A standoff in the backyard

Published 10:10 pm Tuesday, March 13, 2018

By Biff and Susan Andrews

A day or two ago, there was a commotion on our deck under the bird feeders. I asked Susan what was going on and she said “squirrel wars.” We often have four or five fighting over the two or three feeders. So I looked.

Twenty feet from the back double glass doors — right over our deck — a magnificent red-shouldered hawk about 22 inches tall sat on the branch that suspends our feeders. Again, this was 20 feet from our seats at the kitchen table.

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There was a squirrel crouched behind the grill — safe for now. The hawk knew the squirrel was there; the squirrel knew the predator was there. They were 15 feet apart. Standoff.

Just the beginning. We all stopped — watching and waiting. Two 9-year-old kids and four adults inside turned off the TV and focused on the real-life drama outside. The hawk eyeballed the squirrel left and right — we didn’t know their heads swiveled past 180 degrees — but the squirrel remained frozen in place. In about five minutes, the squirrel disappeared under the grill. A minute later, a second squirrel appeared on the deck railing and froze in place — again, 15 feet from the hawk.

One could almost hear the hawk wondering if he could get to the squirrel without breaking a wing on the grill or railing. The squirrels both knew that a killer was right above them, surveying them. Standoff.

So it went, 10 minutes more. The squirrels were frozen on the railing and under the grill — for their lives — and the hawk considered his options. He preened a bit, plucking a feather or two. Each squirrel scratched once. Standoff.

And then our dog Poot walked past the glass doors and scared the hawk away — to a tree 100 feet away. End of standoff.

The takeaway? The kids came to understand — to feel — the life or death drama. Hawks eat squirrels, if they’re not wary. Three years ago, there were two squirrels on that tree when we were sitting on the deck, and a hawk swooped in and reduced the number to one in a second. The kids were rooting for the squirrels (they’ve named all 60 or so in our backyard). We were rooting for the hawk — just for the speed and savagery. Also, one fewer squirrel in the backyard.

It was a lesson in patience. A life-or-death lesson in patience. And the kids understood. They knew the hawk could and would kill. They knew the agility of the squirrels. Standoff.

It was a tableau…a frozen view of life-and-death drama. And the kids got it.

Standoff.

Susan and Bradford “Biff” Andrews are retired teachers and master naturalists who have been outdoor people all their lives, exploring and enjoying the woods, swamps, rivers and beaches throughout the region for many years. Email them at b.andrews22@live.com.