isolated facts (though I did just sign up for a raptor field course to try to learn more). What I love about birds of prey is that they are not mine to know, control, or explain, and that I breathe better when I have the chance to come upon them mid-flight.

M. Soledad Caballero, Professor of English & co-chair of the WGSS department at Allegheny College, is a Macondo and CantoMundo fellow, winner of 2019 Joy Harjo Poetry Prize from Cutthroat: A Journal of the Arts, and winner of the 2020 SWWIM’s SWWIM-For-the-Fun-of-It contest. Her poems have appeared in The Missouri Review, Iron Horse Literary Review, Crab Orchard Review, and other venues. Her collection I Was a Bell won the 2019 Benjamin Saltman Poetry Prize and was published by Red Hen Press in 2021. I Was a Bell was also the 2022 International Association of Autoethnography and Narrative Inquiry book of the year and a 2022 International Latino Book Award winner. She is an avid TV watcher and a terrible birder.