Whose town is this?

At first I thought I heard the cry of an eagle, a high-pitched scream. How could that be? I thought. Since 2004, bald eagles have been seen residing near Jordan Lake, about 15 miles from here, in Chatham County, and farther northwest near Falls Lake. Could one be here, in Chapel Hill?

Then I saw the big bird, brown-feather wings beating the air heavily as it lifted into flight from a tall oak in our back yard, a red-tailed hawk, probably looking for food. Its piercing call sliced the air again as it headed northeast toward I-40 and who knows where beyond.

My first red hawk sighting occurred several years ago on the University of North Carolina campus, on the northernmost quad called McCorkle Place, not 100 yards from busy Franklin Street. A friend, more knowledgeable about these birds than I, nudged me and pointed as we both silently watched the hawk swoop down onto its prey, a small gray rabbit. “He’s found his breakfast,” my friend quipped. Not interested in watching further, I moved on.

Whose habitat is this place? This beautiful campus has been around since the late 1790s. North Carolina’s General Assembly chartered the university in December 1789. The cornerstone of its first building was laid on October 12, 1793, which is now celebrated as University Day. The University’s first student, Hinton James, arrived in 1795. The town of Chapel Hill stirred into life that same year as residents began to build permanent homes. Now, more than 57,000 people live within its borders.

We have become accustomed in the 21st century to the sight of families of deer who venture into the yard behind our house to graze every autumn, as many as six at a time, on occasion, and we dodge them on our streets and highways during mating season. In this age of traffic lights, fast-food eateries, high-rise apartments and big stores, we tend to forget who was here first. I hope the red hawk and the deer never leave. This place belongs to them.

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