In the northwestern sprawl where Cambridge meets Somerville just behind Porter Square, there unfolded yesterday a mysterious episode of avian death. While biking home in the bright suffocating evening, I happened to follow the gaze of an old woman who stood on the sidewalk, looking up at the second floor balcony of a ramshackle brown building – one of those old wooden constructions that have seen better days and now await death by gentrification. Nobody seemed to live there, except perhaps a few panhandlers seeking refuge from the cold and rain. On the dirty maroon balustrade sat a handsome, powerfully built bird – a red-tailed hawk – with its back to us, looking down at something on the floor of the balcony.
All at once, a piercing shriek sounded from the trees on the left of the building. These weren’t the emanations of a blue jay as the sound would lead one to expect. A mockingbird appeared at the top of the tree, and in one fantastic swoop of flashing white curves, it dived straight for the hawk! The little bird’s beak penetrated the hawk’s reddish brown tail feathers, but the predator didn’t budge, its attention focused unwaveringly on a low target invisible to us. We guessed that the hawk was after some unfortunate creature that had strayed or fallen from its nest and onto the balcony. The mockingbird swooped once more, this time from the right. Again and again, the shrieks came, followed by daring dives as brave as they were futile.
One knows without thinking that hawks are much larger than mockingbirds, but up close, the difference is visibly unfair. With just one well-timed flick of the hawk’s muscular leg, the mockingbird would have sustained a grievous or fatal injury, but it seemed not to notice. The hawk, in its turn, wasn’t the least bit interested in this puny crusader that was trying its level best to divert its attention. People began to gather downstairs. Someone called up her friend, and started describing the incident on the phone, “I’m seeing the most unusual thing!” A few bikers pulled up alongside. Women returning from the nearby gym stopped to take a look. At last, after the mockingbird had made about two dozen unsuccessful divebombing attempts to distract the large intruder, the hawk slowly, ominously, opened its huge wings, jumped on the floor, and grabbed something in its talons. Up in the trees, the mockingbird shrieked louder and louder as if for dear life. But, it didn’t dive again. The hawk started pumping its feathers and rose to fly away with effort, weighed down by its catch. As it flew overhead, the limp carcass of a pigeon dangled from its talons. It had been dead for some time.
All was quiet for a second as the hawk flew westward into the sunset beyond Porter Station, dinner in its grasp. Then, a huge flock of pigeons took off from the roofs of the nearby buildings, escaping from their hiding places with a noisy collective flap of panic-stricken wings.
In stitching together what might have transpired, my best guess is that the hawk must have stunned and killed the pigeon in flight, as hawks are known to do near dawn and dusk when pigeons fly in large flocks over Cambridge and Somerville. The dead bird must have fallen onto the deserted building and the predator must have come to claim its quarry.
But, what role was the mockingbird playing in this gory dance of blood and talons? Our brave (or foolhardy) diver shrieked again for a while, after the hawk and the pigeon flock were gone, restless and pitiful in the orange vacuum. What had it been up to? Had it only been trying to drive the hawk from its presence, true to the fiercely territorial instincts of mockingbirds? Or had it wanted, instinctively, to save the poor pigeon which unbeknownst to it, was already dead?