In the Spring 2017 issue of The Florida Review, we featured our 2016 Editors’ Awards winners and finalists,
including Robert Stothart’s near-fantastical yet thoroughly realistic essay “Nighthawks.”
For the beginning of 2018, we give you this postscript, which highlights the fragility of life,
yet the perseverance of friendship, fascination, and the healthy ability to look both
back and forward, and to keep our sanity through all kinds of soul-challenges.
My essay “Nighthawks” isn’t really about the bird itself; rather, it’s about what came to mind after seeing an extraordinary descent of nearly a hundred of those birds out of the sky and into our yard to catch tiny drops of water from our lawn sprinkler as smoke from wildfires all across the West reddened the sky at sunset. After The Florida Review published the essay, a box of extra copies arrived. I sent some out to friends across the country and delivered a few to neighbors along Owl Creek Road in Wyoming, where we now live.
Just a couple of days later, while walking east down our road, I found a nighthawk on the edge of the blacktop. This was shortly after sunrise, the low sun blinding, so I wasn’t sure what I was seeing at first. A road kill of some sort. A bird. But it looked alive, sitting in front of me, its wings crossed motionless across its back.
When I picked it up, I found the body flexible, unbroken, and unblemished. No blood, not even a bent feather. But dead. Its tiny claws, a delicate blue gray, intricately articulated for grasping, reached out motionless and empty. When I turned the bird over, tan and white chest stripes suggested some kind of little owl. Our road is aptly named, and there are some very tiny owls. But the head seemed much too small, and the beak tinier still, not at all owl-like. When I unfolded the long and pointy wings, I saw at once the bold white stripe across each. I knew then, without question: Nighthawk.
I wanted to take it home and preserve it, but not as a trophy. There are enough of those lifted out of the Wyoming landscape. I wanted to keep it so that I could look at it and think more about it. I wanted to study it in stillness after first seeing it in that great rush, down out of the sky. A totem perhaps, an animal that Claude Lévi-Strauss says is chosen not because they are “good to eat” but because they are “good to think.”
I studied the bird as I walked the last mile home, carrying it in a small nest that I made with my hands. I turned it over. The underside was geometrical with those parallel chest stripes, but over the dark wing edge onto the back, the geometry gave way to drab colors in wilderness chaos. The back and head blended in masterful dense, dark camouflage.
I walked through the door and briefly lifted the nighthawk to show my wife, but went immediately online to look up preserving dead birds, like looking up how to cook a turkey for one’s first Thanksgiving away from home. I worried that I’d have to cut it open and remove the internal organs, though I think I would have done that.
At first, I found information on preserving body parts—claws, heads, and wings. Then finally how to preserve a whole bird. A quick survey of instructions online made it look simple: spread a bed of borax in a tight box and pack the body of the bird under a thick mound of borax, then close the box for six weeks. The borax would apparently draw out and absorb all the body fluids. I stopped, however, when I noticed several websites warned that I might need a permit. Fines for possession of certain species are steep, even threatening significant jail time.
I called Game and Fish for Hot Springs County. They gave me the number to the office in Cheyenne, our state capital. The state capital said to call Denver and the Feds for our district in the Rocky Mountains:
Nighthawks are a protected species. Yes, you will need a permit even before picking up the bird.
I already picked it up. It’s right here on my desk.
You’re in violation.
Can I get a permit?
You already picked it up. You’re already in violation. Are you Native American?
No, but I worked for a tribe in Washington State for ten years.
Doesn’t count. Are you associated with a museum?
No, but I’ve been a member of the Buffalo Bill Center of the West since 2000.
Doesn’t matter. Would you be using this bird for educational purposes?
I just wrote an essay on nighthawks.
That’s a stretch. We have a backlog of permits right now. A permit will take at least two months. Will you be using the preserved bird for at least twelve presentations a year, each of which would require a written follow-up?
No. So what should I do?
You’re already in violation.
Should I put it back on the road? (I was kidding.)
If someone were to see you and report you, the fine would be substantial.
I live thirty miles out of town. I’m not going to put it back on the road. What should I do?
You should burn or bury the carcass.
Thanks for your help.
I emailed my friend Rob Koelling. I’d sent him a copy of my essay. He loves birds with a passion and is skilled in observing them. He is a master at catching a distinctive image plucked from their flight or from their rest. He goes out taking their pictures whenever he can, in all lights and weathers. Recently, however, he has been at home caring for his wife, who is seriously ill. We haven’t seen each other for nearly three years. When I email him, he frequently replies with pictures of birds, some from his archives or some of birds he’s recently spotted off his back porch. He emails when he can, sometimes after long silences.
Within a few hours this time, however, I received this email:
Coincidence? I got out for the first time in a while to take some photos. I stopped by a dead cottonwood near the road to look at a western kingbird’s nest. Then I noticed the nighthawk. It has been years since I’ve seen one of these guys sitting still.
He attached his picture:
Totem, from the Ojibwe, indoodem: my clan.
I took the nighthawk to a cottonwood that leans out over a dry wash, far back on our place. It’s near our south fence that borders grazing land of the Shoshone and Arapaho. I placed the small bird up in a sort of nest of twigs, shadowed with overhanging leaves. A Coast Salish man up near the Canadian border told me a long time ago that when you want something that you’ve found, something that seems left behind or abandoned, you need to put it in a tree overnight. I’d asked for a baby blanket that belonged to his two-year-old nephew for whom I’d just served as pallbearer. If it’s there the next morning, he said, you are supposed to keep and care for it. If it’s gone, you weren’t supposed to have it.
My granddaughter’s one-eyed dog followed me out to the cottonwood. I can see the tree from my back porch. The dog and I are the only ones who know where the nighthawk is.