Long May We Reign
Red-tailed hawks, menopause and the grandmother hypothesis
Nestled on my porch, a cup of coffee in one hand and binoculars in the other, I spent this spring watching my neighbors. I’ve been watching them for almost 20 years, and I can’t get enough of the drama, but this season’s storyline was hitting me harder than in years past.
I bought my house in 2004, a 1925 house craftsman surrounded by century-old Aleppo pines and Italian cypress in Banning, California, a passthrough city between Los Angeles and Palm Springs. The house was a wreck. I was in my early 30’s and almost as much of wreck. I was going to go to grad school, fix myself, fix the house and pass through just like everyone else only with a tidy profit and a bright future. Then I spotted my neighbors, a pair of red-tailed hawks, nesting in the gentle slope of two sturdy pine boughs and ultimately, I couldn’t bring myself to leave the view.
The female hawk who I long ago dubbed The Red Queen, has raised two decades of chicks, changed mates, weathered droughts, and navigated wild Santa Ana winds. There has been romance, nurturing, brawls with antagonists, and hostile takeovers of her territory. She hasn’t always won battles, but she always won the wars. She inspires me and I aspire to be her. I also want to win the wars.
In the view through my binoculars this spring, I began to come to terms with the one war we couldn’t win. Where once she raised three and even four chicks, the past few years she was only raising two and then only one. This spring, I watched her and her mate carrying food to a chick that was too small to see over the ridge of the nest but made demanding cries. Until one day in May, there was nothing but silence.
I watched the parents peering into the nest. They met eyes for a moment and then as if in agreement, the male leaned into the nest and gently lifted and unmoving chick with his beak. Launching gracefully from the pine, he flew toward Mt. San Gorgonio on steady wings until he was a dark and distance speck of sky.
Turning my attention back to The Red Queen, I saw a resolute sadness in her posture, or more likely, I saw through the lens of my own melancholy. Her eggs were no longer viable and her days of raising a family were ending. Now in my 50’s, it had been six months since my last menstruation and I thought, Me too, Sister. Me too. The one war we can’t win is the one against time.
There are only a few species in which menopause has been documented, four toothed whale species including orcas, and humans. (And just this year we decided that chimpanzees experience menopause as well.)1 These species stop producing young but continue living for decades. The thought is that this adaptation is about social structure and grandparenting, but I’m not so sure. I suspect that science just hasn’t caught up or perhaps just hasn’t paid attention.
I suspect this primarily in my doctor’s office when I complain about my sudden need to sleep for 12 to 14 hours a day. No, I’m not depressed. My life is more fulfilling than it has ever been and yet I sleep through my alarms when I desperately want to start my day. I’m fatigued. I’m hot when it’s freezing. I’m not myself. And the doctor pats my hand and tells me he wishes he could get that kind of sleep at night. I suppose he’s trying to bolster my spirits, but mostly he’s dismissing me. I’m female. I’m old. And despite his encouragement to take off some weight, I’m not a whale.
Science speculates that kin dynamics are why whales and humans thrive beyond their reproductive years.
“…selected costs seem to help account for early reproductive cessation. The efficacy of this strategy in minimizing reproductive competition between generations is highlighted by the strikingly low degree of reproductive overlap between generations in humans and killer whales compared to non-menopausal mammal species.”2
This is the grandmother hypothesis. Honestly though, it sounds like more dismissive bullshit to me. I refuse to believe that the only reason I might be graced to live long after my reproductive years is my continued usefulness in child rearing. Eons ago when there was an old woman living alone in woods with mystical knowledge, she did not harbor grandchildren. Instead, she tended to wisdom that was so foreign that she was terrifying. You had to be brave to request it, but her knowledge was her value.
I refuse to believe that The Red Queen is going die soon simply because she has no more reproductive value in the ecosystem. And while some days I think it’s amazing that menopause isn’t the death of all women, I mostly think that we just aren’t paying attention to old and single females of any species, including birds.
I can’t attest to their knowledge, but I can attest to their magic because birds never seem to age in a traditional sense. They don’t get wrinkles and don’t turn gray. A healthy bird in adult plumage looks exactly the same from the year they are fully in adult coloration until the day they die. I have changed and The Red Queen has not.
Yet, there are birds that lay all the eggs they can until they run out, just like humans and still live a fairly long life post-reproduction. Endoscopies in macaws in their mid-30s have revealed shrunken ovaries that no longer produce eggs although the birds can live two additional decades. I can’t find any science that will tell me how long a red-tailed hawk will live past her reproductive years, let alone if she has hot flashes, mood swings, and loses bone density. What I do know is that she is still here, and I am still here and there is more of our story to tell.
I watched The Red Queen this afternoon, arguing with the crows and holding a regal pose I learned by heart years ago. I stand up straighter when I see her, the way I was taught to hold myself when I young and told my posture mattered. I stand as if the world still watches me, as if there was a line drawn taut between my breastbone and the sky. The Red Queen continues to inspire me. I continue to aspire to be her. Long may we reign.
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