The Windhover — Baby Hawks

Daily Prompt By Heart You’re asked to recite a poem (or song lyrics) from memory — what’s the first one that comes to mind? Does it have a special meaning, or is there another reason it has stayed, intact, in your mind?

For 17 years I lived in City Heights, a “mixed” neighborhood in San Diego. During the last 80’s and early ’90’s I spent a lot of my free time with a group of local boys who lived to ride BMX bikes. The jumps were in the same urban wilderness park where I hiked, so often they piled their bikes in the back of my Ford Ranger and off we went. I still know Jimmy and Mikey, twenty some years later. I wrote a blog about our adventures and if you want to read more, let me know. 

When I get to the jumps after a long hike with Molly and Kelly, the boys are all standing around the sumac bush, the bit of shade where they fix their bikes. Five of them. Jimmy, Jason, Mikey, Craig and Marc. Mikey hands me a large cardboard box with a T-shirt over it. “Here, Martha,” he says. “These are for you.”

I lift the shirt. Inside the box are two baby red tail hawks. One a dark morph and one light. The sudden daylight scares them and they begin screeching and opening and closing their mouths. In their experience, this can only mean food. I am enraged, “Where did they come from?” If the boys broke into a nest, they are dead. They’ve killed snakes for me. I can imagine this.

Mikey points at a pickup parked near the gate. “Some guy put them under his truck.”

“Under his truck? It’s a hundred degrees! How did you find them?”

“We were going down to the river to swim and we heard them,” says Jason. They did the right thing. I am proud and moved. But this is complicated; five boys, two dogs, all the bikes and parts, and now the hawks.

“We gave them some Cheetos,” says Mikey.


“They look like worms.”

I love hawks. I want to fly like a hawk. I want that freedom and that vision. I call all hawks, “My Love.” The boys know this. They point to every soaring hawk and say, “Martha! There’s your love!”



I recite Hopkins’ “Windhover” when I hike, remembering the first time I heard it, recited in a grad school class by John Bailey, Oxford Don, Hopkins expert, spouse of Iris Murdoch. He stutters when he talks, but recites Hopkins perfectly. “I caught this morning, morning’s minion, kingdom of daylight’s dauphin…” His right hand dived and swooped like a hawk as he spoke, marking the swinging rhythm of the poem. Having since watched hundreds of hawks in flight, I realize that Hopkins had, too. He has caught their flight exactly. The boys have heard this very esoteric English major stuff. They know what it is. Mikey — age 12 — has even pointed at the sky and said, “Martha! Morning’s minion!”

“What do we do?” asks Mikey.

“We take them to the emergency vet and tell them to call Project Wildlife,” I say, “but I don’t know how we’ll do this.” The birds are thirsty, probably hungry even with the Cheetos. They are definitely terrified. They have nothing to grab onto in that flat-bottomed box. They are too young to fly; too young to be comfortable uncovered; too young even to be under an open sky.

If the hawks’ parents found them, they couldn’t get them back into the nest, and they wouldn’t want to. The babies have been too long from home by now and smell too strange. I am desperately in love with them. I ache for them. I am afraid for them. Their chances aren’t good no matter what we do. On the ground, they are food for someone, snake, coyote, raven. If I were alone, I might just kill them quickly and try to resist the temptation to put their battered little corpses under the wipers of that guy’s truck after smearing hawk blood across his windshield.

I am affecting a cowboy hat these days. It’s nothing but a straw basket turned upside down. I realize how to transport the hawks. “Mikey, sit beside me and shift. I’ll let the hawks perch on my arm and cover them with my hat. That way they can breathe, but won’t be scared.” Jason takes the dogs and the other boys take the bikes. Jimmy brings the hawks to the truck, his shirt still covering the box. I get in behind the wheel. Jimmy puts the box on my lap and I slowly, deliberately reach inside with my right hand. The babies climb up as if my arm were a branch. I quickly put my hat over them and swing my arm inside the truck. The birds stop screeching and relax, clinging to me. Wow.

Mikey gets in, careful not to hit my arm. Jimmy gently slides in beside him. There’s no horseplay, no jokes about farts or tickle-fighting, no sound, not even from the back. I look in the rear-view mirror and see three faces looking through the window. We are all desperately pulling for these two small lives. I put in the clutch and turn the key. We start to move. I’m glad we don’t have to turn around. It’s only three stoplights to the vet. “OK, Mikey. Second!”

In wonderment I drive through town with a 12 year old shifting my truck and two baby red tail hawks on my arm. They are quiet the whole way. We reach the emergency vet who calls Project Wildlife, after saying, “What were you thinking? These should be in the nest! They will probably die.” I don’t even answer him. I know how he feels and I know I didn’t do it. I think he’s an asshole to say this. He doesn’t know how carefully these boys (all of whom are with me in this vet’s waiting room) protected these two babies. He’s looked at us — and we are a rough looking gang, I admit it — and reached his own conclusion. His assistant takes the hawks to a cage in the back. Thanks to some asshole, if the chicks survive, a cage will be their world. I don’t know their story, but I know that no one who hoped to rescue them would leave them in an open box under a truck on a 90 degree day.

The Windhover
Gerard Manley Hopkins
To Christ our Lord
I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
    dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
    Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
    As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
    Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird, – the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!
Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
    Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!
   No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
    Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.

Drawing from My Journal that Day, April 24, 1993

I’ve been lucky to see hawks train their young. They are relentless and fierce since the baby’s life depends on its ability to dive, to feint and to soar. In so many ways, the boys are hawks; they are the Windhover. “Sheer plod makes plough down sillion shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear, fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion”


They practice and practice and practice and practice. I watch Mikey try the same 180 at Santee Ditch for a solid HOUR until he finally gets it right. Getting it wrong means face into chain link, over and over again, bloody lip, bloody chin, bloody knuckles. I watch them all attempt a can-can over the doubles and fall, and crash, and cut themselves, and break their bikes but they never stop, they never give up, they “…gash gold-vermilion” and get up again and try it again and again and again. And when it works? It is “Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air!” Absolutely what it is!
“I really caught air that time, didn’t I, Martha?”

17 thoughts on “The Windhover — Baby Hawks

    • It was. It was one of those days in my life when I KNEW it could not get better or more beautiful.

  1. I loved that you tied the story of the hawks to the exuberance of the boys. This is a rich story to tell. It is amazing that you have such moments in life to relate, which may seem common place until matched with the poetry that brings them to life.

  2. Manley Hopkins. Never read again since school – young ladies’ convent. Told about as being a convert to god and not a lot else, although admired …
    There has never been a poet like him: no-one to use words as he did. I can easily forgive him for thinking god gave him the gift, because he shared it with us.
    This is a wonderful story – much more than a post.

    • I really love Hopkins. The way I met him was so unique and so special. John Bailey was spectacular and so innocent in his reading of this poem, completely mesmerized by its beauty. There was no English professor explication nonsense, just beauty. And the poem itself is so perfect it never left me but followed me out to the chaparral hills and hawks I’d never seen before. The poem was my window to a new world and I always felt this, “My heart in hiding stirred for a bird, the achieve of, the mastery of the thing.” Yep.

      • I could never grasp the actuality of the fact that what he did with words seemed to be something almost alien …
        That no-one else ever did before him and I am SURE never will do again …

      • When John Bailey recited “The Windover” he moved his hand in the air exactly like a hawk flies. I had not yet watched hawks fly, so I didn’t know this. I thought it was just a thing he did to keep from stuttering. BUT Hopkins wrote the movement of a hawk in that poem. He went WAY beyond ideas or visual images; the sound of the poem in the first stanza IS a hawk in flight, hunting. Then it isn’t. It is a hawk who has caught something.

      • I love the raptors, too; but I doubt very much I’d have the presence of mind to link this glorious poem to such events as you have.
        It’s all happening now, there in your head.

      • It was the place and the boys. I hiked in a chaparral park every day, made for the highest hills immediately just to watch the hawks. So many experiences but one was hawks that seemed to “wait” for me to arrive every day at 1 — I learned later they were waiting for the dogs who obligingly flushed game out from under the bushes. Every day that winter I hiked, I hiked WITH hawks. Once as I hiked a ridge, one of them flew not ten feet away from me, parallel to me, for 1/4 of a mile. It was amazing. Once I sat on the top of the small mountain, looking out over the city out to the ocean and a hawk flew straight at me, eye level and hovered, looking straight at me. They were a huge part of my life for several years. It was the same period as I was spending with these boys from my neighborhood. They LOOKED something like the baby hawks in the photo — they wore Mohawks and looked ugly/beautiful. And they were relentless. One of them — Jimmy — knew as the hawks knew that his survival depended on his being able to ride better than others. Anyway, it was a marvelous time and I knew it then and that’s the best thing of all, really. There are a lot more stories. If you want to read them, let me know.

      • Won’t you share them with us all ? – I’m sure I’m not the only person to find this story wonderful, Martha.

  3. A wonderful story, makes the wonderful poem all the better. Wanting more, I’ve just ordered a book of his poems and prose from my lending library network.

      • I liked this prompt a lot and I liked all the posts I read, too. I think it was a good one. You’ll love reading more of Hopkins. I also love “As Kingfishers Catch Fire” beautiful, too.

Comments are closed.