"Big Red" Makes a Choice


Mr. Howell works for a chemical company in Kansas.

A hawk, a snow-covered field, a zoo, and a bobtailed mouse were subject parts of a recent lesson in self-determination and the right to choose. These principles of liberty, bequeathed to us by those who regarded them highly, apparently have come to be lightly esteemed in a welfare state.

As I stood looking across our icy, snow-covered countryside, the thermometer outside the window read zero.

The real object of my scanning was not yet in view, though ordi­narily one could almost check the time by his appearance. I was reaching the point of concern when I sighted him well off his usual path, low over the treetops, and coming in fast. Big Red was late.

Big Red is an Eastern red-tailed hawk, a giant in his family, a magnificent specimen, not a feather missing; and he shines with the metallic sheen of clean­liness. For four years he has patrolled our rural area, teaching us the worth of hawks in general and something about independence and self-reliance in particular—he has but one leg.

As he leveled off over the field he had chosen as a hunting ground, he set immediately and intensely about his job. The big fellow obviously was hungry; and his aerial maneuvers were some­thing to watch as he sailed low and slowly over the icy table Na­ture had set below him.

He balanced himself in the icy air with the ease and grace of a tight wire walker, investigating every clump of poverty grass and giving special attention to tree-and bush-lined fence rows.

He worked steadily without re­sults as he measured off the area of the field before moving to the row of trees within fifty feet of my ringside window. As he pulled even with me, he wheeled suddenly away as if startled. Flapping his wings to gain altitude, he made a lightning about-face and dived like a bullet at the base of a huge wild cherry tree that supported a bird feeding station. Amid a flurry of snow and feathers, he came up with a fat, short-tailed mouse as large as a small rat, probably his first food of the day.

As he made off with his catch, my thoughts turned to another specimen of red-tailed hawk liv­ing under different conditions: Buteo borealis borealis, the cap­tion under his cage says; he is in the birdhouse at our zoo. In his dirty, broken feathers he sits motionless, apparently oblivious to his surroundings, caring so little about living as to seldom open his eyes; and when he does, his vacant stare wanders without focus and without hope or purpose to give it expression. Gone is the fierce countenance of birds of prey, the characteristic that makes them fascinating.

My eye followed Big Red as he made for some dining point he had in mind, and the thought oc­curred: if he had a choice, would this wild thing exchange his meager morsel so wearily gleaned on his frigid patrol for the full belly of his broken counterpart resting securely behind bars never to know the glory of sailing slowly over a snow-covered field with the temperature at zero?

One is free to suffer, free to loaf, free to choose—just free; the other is not. True, the captive did not choose his status of se­curity. But whether a creature (human or other) voluntarily seeks such security, or is forced to accept it, the deadening conse­quences seem inevitable.


August 1963

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December 2014

Unfortunately, educating people about phenomena that are counterintuitive, not-so-easy to remember, and suggest our individual lack of human control (for starters) can seem like an uphill battle in the war of ideas. So we sally forth into a kind of wilderness, an economic fairyland. We are myth busters in a world where people crave myths more than reality. Why do they so readily embrace untruth? Primarily because the immediate costs of doing so are so low and the psychic benefits are so high.
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