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Ornithological Biography/Volume 1/Pigeon Hawk

92 Pigeon Hawk.jpg


Falco columbarius, Linn.

PLATE XCII. Male and Female.

It is when the whole of the shores of our eastern rivers are swarming with myriads of Rice Buntings, Red-wings, Soras, and other migratory birds,—when all the sportsmen of those parts of our country are induced to turn out in the expectation of full bags of game, that the daring feats of the little spirited Falcon now before you are displayed.

Imagine yourself, good-natured reader, with a gun on your shoulder, following the windings of one of those noble streams which embellish our country and facilitate its commerce, having constantly within your view millions of birds on their way to the south, and which in the evenings fall thick as the drops of a hail-shower on the bordering marshes, to spend the night there in security, and by rest to restore the vigour necessary for their gaining the distant regions, whence half of them had emerged the preceding spring. Well, as you are proceeding, full of anxiety, and gazing in astonishment at the multitudes of feathered travellers, all of a sudden a larger bird attracts your eye. It sweeps along in the stillness of the autumnal evening with a rapidity seldom equalled, creating confusion, terror, and dismay along the whole shores. The flocks rise en masse with a fluttering sound which comes strangely on your ear, double and double again, turn and wind over the marsh, agitated and fearful of imminent danger. And now, closely crowded, they would fain escape, but alas! one has been singled out, and in the twinkling of an eye, the Pigeon Hawk, darting into the middle of the flock, seizes and carries him off. Now is your time. Hundreds of sportsmen are dispersed over the marsh, paddling their canoes, or splashing among the reeds. Pull your trigger, and let fly, for it is impossible, should you be ever so inexpert, not to bring down several birds at a shot.

But, leaving you to your sport, I must follow the little marauder, as he makes toward the nearest shore, where he alights and devours his prey, and then, with unsatiated appetite, and bent on foul deeds, returns to the scene of action.

When the Reed-birds, the Redwings, and Soras, shall have become so scarce as to be searched for with the same interest as our little Partridges already are; when the margins of our rivers shall have been drained and ploughed to the very tide-mark; when the Grouse shall have to be protected by game-laws; when Turkeys shall no longer be met with in the wild state;—how strange will the tale which I now tell sound in the ears of those who may walk along the banks of these rivers, and over the fields which have occupied the place of these marshes!

The Pigeon Hawk does not, I believe, raise its young within the United States, but somewhere farther to the north. At least, I am inclined to think so, for in all my wanderings I never found its nest, nor saw the bird at any other season than late in summer, during the autumnal months, or in the winter. Its migration, or rather its pursuit of migrating birds, extends to the southernmost parts of our country; for I have killed it not only in Louisiana, but high up the Arkansas River, in regions bordering upon the Mexican territory.

The daring spirit which it displays exceeds that of any other Hawk of its size. It seizes the Red-breasted Thrush, the Wild Pigeon, and even the Golden-winged Woodpecker, on land; whilst along the shores it chases several species of Snipes, as well as the Green-winged Teal. The latter bird, however, dives at the approach of the Hawk, and thus eludes his gripe; while the little plunderer, having descended to the surface of the water with the velocity of an arrow, passes onwards, ascending again, without seeming to move its wings, the impulse which it acquired in the descent carrying it onwards, as a carriage, after being whirled down a steep declivity, surmounts the next eminence, without additional propulsion. Even the presence of the tyrant man he little heeds, and in Pennsylvania one of this species came almost right upon me while in pursuit of a dove, which found safety in my bosom from its persecutor.

When not in full chase, the Pigeon Hawk flies with an unsteady and undetermined notion, flapping its wings frequently, while it rises in spiral curves. This parade is of short duration, for, as if it remembered that it was losing time, it again approaches the ground, and skims swiftly over the streams, across the fields, along the fences, or by the skirts of the woods, as if intending to frighten all the little birds in its way. Should it unexpectedly meet a man, it darts upwards, and quickly passes over to continue its search. I have known these Hawks attack birds in cages, hanging against the walls of houses, in the very streets of our eastern cities.

When wounded in the wing, it shakes the other as it falls, describing the spiral curves of a screw; and, if no person is near to secure it, makes its way by long leaps to the thickets, where it is very difficult to find it. But if the gunner is at hand, and attempts to lay hold of it, the little ruffian erects his feathers, screams shrilly and piercingly, and, like the rest of his tribe, throws himself on his back, to be ready to clutch his enemy.

Falco columbarius, Linn. Syst. Nat. p. 128—Lath. Ind. Ornith. vol. i. p. 44.—Ch. Bonaparte, Synops. of Birds of the United States, p. 28.

Pigeon Hawk, Lath. Synops. vol. i. p. 101—Wils. Amer. Ornith. vol. ii. p. 107. Pl. 25. fig. 3.

Adult Male. Plate XCII. Fig. 1.

Bill shortish, as broad as long, the sides convex, the dorsal outline convex from the base; upper mandible with the edges slightly inflected, and forming a projecting process, the tip trigonal, acute, descending obliquely; lower mandible inflected at the edges, with a notch near the end, abrupt at the tip. Nostrils roundish, with a central tubercle, perforated in the short cere. Head rather large, flattened above. Neck shortish. Body ovate. Legs short, roundish; tarsi covered before with transverse scuta, on the sides with scales; toes scutellate above, scabrous and tuberculate beneath; middle toe much longer than the outer, which is connected with it at the base by a membrane; claws long, curved, roundish, very acute.

Plumage ordinary, compact on the upper and fore parts, lax beneath. Feathers of the head and neck narrow, of the back rather short, broad and rounded, of the breast oblong. Space between the beak and eye covered with bristly feathers. Orbital spaces bare. Wings nearly as long as the tail; the primary quills narrow, tapering, cut out on the inner web towards the end, rounded, the second longest; the secondary quills short, obtuse. Tail longish, nearly even. Tibial feathers long, forming a large tuft externally.

Bill bluish-black at the tip, blue towards the base; cere, margin, and bare orbital space greenish-yellow. Iris dark brown. Feet greenish-yellow; claws brownish-black. The general colour of the upper parts is deep chocolate; a line above the eyes, the tips of the first row of wing-coverts, the outer margins and tips of the secondaries, and the inner margins and tips of the primaries, whitish. The inner webs of the quills marked with pale brown spots. Tail banded with brownish-white transverse spots, which do not reach the outer margin of the feathers, and tipped with the same. Throat white, cheeks whitish, patched and streaked with brown. A broad mystachial band of the same colour. Under parts generally light reddish-brown, marked with guttiform spots. Tibial feathers marked with more elongated spots. Under tail-coverts nearly spotless.

Length 13 inches, extent of wings 28; bill 712 along the ridge, 1112 along the gap.

Adult Female. Plate XCII. Fig. 2.

The colouring of the female is generally similar to that of the male, somewhat lighter above, with the spots of the lower parts broader.

Length 14+12 inches, extent of wings 30; bill 34 along the ridge, 34 along the gap, measured from the tip of the lower mandible.