Change is seldom easy, but change is always on the wing. Some change is chosen, and some is forced upon us. Each year in the Northern Hemisphere around March and April, depending upon where we find ourselves, one of the great natural changes in our calendar year occurs as winter passes and spring arrives. In some areas, spring literally bursts forth with life, while in other regions it’s a more subtle display of fecundity; but regardless of the spectrum, one thing is certain with the emergence of spring, and that is a return of our winged migrants.
Perhaps the most epic of migratory species in my part of the world here in Montana, is the Swainson’s Hawk. Its arrival each spring is a cause of celebration. During the dark months of winter, our raptor population consists mostly of red-tail and rough legged hawks, but with the arrival of spring, our aerial community erupts with a diversity of species. As a resident of the Northern Rockies, my first Swainson’s sighting each year reminds me of the audacious nature of our wild world.
Traveling 7,000+ miles over the course of eight weeks from their wintering grounds in southern Argentina, Swainson’s Hawks soar and glide their way along mountain ranges until they reach their summer habitat in North America. Since moving into our little cottage here in Bozeman, Montana, my daughter and I have been blessed to observe what appears to be a small band of four-five Swainson’s that nest in our quiet neighborhood. With an abundance of ground squirrels to prey upon, our little development represents their summer Shangri-la. We often return home to find young Swainson’s fighting over a dead ground squirrel on a dirt mound or better yet, perched on the light posts with entrails dangling from their talons.
During our nightly round of horseshoes in our miniature backyard, the shadows of dive-bombing Swainson’s pursuing their quarry or simply soaring in the thermals are the highlight of our evening play sessions. Their presence adds soul to the seemingly lifeless and stale nature of west Bozeman, where new developments rapidly wipe out habitat for additional houses, leaving us a concrete jungle with plummeting biodiversity.
One rare afternoon last month when the temperatures climbed into the 60’s (it’s been a brutally cold spring in Yellowstone Country), my good friend Nathan Varley stopped by. Nathan is a PhD wolf ecologist and guru of Yellowstone who wrote the forward to my memoir, Grizzlies on My Mind. Though he came over to talk shop (I work as a guide and trip manager for his thriving business, The Wild Side), we decided to move our meeting out back to soak in some vitamin D.
In the midst of my tirade over the lawn crew who had clearly visited earlier in the day, leaving a mess in their wake, I looked above and saw the distinctive flight of a beloved friend who had journeyed for sixty+ days to reunite with her summer hunting ground. Minutes later we spotted a second Swainson’s. This reunion with two of my favorite members of the raptor family had a different feel than the previous years. Instead of a celebration, it felt as if we were viewing a funeral of sorts. These stealthy members of the aerial community had traveled from the southern tip of South America, and instead of returning to the ground squirrel-rich meadow of years past, they soared above a defaced plot of land that’s been raped by bulldozers and backhoes.
Some might say that the loss of habitat is merely the cost of development. But those are likely the same people who consider the loss of human life a casualty of war. Sure, this is classic NIMBY. Had my home not been built where it was, I would have never fallen in love with the five acres of prime bird and ground squirrel habitat. But I have fallen in love with this habitat. I’ve fallen in love with watching a species of raptor that migrates 14,000 miles round trip each year hunting the field beyond my backyard. But now there are no more ground squirrels for the Swainey’s to hunt. The once fertile field has been paved.
Two days later my daughter cried, “Daddy, Daddy.”
Running down the stairs, I asked, “What is it Kamiah?” I could see concern on her face.
“It’s Hunter, Dadda. He’s lost. He doesn’t know what happened to his meadow.”
Fighting tears, my daughter and I watched a seemingly frantic male pheasant that she named “Hunter” when we first moved into our house two years ago. Unlike the Swainson’s, our pheasant friend was searching for insects, grasses and seeds. But just like the Swainson’s Hawk, his mecca had been ravaged by our society’s bottomless hunger for growth.
“Dadda, this isn’t right. This is Hunter’s home.”
My seven-year old daughter has it right. Perhaps it’s not until we all begin to think like a child—about that which is right and that which is clearly wrong—that we will start living with other living species as co-inhibitors of this wild world, instead of simply plowing ahead with our destructive growth mania/greed.
On our way to school that morning it was clear that Kamiah was deep in thought.
“What are you thinking about Love?”
“If I could be president of the United States, I would make a law that says no more houses can be built. That way Hunter, the ground squirrels, Swainson’s Hawks and all other animals would always have a home.”
~Michael W. Leach