The Significance of Friday the 13th

Myths and history behind Friday the 13th, a hawk mountain sanctuary and the autumn night sky.

| October/November 1995

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    One day this hawk will be able to fly across Pennsylvania with just a few wing strokes.
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    Hawk Mountain in prime spotting season.

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Friday the 13th

October not only brings us the holiday of Halloween this year, but also that nemesis of the superstitious, Friday the 13th. The day-date combination is considered unlucky because Friday is supposed to be the unluckiest day and 13 the unluckiest number (putting them together is, presumably, a double dose of bad luck). But why have Friday and the number 13 gained their ill reputation in the first place? The day itself is considered more than favorable to all who have shouted "T.G.I.F.!" at the end of their work week. And Friday is the holy day of the Moslem week. But an older tradition in Christianity would hold Friday the darkest day: After all, it is the day (in either 30 or 33 A.D. we now think) that Jesus was crucified.

Then there is the number. You probably know the extent to which 13 worries some people (maybe even you!). There are office buildings without 13th floors (or, rather, they do have 13th floors, it's just that the management has cleverly decided to call the 13th floor "the 14th floor"). There is even a name for a pathological fear of 13: triskaidekaphobia.

So what's wrong with 13? One theory is that there were 13 people at the Last Supper and the 13th was Judas Iscariot, the traitor. In Norse mythology, a feast of 12 gods and goddesses was joined by a 13th figure, the god of mischief, Loki, whose presence led to the death of the beloved god Baldur the Beautiful—and eventually to the downfall of the gods and the end of the world (and we think we've had some unwelcome guests!). We also try to have 12 months in a year (actually 12 lunations—cycles from one lunar phase to its next occurrence—is considerably less than 365 or even 360 days). So many numbers can be divided evenly into 12:1,2,3,4,6, and 12 itself. But 13 has as its factors only 1 and itself; it is a "prime number." Of course, 7 and 11 are also prime numbers and they haven't gotten bad press.

Whether or not we can understand why Friday the 13th is supposed to be bad luck, the fact remains that people do notice it, so it's interesting to figure out how often it occurs. The simple answer is that Friday the 13th can happen either once, twice, or three times in a year. In 1995 you've had to endure it back in January, and now get it again in October. Both 1993 and 1994 had only one Friday the 13th. On the other hand, if a "common year" (year that isn't a leap year) starts on a Thursday, we have three Friday the 13ths. This happened in 1981 and 1987, and will next happen in 1998. We can also get three Friday the 13ths in a leap year, if that year begins on a Sunday—such as occurred in 1984. So is Friday the 13th really unlucky? Well, according to writer Guy Ottewell, people in some parts of the world have other ideas: In South America the unlucky day is Tuesday and in Italy the unlucky number is 17. Go figure.

Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

They are noble, they are fierce. They are swiftness embodied...the wind given a form. One of them is the fastest creature in the world, the peregrine falcon, capable of dives at speeds of up to 200 m.p.h. They are the hawks. And autumn is the time when from certain locations in the eastern U.S., hundreds and even thousands of these birds may be spotted in a single day. The place in the United States where the hawk migration numbers have been greatest of all are the coastal community of Cape May, New Jersey. But I'd like to save discussion of that place near and dear to me for another time. Instead, let's consider what it's like to see the hawks from along their magic highway south—the Appalachian Mountains. There are many fine hawk-watching locations along the hundreds of miles of those parallel ridges and you might not live all that far from one. But if you were going to pick one mountain site for hawk-watching, where would you go? Most birding experts would agree you should head for Hawk Mountain, located on the Kittatiny Ridge in east-central Pennsylvania about midway between the gaps of the Susquehanna and Delaware rivers. You'll find it near the small town of Eckville, not far off Interstate 78. In the early part of the century, hawk shooters stood on its lookouts. Individual men sometimes fired 500 rounds of ammunition (switching guns to keep one from getting too hot), each sometimes killing 200 or more hawks in a single day. But in 1934 concerned conservationists bought 1,300 key acres and established Hawk Mountain Sanctuary.

This is a beautiful place to visit any time of the year, but the best time for beginners to come maybe about September 15 to 20, when there is the best chance of seeing the greatest numbers of broad-winged hawks. The best weather for viewing is usually after a powerful cold front has roared through, followed by many hours of strong, clearing northwest winds. The ridges run parallel straight across the wind's path, pushing air currents up (as does heating of the mountain slopes). This provides a cushion of air for the hawks to glide on and save energy. A hawk or its big relative, an eagle, might float down the whole length of Pennsylvania with many miles between wing strokes.

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