Paul Watkins: Beauty and cruelty on Peddie's campus

Photo (c)2007 Derek Ramsey
Paul Watkins, Peddie history teacher and writer in residence, shares with us a vignette about three little squirrels and a vicious predator. Watkins has published over a dozen books, both using his given name and the pseudonym Sam Eastland. For more information on the red tailed hawk, visit the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

There are three squirrels who live in the old magnolia tree outside my window. There is a hole in the tree, which leads to their hideout. On sunny days, they all stick their heads out at the same time, which reminds me of the characters on a very old TV show called The Three Stooges. They have become my companions, in a way, and I wonder what they must think of this creature who sits at a desk, rattling its fingers up and down a keyboard for hours at a time. They might also wonder what a desk is. Or a keyboard. When they are not sleeping, the stooges race up and down the branches, wrestle each other on twigs thinner than a pencil or fall asleep clinging to the bark. And sometimes, when I glance up from my computer, they have vanished.

That’s when I know the hawk is out.

The hawk that rules over this campus is a female Red Tail, with a wing span longer than my arm and a vicious, curved beak that looks as if it has been blackened in a fire. Her nest is in a tall evergreen tree across from the Peddie playing fields on the grounds of the Meadow Lakes retirement home. Jogging the loop, I have spotted the hawk returning to her nest with some poor creature dangling in her talons and leaving behind only a scattering of fur or feathers on the campus to mark where the kill took place.

I have watched her circle above the grass in front of Swig, then seem to fly away as if persuaded there was nothing of interest. Then, when she has gone, some poor rabbit, or mouse or chipmunk emerges from hiding, convinced that it is safe once more. The hawk begins its dive right above my house, swooping down low over the roof of Longstreet, curving gracefully up over the old observatory dome, then diving in for the kill.
She is a superlative hunter; a constant reminder for me of the way in which beauty and cruelty go often hand in hand.

Each time her shadow flits across the grass, I cast a nervous glance towards the hide out in the old Magnolia tree. And I always breathe a little sigh of relief when the stooges come out to play again.