My great-uncle Al was a creative man. A resourceful non-conformist. That’s a euphemistic way of saying he was a hustler.
Al never let logic or credentials stand between him and the chance to earn some cash. His resume, so to speak, read like a script from the popular movie and radio serials of his day in which, week after week, the hero would undertake some preposterous adventure. For example, Al worked for a time as a pharmacist during the Great Depression. Creativity, in this case, included spinning a fictional tale about his educational background—he never attended college and I’m not sure he even completed high school—and a tragic fire in the hall of records at his fabricated alma mater. It wasn’t a dangerous job for Al, but I shudder to think of the risks taken, unknowingly, by his customers. Every prescription must have been a cliff-hanger.
I hadn’t thought about Al for a long time, but while driving west of town recently I found myself reminiscing about the stories my dad and his siblings used to tell during gatherings of our clan. I think it was the pole-sitters.
I see them often around my neighborhood, but I guess there’s something about highway driving that opens my mind’s road to memories. Looking for all the world like finials perched atop lamp posts and utility poles, the red-tails sit and scan their surroundings, hoping for a meal. Just like Uncle Al.
Flagpole-sitting was a fad during the Roaring Twenties and the early days of the Great Depression, a popular test of endurance for someone who would attempt to roost on high for weeks or months at a time. The sitter would negotiate a fee prior to the attempt, or an assistant on the ground below would collect money from spectators. Such was life prior to televisions, smartphones, and social media… people had to find ways to entertain themselves. To Al, being a stationary entertainer must have looked like a much easier way to earn a stake, or a steak, than working as a day laborer.
The hawks I saw along the highway were also looking for an easy way to earn a living but they were looking to collect their meal ticket in the form of a rabbit, ground squirrel, or gophers rather than pocket change. That’s just as well, because I didn’t observe a single gawking crowd. I did spy several birds diving for dinner although, traveling at 60+ mph, I wasn’t around long enough to tell if it was Hard Times for the predator or the prey that day.
Some other birds of prey will hover and soar, taking a proactive approach to grocery shopping. But unless they’re quite hungry, red-tailed hawks use a wait-and-see strategy. They have keen vision so a utility pole provides an excellent vantage point to watch for the movement of small mammals below, and standing uses fewer calories than flying. Laziness or efficiency? I guess it depends on your personal work ethic. I know my great-uncle would have admired those raptors.
Al’s days as a pole-sitter were brief, and I doubt he set any records. From what I can tell, he was a man of action and a distinctly social animal. Not a sitter by nature… unless you count a bar stool.
Besides, flagpole-sitting was a short-lived craze… for people, anyway. Next time you’re out for a drive, even around town, stop texting long enough (please?) to scan the power and communication infrastructure along the side of the road and you’ll see it’s still as popular as ever among red-tailed hawks, who tend to be a bit less gregarious and a lot more patient than Uncle Al. They’re also less prone to break into song than some of their songbird cousins; they have too much dignity, and the cars speed by too quickly, for a chorus of Brother, Can You Spare a Dime.
Kieran J. Lindsey, PhD, is an urban wildlife biologist, writer, and personal assistant to her wire-fox terrier, Dash. Kieran is co-author of Urban Wildlife Management, the first textbook on the subject. Additional wildlife career experiences include: Executive Director of the TWRC wildlife rehabilitation and education center (1997-1999, Houston, TX); former columnist for the Houston Chronicle newspaper (The Urban Jungle, 1998-2001); producer, writer, and host of Wild Things Radio!on KUNM-FM (1999-2001, Albuquerque, NM); Emmy® award-winning documentary producer. Currently, Kieran is Director of Virginia Tech's Online Master of Natural Resources program, Managing Editor of the peer-reviewed Journal of Wildlife Rehabilitation, and blogger at nextdoornature.org. She lives and works in Lafayette Square (because the Internet is amazing).