Lillian Hughes

2023-2024 Live Deliberately Essay Contest

Lillian Hughes, 17

Winner, Age Group 17-18

Charleston, South Carolina

Nature has engineered the eye of a raptor to be one of the most complex and powerful tools the bird possesses. As is nature’s way, this process was deliberate; a series of adaptations culminating in an organic machine so adept at its function that we could never imagine its perceptions. Humans have around six million cone cells, an inconceivable number (a number which, should any of us receive it in cash, I don’t imagine we’d complain). Yet the eyes of a hawk turn our lottery sum to pocket change, with cones numbering up to twelve times that in diurnal species. We could admire this feature and more, the malar stripe and supraorbital ridge, for months, years, without even considering the entire rest of the bird.

My parents took me camping when I was seven, during which I (with my lame human eyes) strove to take in every detail of South Carolina’s Table Rock Mountain. We were only there for the weekend, but from the moment I hopped out of the car I was enthralled, struggling to comprehend the unending swath of green, so different from anything I was used to. I felt an outsider, a hesitant pioneer in the way I perched on a moldering log, blue-jean knees caked with chlorophyll and wood rot. When the birds started appearing, I did not know their names, traded cardinal for a crimson flash and sparrow for a quiet trill.

And then the weekend was over. The mountain’s enchantment faded when I returned home, shadowed in the glow of a screen or lost in the hum of the microwave. Nature became a rare interruption in an otherwise developed life, and I was separated once again.

The fascination with birds, however, never left me. Thus when I turned fifteen, volunteering at South Carolina’s Center for Birds of Prey seemed as natural as searching for glimpses of feathers outside my window.

The birds I care for are filled with life, a presence that feels bigger than it should considering most barely weigh a pound. The Ural owl greets me in a raspy inquiry as I toss her a mouse; the crested caracara watches curiously as I change his bath; the peregrine falcon, gentle in his old age, lets me shift his talons so I can untangle his jesses. I feel the hardened leather on my fingers and remember its touch from the week before, the month before that.

My care is not always reciprocated. The Abdim’s stork pecks hard at my ankles as I enter his enclosure to retrieve a half-eaten fish; the great horned owl swoops at me as I try to refill his water dish. One morning I am caring for the young American kestrel, the first bird I ever held. He grabs me as I tie his leash into a falconer’s knot, tiny talons raking across my thumb. He’s too tiny to do any real damage, and I set him down in the weathering area without further incident. Back inside, I write down his weight as the blood blooms from my hand, trickles down to mix with dish soap and Expo ink.

Nevertheless, I am there, the next week and the next. The Center mends the rift that yawned open during the campsite car ride home, where I, to paraphrase naturalist Henry David Thoreau, am reminded of the birds’ equal importance to myself, their observer. They become real, not just a window sighting but creatures that breathe with the rise and fall of their downy chests, call with bits of chick feathers poking out from their razor beaks, wrap their talons around my gloved hand in a motion that makes me feel unfathomably lucky, no matter how many times it happens.

It is easy to separate ourselves from nature. Surely we are so removed from the trees that vanish in our peripheries, so further advanced than the chickadee that chitters in the cold while we watch from a heated home. The phrase “climate change” has been repeated into oblivion, and it is dwarfed against our sprawling cities, our shining cars, our six million cones.

It is more difficult to remember how the eye of a raptor takes up so much room in its skull that it is left with no space for optic muscles. The result is a bird who must turn its entire head to view anything at all with its superior eyesight, a species that must remember its advancement is only meaningful when working in tandem with what surrounds it.