I’ve been watching a short video on YouTube, made by a fellow blogger at Hawks and The City. Shot last week, it features a family of red-tailed hawks in their nest at Cornell University in upstate New York. It’s raining, and Big Red (the mother hawk in the foreground) is brooding over her newly-hatched young, which are out of camera range. Pressed up against her is her mate Ezra, who, we’re told, was sitting on the nest and then came over to shield Big Red and her eyasses from the hail and rain. For three minutes and sixteen seconds, we see the tail view of Big Red pressed up against Ezra. His eyes move about; her dark feathers glisten in the rain. That’s it.
The tableau has a soundtrack, the rock song “Starting To Rain Again.” At first that seemed like a weird juxtaposition — but on second thought, the match felt right: the tender behaviour of predatory birds and the rock lyrics with their undercurrent of tenderness. In fact, it’s quite moving. I don’t know why — I’d like to explore my reaction. Am I being silly or does the music only underscore the fact that Ezra has a tender heart? Are hawks evolving into predatory softies or have I caught the avian version of Online Cute Cat Syndrome?
Having studied theology, I know that most people have trouble talking about good and evil in the animal world, given the freighted meaning of those human words. Big raptors show parental affection and solicitude; they also kill and eat small mammals and less powerful birds. Because they lack language and a developed moral consciousness, we don’t assign virtue or guilt to their behaviour. This is appropriate, but I’m not convinced that we should draw an absolute distinction between the nature of their actions and our own. From my own observations, it makes intuitive sense to think of tenderness — or cruelty — as a spectrum of behaviour, in which all animals, including ourselves, participate.
On the other hand, we’ve all been taught that humans act out of a complex set of good or bad motivations, while animals act out of instinct. The classical Judeo-Christian take on the world allows us superiority and a moral edge, despite having eaten the forbidden fruit of Eden and needing a saviour to tidy things up. According to this narrative, good and evil came into the world with humankind. Animals are outside this moral realm. Our friends the hawks can “behave like beasts” but they can never be good. That’s reserved for us, along with grace, salvation, etc.
Poor Ezra. Nice try.
Yet evidence now points to the fact that creation is a work in progress. We learn this from the study of evolution, from its counterpart in process theology, from hanging out in nest-watch chat rooms, from loving our kids and each other. Online and off, we’re magnetized by the presence of life abounding, by the obvious goodness of creation, by a sense of mystery and wonder that never grows old — and that embraced this universe long before our species came along.
Does Ezra have a tender heart? He may not know it, but yes, he does. He has take-’em-out talons, too, but that doesn’t bump his slight gesture from the vast spectrum of instinctive self-giving that keeps this world alive. In his brief moments of protecting Big Red, he showed himself to be a true expression of nature’s generosity, of a gift much larger than himself. Whatever else may be true, I’m awed that Ezra did what he did. So rock on, raptors, and let it rain — avian or human, there’s no such thing as too much love.
Watch the video “Ezra Protects Big Red At Cornell” at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xajeASw80kU