LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. —
Many believe their guardian angel is a glowing rendition of Gabriel, or perhaps a chubby cherub with a gold diaper, but mine looks a little more intimidating with razor sharp talons and weighs about four pounds. As ridiculous as it may sound, my angel is a red-tailed hawk.
In the seventh grade, I had the epiphany that I wanted to be a zoologist. I mean, what kid doesn’t. So, I quickly searched for a place to channel my passion of wildlife and found the Raptor Rehabilitation center at the local high school. No, it wasn’t a center to rehabilitate flesh-eating dinosaurs, but a center that nurtured injured birds of prey so that they may be released back into the wild.
I became the first middle-school member of the high school club, and spent every Thursday from that moment forward learning about and nurturing birds of prey. I was assigned to take care of the wildest of them all, a large, aging red-tailed hawk. Her name was Nakomis, a Native American name for grandmother or daughter of the moon. She was a grandma all right, grouchy and fickle.
Older students joked and said I’d never be able to tame her, and so I took on the challenge. In about six months, she became accustomed to the sound of my voice, mannerisms, and could predict the moment I would try to get her to perch on my uneasy hand.
“Step up!” I would grudgingly say as she would hop around her perch flapping violently with her almost five-foot wingspan. She loved to play games, and as the years progressed, and I entered high school, I knew how to calm her devilry. She was hit by a car years ago and by the time she was found by some good Samaritans it was too late. Calcium had deposited in her bones and her wing was unable to be set back right, thus, she was never able to fly again.
As I grew older with her, her eyes began to change from a glistening amber to deep cocoa. I would often take her for walks on a nearby trail in the woods, trying to make her feel more at home. She would always get a longing look in her eye as she stared up at the sky through the layers of leaves. I always wondered what she could see because her eyesight was eight times more powerful than mine. Then I realized, she was just readying herself for a big leap of faith downward. Downward she would soar off of my tightly gripped fist towards the hard, unforgiving ground.
I would catch her each time, feeling sorrow that she could no longer enjoy the freedom of the sky that she was born to possess. At times, I would hold her on my arm for hours while the club gave presentations to children, state park visitors or universities. She began to embed herself deeper into my heart at those times by surprising me with her humanity. She began to lean her large feathered body upon my chest for rest, peck my cheek lightly with her terrifying beak when I wasn’t paying attention to her and even playfully tangle herself in my long strands of hair when she was bored.
Towards the end of my time at the center, six years of watching over her, Nakomis made leaps and bounds in improvements. She would be able to hear my voice and be ready to perch, and could even read my emotions.
She had more human qualities than I imagined. It was Nakomis, the red-tailed hawk, that taught me patience, compassion and understanding. She was in a way, my mentor and no matter how awful my day was she was there to bring me back to reality as living inspiration.
Today, Nakomis is nearing the end of her glory days since red-tailed hawks only live up to 28 years. She’s over 18 years old and, from what I hear, picky with who she wants to be friends with. Every year I visit her, and take her for a walk in the woods and allow her to soar from my fist to her perch as if she can actually fly again.
Often times as I’m commuting to and from work, or traveling on the weekends, I can quickly spot a red-tailed hawk sitting in the trees or fence alongside the road. I like to pretend it’s the encouraging spirit of Nakomis looking over me as a guardian angel. I don’t need a Gabriel or chubby cherub, just give me nature.