We see them every fall; migrating hawks, one by one streaming into a rising swirl of warm air, like children hopping onto a carousel, one that operates on a vertical as well as a horizontal plane. The raptors enter at the bottom and each go round carries them higher and higher into the bright blue sky. It’s powered by the sun and milking its upward thrust by circling in a tight spiral effortlessly lifts the raptors up, up and up. Then at the peak, one, sometimes two miles high, they tuck their wings and rocket off in a southerly direction trying to eke out the maximum distance for the minimum loss of altitude. Sometimes it gets so crowded on the ride up that a hawk has to adjust its orbit to avoid another, and they screech at each other like the proximity warning on a planes’ radar system. An observer might even be lucky enough to see one roll over on its back and brandish its talons at the other that has gotten too close. However, because a hawk has to flap its wings to get the prerequisite momentum so as to tap into the lifting capacity of the gentle updraft, giving up access to this uplifting energy feels noxious and so each bird works to avoid this as it’s infinitely preferable for each individual to synchronize with the one above, the one below and the one beside it so that they can all rise without expending any energy whatsoever and let the warm air do all the work.
Hawks are solitary sojourners but because they all ride the same currents and travel the same pathways, they end up collecting in the same areas, the updrafts that bounce off mountain faces and the warming zones over large fields. The assemblage can become so dense with an updraft carrying a dozen or more hawks, it can give the illusion that they’ve flocked together, as if they are socially connected like a flock of geese. Yet of course what is organizing all this complex activity and a multitude of interesting and sometimes quite graphic displays of aggressive behavior, is energy. In fighter aircraft combat, “dog-fighting,” the metric of tactical advantage is energy. This is how tacticians talk and think about aerial combat. Altitude is a way of gaining and storing energy, this is true for fighter pilots sitting in billion dollar hi-tech, highly manufactured computer-enabled machines, as it is for hawks that have evolved from millions of years in the primordial past. Everything the hawks are doing is a function of energy, not intention. They are all attracted to the same thing, warm rising air, a southern clime, their neighbors with whom they must synchronize, but there is not one shred of competition or intention vis a vis another hawk in any of this activity. It is self-organizing. Knocking a fellow hawk out of its orbit doesn’t do an individual hawk much good because any deviation from a smooth, spiraling ascent costs energy. This cost is what limits aggression and why there are so few mid-air altercations because synchronization as a group means each can most efficiently align with a line of travel that goes up and up, and then at its apex exits to the south.
All the elements of a social hierarchy can be found in this assemblage. The hierarchy has poles, higher is better than being lower, being exactly opposite another hawk circling on the same plane is better than being on the same side. Such a pattern of differentiation reduces resistance and grants access to the most amount of flow, which is reaching the apex in order to sling shot off into the main southbound channel. Furthermore the dynamic between two hawks that come close will vary depending on how high on the thermal carousal they find themselves. On the bottom they’re just getting going and the cost of heavy wing beats to deviate from the spiral is dear. But higher up the lift is buoyant and with a subtle inflection of a wing a course can be easily corrected. No matter what might be going on, there’s absolutely no thought about controlling another, each is perceived and assessed by the other as a complex function of flow relative to resistance to flow. A certain spacing and acting in concert guarantees access to the current. The current is what organizes each and every behavior, not to mention the evolution of each and every appendage and adaptation to flight. Imagine then if one had the ultimate cut-and-paste software tool, and could box off a huge cube of airspace containing this cell of beings-in-motion that have become segregated into a clear hierarchy, and then paste this into a program that substituted Time for Space. In this way one could see the evolution of the relationships between social beings that stay together far longer than the hawks that are a hierarchy but for a few minutes. A wolf enters the hierarchy at the bottom, and we can track the evolution of its personality and actions as it migrates up, up and then out onto the main channel. One would then be able to apply such terms as alignment, synchronization, loss of energy, ease of flow, attraction, resistance, polarities, and most of all, attraction, to all manner of complex interactions that one would normally assign to intention. So before one should ever apply the term dominance to any social interaction, which would be just as easy to do when describing hawk-on-hawk behavior, a solitary species, as it is with wolf-on-wolf, a social species, they should first take the time and the trouble to work out the energy dynamic of attraction, alignment and synchronization down to its most exhaustive detail. Until one knows where these lines fall in the doings of animals, it would be premature to assign any behavior to the provenance of dominance.