The other day in traffic, while stopped at a red light on the busy five-lane thoroughfare that cuts through my neighborhood, I watched a stern-beaked Cooper’s hawk glide through a tangle of telephone wires and power lines. As always, I was struck by the sight of such a wild creature against a backdrop of noisy urban life—not because such sightings are rare, but because in Atlanta, they are so routine.
Over the years of living in intown neighborhoods together, my husband and I have developed a shared fondness for the raptors that populate Atlanta, and also some unspoken but ironclad household rules: If one spots a hawk soaring overhead, one should point it out. If one hears the barred owls hooting and hollering in the evening, it is acceptable to shush the other person, midsentence, in order to listen. And if one happens to be out in the yard at twilight and actually spots one of those owls looming above from a tree branch or a fence post, it’s really best practice to run inside and drag the other person outside so they can see it, too.
I am not, nor have ever been, a birder; my ornithological enthusiasm and knowledge is pretty limited to saying “a cardinal!” whenever I see a cardinal. (Not unlike the way one might feel compelled to say “horses!” when passing a pasture of them on the highway.) Yet after 15 years of living beneath Atlanta’s storied tree canopy, the city’s birds of prey still get me every single time. It’s a feeling that goes a bit deeper than sheer novelty, or even fondness. Seeing an owl silently swooping past street lights and power lines, or spotting a hawk circling above the highway, feels extraordinary, almost fake—a welcome visual record scratch ripping across the mundanity of cityscape.
There is something undeniably special about living in a major city and sharing real estate with an abundance of wildlife, the likes of which include great horned owls, coyotes, beavers, herons, foxes, and rabbits. The metro is home to more than six million humans—but the city in the trees is also a habitat for millions of other residents, too. There’s the Atlanta of humans and highways, and then there’s the Atlanta that isn’t quite so tame. Interesting things happen when these two worlds collide.
“It’s a little bit unusual to have the number of [hawks and owls] in such a large urban area that we do,” says Kathryn Dudeck, wildlife director at the Chattahoochee Nature Center. “Despite all the development and clearcutting that goes on in Atlanta, we still have some nice stands of hardwoods and pines, so we have a bit more habitat available to them than places like, say, St. Louis would.” And in fact, as I was on the phone with Dudeck, we were momentarily interrupted as she spotted a Cooper’s hawk on her commute home, perched over Georgia-400 and I-85.
Scott Lange, the executive director of Atlanta Wild Animal Rescue Effort (AWARE), says that it isn’t terribly unusual for birds of prey to appreciate city life: Wherever humans are, so is our food waste and other trash, which draws mice, rats, squirrels, and other critters for hawks and owls to feed on. (Of course, our relationship with them isn’t entirely to their benefit: The number one culprit behind most injured birds coming to AWARE is being hit by cars.)
I’m weirdly captivated by Atlanta’s birds of prey, but what intrigues me most isn’t my own parasocial relationship with them: It’s that plenty of other Atlantans feel the same way I do.
When I asked other city-dwellers if they felt a certain draw to the birds of prey spotted around town, I didn’t just get notes of appreciation: I got stories. A hawk that reliably shows up on the fence every year on someone’s birthday. Kids who exchange the “who cooks for you” call back and forth with the owls in their Poncey-Highland backyard. Epic (and noisy) showdowns between hawks and crows playing out just above playsets and treehouses. A red-shouldered hawk who snacks on crawdads from a backyard creek in unincorporated DeKalb. Owls posted up on front-yard fences; hawks perched on driveway basketball hoops. Working professionals, newly attuned to their backyard birds of prey after spending the last few years working from home, welcoming the distraction of a hawk sighting from their home office window. A worker at a Midtown high-rise watching hawks build their nest in a ledge nearly 30 floors above the city below. Lange himself, who became particularly attuned to the movements of barred owls in his neighborhood park during daily strolls in the early months of the pandemic, recalls getting a call at the AWARE helpline from an unhoused gentleman who had rescued an injured red-shouldered hawk and was nursing it back to health underneath his bunkbed in a downtown shelter.
With many of these species, Lange says, “you’ll see the same nesting pair in the same place for years and years.” Spend a few years watching the same owls returning to that one backyard pecan tree over and over, and it makes sense that some of us feel like we have a relationship with them. We may find ourselves looking for them, familiarizing ourselves with their habits, looking forward to seeing them again. Getting to know them, in a sense. It explains why I heard so many stories of owlets and (human) children growing up alongside one another; people and owls not only coexisting, but raising their respective families side-by-side for years in the same shared nesting place. Roby, who lives near the Kirkwood Urban Forest, has watched the same pair of owls raise chicks for the past seven or eight years. “The fledging process is cool to watch, but even crazier is watching the parents teach them how to hunt.”
Of course, not all of these encounters were so harmonious. Folks who tend backyard chickens, for instance, have a slightly more fraught relationship with these birds than the average person. Others shared wild stories of hawks mistakenly careening inside sunrooms or kitchens. And then there’s the Brookwood Hills neighborhood of Buckhead, who says they’re being personally victimized by a barred owl out for blood, dive-bombing early morning joggers who now leave the house with helmets and umbrellas. (According to news reports, the Department of Natural Resources suspects this unusual behavior is because the owl was taken in, then improperly released after imprinting on humans at an early age. “It is very rare that a hawk or an owl will try to physically contact someone . . . they don’t tend to fight a person,” Lange said when I asked him about this. “But I guess once in a while, it can happen.”)
Buckhead bird drama aside, it seems to me that the very visible presence of these animals in the middle of the city is yet another wild and wonderful quirk of calling Atlanta home—and perhaps an underappreciated one. (And don’t try to prove me wrong by pointing to our professional sports teams; the Falcons were named by someone who lived in Griffin, and the Hawks’ moniker has nothing to do with Atlanta.)
Witnessing that Cooper’s hawk in flight the other day, so gracefully threading the needle through the mess of telephone wires, wasn’t just a flash of natural beauty amid a rat’s nest of chaotic and ugly human infrastructure (though it was that, too). And watching for the owls in my backyard isn’t just something I do because they’re charismatic and easily recognizable. I think the sight of these birds can feel so remarkable because it jolts us out of a world where humans run the show. It’s a reminder that Atlanta, a busy metro humming with cars and people, has another side that we’re sometimes lucky to see—a whole other city within, and one that doesn’t belong to us.