An ornithological report from contributing editor
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 October 29 looking for
a guy with a camera to photograph the “giant killer bird in
the courtyard,” I assumed the falcon was what she had found.
We ran down to a big plate-glass window ten 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 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 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.
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 had returned,
I passed by the window, across from Dora deLee Hall, named for Joseph
Bolivar deLee, considered the founder of modern obstetrics. It looks
out onto a courtyard, three ivy-covered Gothic walls, and an arched
gateway. DeLee, who designed the building in 1929, unwillingly made
it a natural resting spot, and bottleneck, in the vast Hospitals
corridors. He didn’t want a lot of doctors and patients trooping
through his hospital, so he made sure no hallways lined up with
the other buildings—an architectural challenge when they were
finally connected decades later.
At that same window I had my only previous memorable
bird-watching experience, equally 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?”