I took the dogs out this morning. I have a stubborn male Maremma (a kind of Italian sheepdog) and an anxious little Border Collie. We travel a regular route (unless we’re feeling adventurous) up and around the house, across the road and through a neighboring field, then back up the front yard.
It’s always different for the dogs, though, because they are picking up new information each time.
If you’ve had the pleasure of leading (or being led by) dogs, you know that one of their favorite activities is stopping to sniff. My Maremma, Hector, is by far the “lead sniffer.” If he discovers something interesting, he’ll stand and sniff long enough to wear on my patience. Countless dog owners have stood, waiting, for the eternal sniff to end: a patch of grass, a small pile of leaves, a stick, a bush, even rocks. Rocks? What could possibly be so intriguing?
It’s estimated that the amount of sensory cells in a dog’s nose is “somewhere between 125 million and several times that.” Humans? We’re only in possession of about 5 to 10 million.
Dogs experience the world in a way we mere humans never will. Knowing this fact, I’ve been trying to indulge them in their sniffing; I’m the lightweight in this battle, so who am I to say that it’s not absolutely critical that a tiny patch of moss be sniffed for a good five minutes?
It makes the walk take longer, but I know that Hector and Maisy are working at processing an astounding universe of detail that I could never grasp.
Walking back up the yard, though, it was my turn. I heard the sharp cry of a hawk.
Living here, I’ve most often seen hawks in conjunction with crows. The crows make a huge fuss if a hawk (a solitary hunter) is encroaching on something that is seen as dinner. Crows will berate a hawk mercilessly, chasing it from tree to tree, following it, and even engaging it in battle mid-air.
When crows are chasing a hawk, you hear the complaining crows.
But this was a lone, piercing hawk cry.
I scanned the air above me, but couldn’t see him. The dogs and I continued around the house towards the back door.
As we approached the door, I heard the hawk again, and stopped. You’ve probably heard the cry of a red tailed hawk before. It’s used in many mediums as a generic raptor cry. It’s a lonely, soul-stopping sound, the equivalent of a sob-inducing song in a minor key. No other bird cry will force you to immediately understand melancholy, as the high note drops dramatically to the lower, tinged with the world-weary rasp of the search.
I wanted to hear it again.
The dogs stared at me. I wasn’t following the established order of opening the door and getting them biscuits. I was looking up the hill, trying to listen, wanting to hear the hawk.
The trees are bare of leaves now—November—and as I looked and listened, I noticed birds of all kinds. I’m not a birder. I can name only a few.
But they were coming and going from all over--flying from the pines by the ravine to limbs in the stark trees lining the slope. Some would pause a moment on a limb, then continue on to another limb. As I listened, I could hear the cries of these other birds, little chirps and trills, warnings and messages, calls and banter.
Up beyond the hill is a field. I imagined that the hawk was up there, soaring and circling.
There was no wind and the day was bright and blue. Two dogs sat beside me, still in their leashes, looking at me in anticipation. I asked them to wait.
I know those dogs have better hearing than me, too. I have to make due with the measly senses I’ve been given.
Maybe that’s why we humans are impatient with standing still and engaging the senses. We have to shut off our interior voice and pay attention to something other than ourselves. It’s not easy.
But it is worth it for the chances we’re offered and continually choose to ignore. I’m of a mind that listening for hawks allows me a connection, a realization, and a way in.
The dogs eventually got their biscuits.
I got, in the moment that he called again, myself and the hawk and nothing else but the meaning I applied to it. That was enough. No high drama and maybe not earth shattering, but a clear call to pause and listen.
You can hear a hawk’s cry at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.