A lesson in jumping to bird-brained conclusions

For some time tales have circulated around campus that a peregrine falcon, until recently an endangered species, had taken up residence among the Gothic towers of the main quads—the urban equivalent of cliffs and ledges. So when Mandy Collins, a Hospitals housekeeper, came to my office looking for a guy with a camera to photograph the “giant killer bird in the courtyard,” I assumed that was what she had found.

We ran down to a big plate-glass window about 10 feet away from a crow-sized, brown and white bird, perched in a tree in the courtyard next to Chicago Lying-in Hospital. Below it were a pigeon’s bloody remains. In hospitals death is supposed to occur behind closed doors, so we had taken only a few pictures before a two-man clean-up crew arrived: one to gather and prepare the prey’s feathers and bones for burial and one to protect his colleague from the predator—who promptly flew away.

Pointing a camera out the window in a busy narrow hallway drew a crowd. “This is a peregrine falcon,” I told the onlookers, “the world's fastest animal. They swoop down on other birds and knock them out of the air.”

A quick Google Images search confirmed my impression—the bird must be a peregrine falcon. But within an hour Mandy came back to tell me our bird was a Cooper’s hawk. A neurologist had pointed it out in a book. I scoffed.

We looked at the prints of our bird, the Web’s peregrine falcons, and the book. It was a Cooper’s hawk–also until recently endangered, also fond of pigeons, also a cliff dweller and pretty darn speedy—but not the world’s fastest.

Later that day, to see if the bird returned, I passed by the window. It was the same spot where I had my only previous memorable bird-watching experience, again punctuated with snap judgments. George Block, a feared, renowned, foul-mouthed, cigar-chomping, ex-Marine surgeon, swooped down on me in the hall, grabbed my arm, and dragged me to that window. I expected complaints about litter, or worse, but he pointed out the window to a big red bud tree in full bloom. Smack in the middle sat a bright red cardinal. “Look at that,” he said. “Isn’t that the most beautiful goddam thing you ever saw?”

By John Easton, AM’77, U of C Hospitals public affairs

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Photos by John Easton.

November 5, 2004