Montana Public Radio

The Fox And The Nighthawk: A Cautionary Tale About Curiosity

Jun 21, 2020

I know that gully.  It’s full of secrets, hidden under the downfall, in the hawthorne trees, or in woodpecker holes that riddle the twisted old aspens. I love looking for treasures there: the signs of birds or animals or insects who find a home there or respite from the heat of a prairie summer. ... But I did not do it.

This is a Field Note about greed. My greed.

Recently the dogs and I were out joyfully stretching our legs on a sunny, blue-sky late winter day. The dogs were far ahead of me across the grassy hills when I saw a fox! It saw me, too, but it just kept going about its business in the grass, poking around over by the gully. I know that gully.  It’s full of secrets, hidden under the downfall, in the hawthorne trees, or in woodpecker holes that riddle the twisted old aspens. I love looking for treasures there: the signs of birds or animals or insects who find a home there or respite from the heat of a prairie summer.

I stood very still and watched the red fox. Oh, I loved him, too! Eventually he tucked down into the gully. I did not see him emerge. I was wildly curious and wanted to follow him, maybe see his home. I wanted to do that badly.

But I did not do it.

I didn't do it because I remembered a powerful lesson I learned one spring many years before. I had been rambling up in the Blackfoot Valley where we have a much-loved cabin. As I was walking, a nighthawk suddenly flew up from the ground fairly close to me. I love nighthawks (I love it all).  I knew they nested on the ground and I thought, "Here is my perfect opportunity to see a nighthawk nest!" I knew it would be very camouflaged so I scoured the ground extremely carefully before I took each step. When I got closer to where the nighthawk had risen from the ground, I slowed down even more. But my heart dropped hard when I heard a cruel "crunch." It is hard for me to say this, but with all my care I had still stepped right on the rocky nest and the little speckled egg inside it. I crushed that egg and killed the tiny life that I loved. I felt a heavy dose of grief from my greed to see, to know.

So, with thoughts of the mother nighthawk returning to find her reproductive efforts gone to naught, I picked up the tiny smashed egg and brought it home. I have a beautiful painted birdhouse at the cabin. It has a scene that could easily be the glacial pot and kettle hills of the Blackfoot. Opening the front of the birdhouse, inside is the same hilly scene, but under a night sky lit by the glorious Milky Way. Inside and out the birdhouse looks so much like this prairie place that is home to me. So I placed the little broken egg inside and gently shut the door. I still look at it every so often. It reminds me to temper my eagerness to "see" the natural world. Now, as with the fox, I am entirely likely to forego my urge to probe, to poke, and I can leave the object of my curiosity free from my intruding eye. I consider my behavior; I curb my greed. There is still plenty to see and to love in the mystery of the natural world.

"Field Notes" is produced by the Montana Natural History Center.

(Broadcast: "Field Notes,"  5/1/16, 5/6/16, 6/23/20 and 6/26/20. Listen weekly on the radio Tuesdays and Fridays at 4:54 p.m., or via podcast.)