When I speak of hawk, I speak of Buteo lagopus, rough-legged hawk in North America, rough-legged buzzard everywhere else. I do not speak of the true hawks, accipitrinae, goshawks and sparrowhawks and such, bigger and rounder than falcons but still sharp-edged. I speak instead of buteo: heavy-bodied, opportunistic hunters, not too proud to scavenge; broad-winged soaring birds.
There are far more tales of falcons than of hawks, and often people mistake the two. Horus is a falcon, not a hawk, and certainly not a buzzard; Freyja is falcon-cloaked, not hawk-cloaked; and so on. Finding legends and myths of hawk as hawk – not falcon mistaken for hawk, or conflated with hawk – is nigh impossible. Searching for totemic interpretations of hawk just brings up “messenger, protector, visionary” over and over, and a lot of writing about red-tailed hawks.
How to discover myth within rough-legged hawk? I could begin with a list of facts: northern bird, rodent-hunter who won’t pass up carrion, feathered all the way down to its talons. Buteo lagopus will hover over open ground, looking for prey; it’s one way to tell it apart from other hawks. It nests in cliffs and Arctic treelines; it hunts in tundra and prairie from the air or from a perch. It builds its nests from sticks but sometimes even from caribou bones.
It’s a poor start, little more than bones and air. It’s difficult to extract symbolism from something that is so tactile, so present, so here-and-now. Hawk is the hollowing of my palate into a beak; hawk is the cramping of arms into wings; hawk is prickling feathers beneath my skin; hawk is high-alert, sensitivity to environmental stimuli, birdpanic; hawk is the sense of the eternal now, present-moment without real awareness of future days or past weeks. Hawk is an ever-present experience. How do I view it as myth and archetype when I can’t even find cultural myths to guide my sensing?
I’ll start with symbols. Associations.
Rough-legged hawk is not air so much as wind, spring wind and north wind; it is the rustle of high-plains grasses. It is a sun-bird, too, but not the hot southern summer sun of Vulture, nor the fierce pounding warrior-sun of Falcon. Rough-Legged Hawk is a colder star, arctic sun over tundra and winter prairie, warm enough to ease the chill of winter, bright enough to illuminate mouse-skitter and hare-movement.
Rough-Legged is a creature of borders, nesting where cliff and tundra meet, prairie and treeline. Hunter and scavenger both. Rough-Legged Hawk feels like early spring, late fall, the edges of winter – as contrasted with Red-Tailed Hawk, which I always associate with warmer times: late spring, summer, early fall, the warm summer sun; more direct. Rough-Legged Hawk is a bird of in-between times and places, transitional.
If I were to make my own stories of Rough-Legged Hawk, I’d write how he came by his colors. His chest feathers are like an impressionist’s watercolor painting, as if Monet dabbed his brush on the rough-legged’s breast. Or like snow on frozen high-plains earth. That’s what strikes me each time I see one up close, at the local bird rescue, or in pictures; rarely in the wild, so near the bottom of its winter range. Did the snow fall on her as she nested, and she refused to move, and the winter left a smattering of white across her head and chest? Was he too foolish to find shelter in a storm, or too stubborn? Did the spirit that painted the animals run out of paint when it got to Rough-Legged Hawk and have to spread it out as best it could?
How and why does he hover, when so few birds his size know how? Did he learn it? Rough-Legged Hawk isn’t so clever to steal the knowledge from others, like Crow or Raven might have done. But perhaps he scavenged it somewhere, if another bird or insect were so careless as to leave the trick of it lying about.
Hawk has taught me mindfulness, living in the here-and-now, present-moment. To really see, not just move from point A to point B without noticing my surroundings. To sit apart and watch, observe, focused and quiet. Open awareness, unblinking hawk-gaze.
For me, Rough-Legged Hawk in particular is about flexibility, practicality. He is not so consummately opportunistic as Grackle or Crow; there is a consistent core of constancy about Rough-Legged. But he is flexible within that core, not passing up elk bones when looking for nest material, not passing up carrion when looking for food. No use in being rigid, but remain true to what you are.
Simplicity. Too often I make things more complicated than they really need to be. Things are simpler for hawk: soar, nest, hunt, perch. Human-anxiety is a thing of words and worry, of racing thoughts, too much stuff, too many concerns. Birdpanic is a thing of too much stimulus, overwhelmed by the over-abundance of noise/sights/activity in an oft-human environment, my mind gone wordless, thinking reduced to pure sensory input. There is a distinct difference between these two types of anxiety for me, and I experience both. When I am human-anxious, it helps to become more hawk: simple, focused on the now, tactile, experiential; soaring, perching, feel the wind in my feathers. When I am in birdpanic, it helps to become more human, focus on human-thoughts and human-skin to shift away from sensory bird-mind; and it helps to indulge hawk-need, to remove myself from all the noise and bustle of a crowded place, get into open air where I can see sky; breathe. Both approaches involve simplifying – simplifying my thoughts, narrowing my focus, reducing the complexity of the situation.
Transitions, borders, the in-between. Nest in one environment, hunt in another. Migrate. Movement within a range. There are things that are Hawk in general and there are things that are Rough-Legged Hawk specifically; being a border-dweller is one of the latter.
Perhaps I’ve been more connected to Rough-Legged Hawk as symbol, myth, and spirit than I ever realized.
- Sohl, Terry L. “Rough-legged Hawk – Buteo Lagopus.” South Dakota Birds and Birding. Web. 06 Apr. 2011. <http://www.sdakotabirds.com/species/rough_legged_hawk_info.htm>.
- “Rough-legged Hawk, Life History, All About Birds – Cornell Lab of Ornithology.” All About Birds. Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Web. 05 Apr. 2011. <http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Rough-legged_Hawk/lifehistory>.