Shabbat of Sanctity Dirshu’s 20th Anniversary International Convention

Past Articles:
SPY IN THE SKY

By: Tuvia Cohen



When you go out for a walk today, you might imagine that no one is watching. On the contrary! There’s no such thing as glorious solitude, even in the open countryside. Though you may look around and be convinced that no one is present, you may still be the focus of someone’s camera. As your feeling of indignation rises concurrently with your blood pressure, and you manifest signs of outrage at this encroachment on your privacy, take my advice and save your energy. For, the camera is above you. What’s more, the particular camera in question could be 500 miles away, far out in space!

Here’s a somewhat disturbing fact: Circling around Earth, several hundred miles up, are giant cameras which can see details only twelve inches across! The cameras in question are fixed to satellites as big as a 50-foot-long bus, and take up half the area of the satellites. Military commanders use these satellites as ‘spies in the sky’ to check the extent of other countries’ arsenals. Every day, weather forecasts show pictures of the Earth photographed by cameras aboard satellites.

It is just incredible how things have advanced since 1830, when the first practical camera was invented. The ‘spy in the sky’ incorporates all the technological skills available to create photographs that leave the uninitiated layman gasping with wonder. This advancement is very nearly the ultimate in sophistication – almost, but not quite. The actual award must go to the hawk. And now, let the hawk tell its tale!

The Humble Hawk

The hawk can range in size from miniature birds (no bigger than a robin) to majestic giants that will attack a gazelle. Whatever their size, they have been endowed with amazing skills, abilities that make them almost as feared as the eagle. The eagle’s eyes are so effective that he has been known to detect a fish as far as three miles from the spot where he is soaring.

Imagine the hawk flying high over a mountain ridge. Suddenly, it closes its wings and makes a long, unwavering dive for a small bird, which it snatches in its knuckled talons. When the hawk first spotted its prey, the two birds were at least one and half miles apart! If we human beings had comparable vision, we would be able to read newspaper headlines a quarter of a mile away, instead of trying to squint at the paper being read by another member of the family across the table!

Much of the hawk’s amazing sight comes from the size of its eyeballs, which are often as large as ours, and extend far back into the skull. In addition, the hawk’s retina is nearly twice as thick as a human’s, and is packed with millions of minute visual cells. Would you care to have superb sight? Fine – go ahead and instruct your eyeballs to increase in size, and your retina to double its thickness. This will ensure, naturally, that you increase the unbelievably complex wiring in which each of the millions of
light-receiving cells in the retina are connected to the optic nerve. Go ahead and try!

Flying in the sky has its hazards. The powerful sun produces a glare that can distract the most conscientious of flyers. The hawk cannot afford to be distracted. To shut out the glare of the sky, its eyes are coated with droplets of yellow oil that act much like a camera filter. Not colorless oil, you understand – yellow oil. The hawk has been designed with built-in sunglasses!

Just listen to this: A little sparrow hawk was seen hurtling down from a height of 100 feet, and neatly plucked a grasshopper off a leaf. Astounding as the feat was, more extraordinary still was the physical transformation that had taken place inside the bird’s eye during the dive. While the hawk was circling for prey, its eye lens was working like a telescope; by the time it had plummeted to the grasshopper, the lens shape had altered to that of a microscope. Human beings have not yet been able to design a pair of binoculars that can be instantly transformed into a microscope. The hawk, which simply fulfills its instincts, has all the advanced technology that it requires.

Because its eyeballs are so huge, the hawk’s brain, which is sandwiched in between them, is relatively small. Nevertheless, it is large enough to incorporate a memory. Acting upon one, the osprey (the so-called ‘fish hawk’), will strengthen its nest with fresh sticks to withstand the winter blizzards, before leaving its nest to fly to warmer winter quarters. It remembers the way the weather ravaged its nest the year before and takes precautions before the cold descends.

The hawk exhibits just about every technique to be seen in the world of flight. The master flier of them all is the so-called ‘duck hawk,’ the peregrine falcon. The bird sits on a high perch, scanning the earth below for likely victims. Having sighted one, it takes off, wings high overhead, to catch all the air possible for the mighty thrust forward. Its wings surge forward in a rowing motion, and then close. The falcon then plummets toward the earth like a hurled stone, sometimes attaining the incredible speed of 250 miles an hour. Suddenly there is an exploding puff of feathers, as the falcon strikes a bird with its large, clawed fist. The prey is usually killed outright. And then comes the most amazing maneuver of all: The falcon darts under the falling bird, flips over on its back, and catches the prey in its talons! Is there a jet fighter, in any air force in the world, capable of such skills? And if there is, can it lay eggs to produce the next generation of jets?

Larger hawks demonstrate a completely different method of flight. These birds are living gliders, the most buoyant in existence, and can be seen soaring and wheeling in lazy circles. How do they manage it? Nearly every one of their skeletal bones is hollow, and filled with air sacs that supplement the lungs and decrease weight. The wings and tail are extremely broad, providing a large lifting area in relation to their weight. As the soarers slowly patrol their territories, they coast on air currents and columns of rising warm air, gliding from one to the next. A hawk is capable of picking up tremendous momentum, simply by riding these thermal currents. An osprey was once measured as flying 80 miles an hour in a mere four-mile-an-hour
wind, and not one wing tip was twitching! In order to enable it to achieve such adroitness, the wing tips are slotted: that means that the hawk, in common with all birds that soar without flapping their wings, can spread its primary feathers apart like fingers. This capability is in reality an anti-stalling device, giving the hawk the stability that it requires. Not one hawk has ever taken a single lesson in aerodynamics, yet its design is a world beater. It knows everything! The osprey, when it rises above the water with a catch, always turns the fish’s head forward, to lessen air resistance. Well, of course!

Birds of prey have four toes with curved claws, called talons, on each foot. Hawks have long, slim toes for catching birds in flight. The osprey will sometimes go completely underwater to catch fish; accordingly its feet have rough, spiky scales and long, curved talons to make sure slippery fish do not wriggle free.

Whether acting as a spy in the sky, or a fearsome submarine, the hawk is a superb example of the sophisticated skills, which, if seen in the manufactured world, would win prize after prize for excellence in design. Hashem doesn’t need any prizes, but we have to open our eyes, and recognize the greatest Intelligence of all.

Tuvia Cohen is a humorist, scientist, and an accomplished author.
His books include, ‘Our Amazing World’ and ‘Our Wondrous World’,
published by Artscroll / Mesorah Publications.