Red-tailed hawk

A close encounter    

by Ken Rummer

Photo Credit: Benjamin Miller, through (FSP Standard License)












A large flapping draws my attention through the window. A red-tailed hawk has just touched down on the cedar railing of the deck and is now scanning the yard and the trail beyond.

Brown feathers dappled with white fall over its shoulders like a hooded cape. On the head turned to profile I can see the hooked beak, and the eye that can spot a mouse in prairie grass from a hundred feet up.

I’m sitting as still as I can. I’ve seen hawks before, but never this close. I’d guess it’s only 20 feet from chair through glass to raptor.

Some years ago I was doing a funeral for an outdoorsman. He loved hunting and fishing and teaching his children how to spot a deer on a wooded hillside.

With that in mind, I decided to use a red-tailed hawk as a word picture in the funeral message. I don’t remember how I tied it in, maybe something about God’s watchful eye, but I managed to get through it. 

Then we hearsed up and went to the cemetery. Trees surrounded the grassy clearing where we gathered and the sky opened overhead. It seemed a fitting spot. 

Afterwards, back at the church for the lunch, someone asked me, “Did you see the hawk?” I hadn’t. “During the graveside service. It landed on a branch in the dead tree behind you and it stayed until the service was over.”

When confronted with mystery, I look to science and to faith for answers. Neither came through for me on this one. 

Barbara Brown Taylor writes that she used to stash such experiences in her spiritual basement.(“Faith Matters,” Christian Century, July 25, 2006) That’s what I did with the funeral hawk story. I put it in the cardboard box with the big question mark on it, my repository for the curious, the unorthodox, and the unexplained. 

But I kept an eye out for the red-tailed hawk.

A pastor I know tells of major turnings in her spiritual journey that were marked with sightings of a great blue heron. She keeps an eye out, too.

At Jesus’ baptism, a dove turned out to be the Holy Spirit (Luke 3:22). Maybe there’s also room on the heavenly payroll for a heron. Or a hawk. 

If you’d like to see a red-tailed hawk for yourself, you might try along the highway. They space themselves out like sentries, taking their positions on tall trees, fence posts, and power poles. Or you might spot one circling overhead. You’ll know it by the rust-red tail feathers angling this way and that as it surfs the waves of rising air.

The hawk is not safe, of course. There’s nothing cuddly about that sharp beak and those pointed talons. But meeting the gaze of that unblinking eye I am strangely reassured. The watcher is still on watch, and just outside my window.


Ken Rummer, a retired PCUSA pastor, writes about life and faith from the middle of Iowa by the High Trestle Trail. Previous posts can be found at