City Paper is not for tourists
The pigeons scattered in a huge flock, swirling up from the roof of the apartment building at the corner of 18th Street and Columbia Road. From my second-story window on Ontario Road, their flight looked perfectly ordinary: Pigeons do that. But then, among the clapping wings, I noticed another shape, bigger and darker, diving through the air.
The November sky above Adams Morgan looked like the dogfight sequence from Top Gun: birds dipping and swerving everywhere. Something was trying to kill the pigeons in midflight.
I lost track of the new bird in the confusion. But over the next few days, the scene repeated again and again: Pigeons would erupt into panicky flight, and a bird of prey, significantly larger than its quarry, would wing off, usually in the direction of Rock Creek Park. Then the pigeons would forget their peril and land again in a cluster. Besides covering their faces against the gusts of terrified pigeons, most passers-by paid no heed.
I began keeping binoculars on my desktop, where I could grab them quickly. Soon, I started going jogging with them. The National Survey on Recreation and the Environment estimates that 71 million people watch birds at least occasionally in the United States, and I’m sure plenty of them are fairly obsessive. But I have a particular pathology, the ornithological equivalent of an SUV fetish: I want to see hawks. I’m glad to look at new songbirds or shorebirds or whatever, but birds of prey—the most rugged and awe-inspiring members of the family—are what get me going.
In fact, not even all birds of prey qualify. Turkey vultures are boring. So are red-tailed hawks, which are easy to spot from the Duke Ellington Bridge or Walter Pierce Park, perched plumply among the trees.
But red-tails are too slow and chunky to chase pigeons. The bird I was glimpsing was a smaller hawk, built for speed. I developed theories: It might be a merlin, a mini-falcon also known as a pigeon hawk. Merlins are sleek, ruthless killers, prone to capturing prey on the wing. Or, I thought, it might be a Cooper’s hawk: a midsized, agile forest predator that also eats mostly birds.
In any case, I couldn’t resolve the matter from my window. Distant glimpses of dark wings and a whitish underside weren’t enough to match up with a picture in a bird book.
One Sunday in December, I gave in to curiosity, allowing a trip to the ATM to grow into a trans-Adams Morgan birding chase. Seeing a hawk dive-bomb the pigeons in Unity Park, I sprinted home for the binoculars and a field guide. Trailing the bird along Euclid Street, I saw that it had a black-and-white striped tail, salt-and-pepper wing coverts, and a reddish breast. It was a red-shouldered hawk—not as dashing as a merlin, maybe, but sleeker and quicker than a red-tail.
I was satisfied: I’d solved the mystery. Then, about three weeks later, I saw the pigeons scatter again. This time, their pursuer lingered on the roof of the apartment building at 18th and Columbia. I couldn’t see for sure what it was, but it had a long tail, almost twice as long as that of the red-shouldered hawk. There had to be at least two different birds hunting the pigeons.
With that jolt, I went from keeping an eye out for any hawks to actively seeking them. The next morning, a Saturday, I stood before dawn at the lowest part of the National Zoo, near the lion and tiger area, with a scarf wrapped around my face against the freezing cold. Why the zoo police agreed to let me in so early I can’t imagine, but I staked out a tree near their office, with a large nest in its upper branches. On past outings, I had caught fleeting glimpses of a hawk around here, shooting through the trees.
As the sun rose, songbirds began to flit around me excitedly, but I hardly cared: The big nest was empty. I clambered back up the hill along Adams Mill Road, past Pierce Park. This was the site of my most shameful birdwatching flub in the District, when I mistook the fake owls atop the apartment buildings across from the park—the ones that are meant to scare pigeons away but never work—for real ones. I’d stood there gawking; I think a passing couple giggled at me.
I stopped for coffee in the neighborhood, reflexively slipping my binoculars into their pouch, where they could be mistaken for a camera. Then I went out to the Ellington Bridge, for the vista. At 7:30, the bird soared over the park.
I barely got a look, but it was enough. It was slightly smaller than a crow, with a long tail relative to its body size and a heavily striped underside. It flew with a few quick flaps, followed by a glide. It was almost certainly a Cooper’s hawk (unless, I fretted, it was a large female sharp-shinned hawk).
So I had a plausible new theory: Both a red-shouldered hawk and a Cooper’s hawk were getting through the winter by hunting pigeons in Adams Morgan. I tried the idea out on Mathias Engelmann, an expert at the Carolina Raptor Center, who told me I might be right; the two birds could share territory without conflict because they’re not of the same species. Both are regularly found within city limits, and both eat birds, though the Cooper’s hawk is better designed for pursuing them. “They’re opportunists,” Engelmann explained. “If there are that many pigeons, they’re bound to get lucky every once in a while. So it makes sense.”
Only one thing was missing from the natural experience: I had never seen either of the hawks get lucky. For all their forays into the pigeon flocks, they’d never come away with dinner while I was looking. One snowy day, one of them even tried to land, talons first, atop a much larger seagull, but the seagull would have none of it. I almost felt bad for the would-be killer.
Back at Unity Park after my Cooper’s-hawk sighting, there were definitely a lot of pigeons out: A middle-aged man, who had driven up in a white Mercedes with an open trunk full of cardboard boxes, was offering them bread crumbs. He’d never seen a hawk attack, he said. But soon after he drove off, the pigeons scattered, leaving the bread where it lay. For the next hour, they swarmed again and again to the top of their favorite building, dispersing as the hawk repeatedly zipped after them. It seemed as if it were hiding behind the building and swooping out when enough birds had gathered. The Saturday-morning traffic rolled by, oblivious.
Watching the repeated attacks, I realized how deeply I wanted the hawk to triumph. It wasn’t merely that I’d never seen a successful kill: After months of neglect, I wanted the bird to finally earn some respect. A shriek and a bloody capture would wake up the neighborhood, bringing the hawk to the attention of scores of people—and I wanted them to appreciate this bird the way I did.
By now, I had seen enough to know that the hawk’s success ratio was pathetically low, something approaching my own when it came to trying to identify the bird. The hawk and I were kindred loser spirits: It sucked at nailing pigeons; I sucked at identification. With a kill, both of our miseries might end. The hawk would have to pause to sink its talons into a well-fed pigeon, and at last I would see it clearly.
But the pigeons just wouldn’t cooperate. They looped and whirled, frustrating the hawk until it went away. Then they went back to eating their bread. Frustrated myself, I turned to leave, too. I suddenly, vehemently hated the pigeons, as I never had before. It wasn’t because they were grubby and teeming—though they certainly were. It was that they were so casual about being alive. CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs By Darrow Montgomery.