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Ornithological Biography/Volume 1/Winter Hawk

71 Winter Hawk.jpg


Falco hyemalis, Gmel.


Every species of bird is possessed of a certain, not always definable, cast of countenance, peculiar to itself. Although it undergoes changes necessary for marking the passions of the individual, its joy, its anger, its terror or despondency, still it remains the same specific look. Hawks are perhaps more characteristically marked in this manner than birds of any other genus, being by nature intended for deeds of daring enterprise, and requiring a greater perfection of sight to enable them to distinguish their prey at great distances. To most persons the family-look of particular species does not appear so striking as to the student of Nature, who examines her productions in the haunts which she has allotted to them. He perceives at a glance the differences of species, and when he has once bent his attention to an object, can distinguish it at distances which to the ordinary observer present merely a moving object, whether beast or bird. When years of constant observation have elapsed, it becomes a pleasure to him to establish the differences that he has found to exist among the various species of a tribe, and to display to others whose opportunities have been more limited the fruits of his research.

I hope, kind reader, you will not lay presumption to my charge, when I tell you that I think myself somewhat qualified to decide in a matter of this kind, or say that I go too far, when I assert that the Hawk which sails before me, at a distance so great that a careless observer might be apt to fancy it something else, I can distinguish and name with as much ease as I should recognise an old friend by his walk or his tournure. Independently of the cast of countenance so conspicuously distinctive of different species of birds, there are characters of separation in their peculiar notes or cries; and if you add to these the distinctions that exist in their habits, it will be easy for you, when you have looked at the Plate of the Winter Falcon and that of the Red-shouldered Hawk, and have been told that their notes and manners differ greatly, to perceive that these birds, although confounded by some, are truly distinct.

The Winter Hawk is not a constant resident in the United States, but merely visits them, making its first appearance there at the approach of winter. It extends over the whole Union, from the eastern to the southernmost parts, but gives a decided preference to the Middle Districts, where the greater number spend the winter. They come from the northern portions of the continent, where they breed, and from whence they seem to be forced by the severity of the weather, to seek subsistence for a time in milder climates. They return at the approach of spring, and none, in as far as I have been able to discover, remain to breed in the United States.

The flight of the Winter Hawk is smooth and light, although greatly protracted, when necessity requires it to be so. It sails at times at a considerable elevation, and, notwithstanding the comparative shortness of its wings, performs this kind of motion with grace, and in circles of more than moderate diameter. It is a remarkably silent bird, often spending the greater part of a day without uttering its notes more than once or twice, which it does just before it alights to watch with great patience and perseverance for the appearance of its prey. Its haunts are the extensive meadows and marshes which occur along our rivers. There it pounces with a rapid motion on the frogs, which it either devours on the spot, or carries to the perch, or the top of the hay-stack, on which it previously stood. If it seizes a small frog, it swallows it whole and at once; but if a large one, it first tears it to pieces. The appetite of the Winter Hawk may be said to be ravenous. It seldom gives up eating, when food is plentiful, until it has gorged itself so as to seem on the point of being suffocated. At such times, it flies heavily, but removes farther at once from a person who pursues it, than when its stomach is empty, as if at one effort to ensure its safety, and afterwards enjoy the digestion of its food in quiet.

When frogs are scarce during frosty weather, the Winter Hawk pursues the meadow mouse, but only in such cases, frogs being the favourite food of this species. I have seen it when disappointed in seizing a large bull-frog, which had saved itself by leaping into the water, stand on the spot previously occupied by the reptile, and wait until it reappeared and approached the shore, when the Hawk would strike at it with his talons, although seldom successfully, as the frog would sink backward, and thus escape.

Mr Alexander Wilson has given a figure so unlike any bird of this species, for one of the Winter Falcons, that although he has at the same time briefly described the habits of the latter with accuracy, I cannot think that the bird figured by him was of that species. My excellent friend Charles Lucian Bonaparte, has probably been led by Mr Wilson's error to consider the Winter Hawk and the Red-shouldered Hawk as identical. I have killed many individuals of both species, and knowing as I do that the Red-shouldered Hawk is a constant resident in the Southern States, where I have often destroyed its nest and young, and where very few Winter Hawks are ever seen, even during winter, I cannot hesitate a moment to pronounce them different and distinct species.

The Winter Hawk generally rests at night on the ground, amongst the tall sedges of the marshes. From such places I have on several occasions started it, whilst in search of Ducks, and have shot it as it flew low over the ground, attempting to escape unobserved. I have never seen this Hawk in pursuit of any other birds than those of its own species, each individual chasing the others from the district which it has selected for itself.

The cry of the Winter Hawk is clear and prolonged, and resembles the syllables kay-o. After uttering these notes, it generally alights. Towards spring they associate in small parties of four or five, to perform their migrations. In this respect the species resembles most of the Marsh Hawks or Hen-harriers.

Falco hyemalis, Gmel. Syst. Nat. voL i. p. 274—Lath. Ind. Ornith. vol. i. p. 34—Ch. Bonaparte, Synops. of Birds of the United States, p. 33.
Winter Falcon, Falco hyemalis, Wils. Amer. Ornith. vol. iv. p. 73. Pl.35.

Adult Male. Plate LXXI.

Bill short, as broad as deep at the base, the sides convex, the dorsal outline convex from the base; upper mandible cerate, the edges blunt, slightly inflected, with an obtuse lobe towards the curvature, the tip trigonal, deflected, very acute; lower mandible involute at the edges, a little truncate at the end. Nostrils round, lateral, with a soft papilla in the centre. Head rather large, neck and body rather slender. Tarsus rather slender, anteriorly scutellate; toes scutellate above, scaly on the sides, scabrous and tuberculate beneath; middle and outer toe connected at the base by a small membrane; claws roundish, curved, slender, very acute.

Plumage compact, imbricated; feathers of the head and neck narrow towards the tips, of the back broad and rounded; tibial feathers elongated behind. Wings long, third and fourth primaries longest, the first short.

Bill light blue, darker at the tip; cere, basal margin of the bill, edges of the eyelids, and the feet, yellow, tinged with green. Iris yellow. Claws black. Head, neck and back, pale brownish-red, longitudinally spotted with dark-brown, the sides and fore-part of the head greyish-white. Upper tail-coverts bluish-grey at the margins. Tail dull brown, banded with brownish-white, and tipped with white. Lesser wing-coverts brownish-red, spotted with dark brown; larger coverts and secondary quills umber, banded with brownish-white; primary quills light yellowish-red at the base, dull brown towards the end, barred with dark brown. Lower part of the neck, the sides and under wing-coverts, light brownish-red, the former longitudinally lined with brown. Breast greyish-white, sparsely marked with guttiform spots, abdomen white. Tibial feathers yellowish-white, marked with small roundish spots.

Length 22 inches; bill along the back 1+12; tarsus 3.

Compared with the adult male of the Red-shouldered Hawk, the present bird is much larger, and differs greatly in colouring; but the differences will be best understood by referring to the figures.

The Bull-frog, Rana taurina, Cuv.

The body olive-green, clouded with black; a yellow line along the back. Length ten or twelve inches. This Frog is found in all parts of the United States, but is more abundant in the Southern Districts. Its voice is louder than that of any other species, and may be distinctly heard at the distance of forty or fifty yards. It is particularly fond of such small pure streams of water as are thickly shaded by over-hanging bushes. It sits for hours during the middle of the day, basking in the sun, near the margin of the water, to which it betakes itself by a great leap at the least appearance of danger, diving at once to the bottom, or swimming to the opposite side. In the Southern States, it is heard at all seasons, but principally during the spring and summer months. Its flesh is tender, white, and affords excellent eating. The hind legs, however, are the only parts used as food. They make excellent bait for the larger cat-fish. Some bull-frogs weigh as much as half a pound. I have generally used the gun for procuring them, shooting with very small shot.