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Where Wild Things Are

It's amazing what lives here in Minnesota. You might say this is where the wild things are -- and were. Goshawks and cacti and mammoths are all featured in this issue. Hooded warblers have an important breeding area in a Twin Cities county park, a sort of big suburban back yard. About 42 percent of the world's golden-winged warblers show up in Minnesota.

Across the state, biologists, ornithologists, paleontologists, birders, anglers, and cave explorers are having close encounters with wildlife every day. Some have encountered true rarities. All have had the thrill of coming face to face with the wild. Their stories remind us of our own rendezvous with wildlife -- past and yet to come.

Most Minnesotans probably haven't seen a goshawk, the formidable forest-dwelling predator described in "The Alpha Accipiter." Yet there's a possibility of seeing one if you go to Hawk Ridge in Duluth during fall migration, as author Gustave Axelson did. His visit, captured in a short movie on our Web site, reminds me of my experience at the hawk-watching site.

A few minutes after I signed up to adopt a hawk to help support the reserve's education program, the bird banders caught and tagged a young male merlin (Falco columbarius). A naturalist held the bird up to the crowd and pointed out some of his features: A jagged little hook, or "tooth," on the sturdy beak enables him to pierce and hook prey (mostly small birds). Short legs have the power to strike prey in midair. The merlin's head can swivel about 270 degrees, so that he can turn abruptly in flight while keeping his eyes riveted on his prey.

After everyone had finished asking questions, the naturalist told me to place my hand over hers, which was wrapped around the merlin's wings and body. Then she placed her other hand over mine to show how much pressure to exert on the bird. She slipped her hand out from under mine, and I was holding the merlin -- a few ounces of feathers, muscle, and bone with a strong heartbeat pulsing against my palm. The merlin swiveled his head to look me in the eye. He opened his beak, and I could see a cluster of barbs on his slender tongue. Then, on the count of three, I lifted, tossed, and released him.

That fleeting encounter -- holding a fierce and fragile wild bird -- was astonishing.

What are the chances of watching wildlife in one's own back yard? Better than one might think, says Mark Herwig in "Wildlife in the City." His story makes a case for restoring native plants to create corridors of urban gardens to feed and shelter wildlife. Merlins now nest in many Duluth neighborhoods, according to the Hawk Ridge Web site. Even goshawks are moving into some suburban woods in Connecticut, according to Going Wild: Adventures With Birds in the Suburban Wilderness, published by National Geographic Society.

This proximity of wild things to people shows that it is not enough to simply set aside the wild places where we find a species. Rather, we need to conserve large, contiguous tracts of land. And we need to restore habitat -- even, and perhaps especially, in our own back yards.

One day last fall, the wildness in my city yard surprised my cousin, visiting from rural Minnesota. As we sat down to lunch, a movement outside the window made us turn and look. A Cooper's hawk landed on a lawn chair and gazed intently at the bushes beneath the window. In an instant, the hawk swooped down on a sparrow and up into the white spruce, but it dropped its prey into the vines below. As the hawk perched on a branch and watched the ground, a gray squirrel scampered onto the same branch. The hawk turned its head just as the squirrel pivoted and ran back up the trunk. The drama played out for a few more minutes, until the hawk again nabbed the sparrow, lost it, and then flew away.

You never know when you might be where wild things are.

Kathleen Weflen, editor
Tell us about your close encounter:

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