Popular Science Monthly/Volume 51/September 1897/The Hawks of New England


DURING the middle ages, while "the noble sport" of falconry was in vogue, hawks, and to a certain extent all kindred birds of prey, were respected, revered—almost worshiped—contemporary naturalists, and even their successors for many centuries, placing them at the head of their order, much as man is ranked as the head of all mammals. Recently, however, as scientific methods have taken the place of romantic fancies, a change has shown itself, and the whole tribe has been moved down almost to the foot of the list, where in the minds of bird students they occupy a position only a little more dignified than that of the penguins and similar seafowl. Nowadays it is the fashion to speak of them as robbers and butchers, low in their grade of development, and lacking even in intelligence.

Without denying the justice of all this, I must still confess to a strong admiration for them, having always found them more interesting than any other group of birds.

Of course, the literature touching this particular subject is very great, and it is almost a hopeless task to try to write anything new; still, since the favor into which the smaller birds have fallen of late has resulted in a rather undeserved oblivion for the once-honored falcon, it may not be out of place to note anew their varieties and characteristics, since their commonness in this country makes study very easy, while their almost forgotten qualities well repay one for a little attention. In speaking of them I shall not class them in the order assigned by the old naturalists viz.,—as long-winged or noble falcons, short-winged hawks, and ignoble kites and buzzards—but according to their size, as they are generally known by farmers and hunters, the bitter enemies that now concede them attention, and take the place of the courtly nobles who treasured them as almost their most precious possessions.

Of the largest hawks, there are quite common with us the rough-legged, the red-shouldered, and the redtail: the first is known as the winter hawk, the others are the hated hen hawks, and are hardly to be distinguished one from another. From April to November they may be seen sailing in wide circles over the woods and pastures, or perched on some dead tree from which they may overlook their hunting grounds.

Redtail is probably the heaviest of all our hawks, and he shows his weight as he flies, while a pretty large branch may be seen to bend if he lights on it. He has a fierce, long-drawn, savage scream, and his tones are usually angry and harsh. Hen hawks are most abundant during the last part of summer, and at that time if a flock of poultry should stray out into the field a single hawk will sometimes kill two or three of them before they have reached a place of safety.

Although only a buzzard, he kills his prey with a single stroke, like a true falcon, and his capacity is enormous, yet sometimes for weeks together he is content to live entirely on mice and grasshoppers. His color is grayish brown above, and yellowish white beneath, with traces of rusty red on the tail feathers, which, when the bird is in full plumage, become wholly red with a black band near the tip.

But trying to know hawks by their colors is uncertain work at best, as members of most species change their entire coloring

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Red-tailed Hawk.

at least once in their lifetime. These changes are popularly ascribed to age, birds in full plumage being spoken of as old ones, though they have always seemed to me to depend more on the general vigor of the bird, as it is not uncommon to find specimens showing every mark of great age, with stiff joints and beaks and claws worn blunt, in precisely the same attire as when they left the nest, while those in full plumage, as far as my observation goes, are never very old, and are always in excellent condition.

The red-shouldered hawk is smaller and more lightly built than his cousin, and he has a longer tail. In full plumage he is rich brown on the back, with wings and tail barred with black and white, and chestnut-colored shoulder patches. Beneath he is dull red, more or less barred and spotted with white. Young birds are much the same color as redtailed hawks. This bird keeps more to the woods than the redtail, and is much less destructive; his cries are shorter, shriller, and less savage, and his general disposition is milder. In the spring they are especially PSM V51 D612 Red shouldered hawk.pngRed-shouldered Hawk. noisy, and then several pairs may sometimes be seen circling together high in air, all whistling and screaming at the same time.

Occasionally a pair will remain all winter, and during this season they will keep to the thickest parts of the woods and loaf about open springs, feeding on such half-dormant frogs as rise to the surface of the water. They never appear to suffer from want of food, however, as all those I have killed in winter had a thick layer of fat under the skin.

Although the rough-legged hawk is usually spoken of as rare in this part of the country, they seem to be common enough here in southeastern New Hampshire, at certain seasons at least; and during the Indian-summer weather that comes just before winter sets in, I can at almost any time find one or more without the least trouble. Perhaps it is because they are here at a season when other birds—and hawks in particular—are most conspicuous by their absence that this species is so well known; still, there seems to be something different in their method of flight and ways in general. One peculiarity the rough-legged hawk shares with the little sparrow hawk—that of hanging like a wind-hover in midair, head to the wind, with dangling legs, his keen eyes watching the grass beneath for any sign of a mouse. With a continual rolling flap of the wings he holds himself, hour after hour, over precisely the same spot. At the first glimpse of a mouse he goes down with a perpendicular rush like a falcon, and flounders and flaps around until he has the little victim in his claws.

Judging from my own experience I should consider this the most intelligent of hawks. With the utmost caution I find it almost impossible to approach within two hundred yards when I have a gun, even in the best of cover, and yet they will sit on the trees by the roadside and let carriages pass almost under them, or fly back and forth within fifty yards of a team. Apparently they have less fear of skaters than of pedestrians, probably having learned from experience that any one on skates is hardly likely to prove dangerous. They seem to see every one and everything within a radius of a quarter of a mile, and never lose sight of one for a moment. Most of those that I see are dark brown, with a dark belt underneath, and the base of the tail is usually white. Others are dark brown above and nearly black beneath, the tail white with bands of black and gray near the tip. The colors vary, however, from dark to light, a few being quite black, with white spots on the tail and under the wings.

They are seldom seen here in midwinter, but when the ice breaks up in the spring they pass over on their way north, and sometimes stop for a few days in the meadows.

Another large hawk, whose swiftness and courage made him a great favorite with the old falconers, is the goshawk, but as

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Rough legged Hawk.

most of them are colored like some of the other large hawks, and are, moreover, extremely shy, keeping always to the dark, evergreen woods, it is sometimes hard to be certain about having seen one. This species could hardly be called common, though occasionally in August birds that I take to be goshawks are very abundant. I am not absolutely certain, however, as to the species.

One August afternoon I heard an angry croaking that seemed to issue from the top of a large oak. As I approached a goshawk waddled out along a horizontal branch, and on another that extended PSM V51 D614 Goshawk.pngGoshawk. parallel with the first and only a few inches below marched a crow, keeping directly under the hawk and striking savagely at his feet. Both kept their wings tightly closed, and neither seemed in the least excited. I do not know how the quarrel ended, for presently both flew to another part of the woods to argue the matter away from human intelligence. There seems to be a continual feud between the crows and all kinds of hawks, and some of the disputes that arise are humorous in the extreme. I once saw a sharp-shinned hawk that insisted on flying south in company with a flock of crows. To be sure, if he flew at the same height as they did, he would have to fly with them, for the sky was full of crows at the time, all going in the same direction; still, he might have risen above them or kept down nearer to the tops of the trees, but evidently he didn't choose to. Every time a crow dashed at him he would sweep down out of their ranks, only to join them a few yards farther on, and when, miles away, they were only just visible through my glass, the dispute seemed still in progress.

In full plumage the goshawk is bluish-slate color, and differs from the other large hawks in having shorter wings, longer tail, and yellow or orange-colored eyes.

When flying, the marsh hawk has the appearance of being a large bird, but in weight he would be classed among the smaller hawks. A lean-bodied, loose-jointed, long-limbed bird, he sails along close to the grass, carefully beating over ever foot of ground in his day's hunt. The small birds seem to realize that it is useless to try to escape as they do from other hawks by hiding in the tall grass, and as soon as one appears you may see meadowlarks, blackbirds, reedbirds, and sparrows rise in clouds and fly for the nearest woods for protection. When there is a flight of warblers, and the treetops are alive with these brilliantly colored little fellows, the marsh hawks follow them and rise and dip among the branches like swallows in a listless, careless manner, striking with their long legs at whatever bird happens to be nearest. They are very methodical in their way of hunting, and day after day follow the same course, flapping back to the nest whenever successful. They nest on the ground in a swamp or brier patch, and the young remain hidden about in the bushes, where they are fed by the parents for months after they are able to fly. All their cries are rather faint and hysterical, and they always seem to be somewhat weak-minded; still, they show considerable intelligence at times, and appear to distinguish between persons. I remember one pair that became quite friendly, and, when I visited their nest, would light near me or hover close over my head, even when I carried a gun; but a neighbor of mine, who accused them of stealing his chickens, complained that they would not come within gunshot, even when he thought himself well hidden. In color they vary from pale, bluish gray to dark brown above, and from white to chestnut red underneath, and are easily known by the large white patch on the back. They are abundant from the last of March to November.

For medium-sized hawks we have the peregrine falcon. Cooper's hawk, and the broad-winged hawk. The peregrine falcon is a rather uncommon bird. I occasionally see them in the spring, PSM V51 D615 Marsh hawk.pngMarsh Hawk. but not often. This is the falcon par excellence of the older writers, and is said to be the most dashingly courageous of all hawks.

The broad-winged hawk is also rare, but-less so than the last; he looks like a heavy, owlish fellow, with broad, rounded wings, and a short tail that seems to be inserted between them. He is usually seen in frosty October weather, and spends most of his time in the woods. Cooper's hawk, or the chicken hawk, is plentiful enough: a slender, compactly built bird, with a long tail, short wings, and fierce, yellow eyes, steely blue or rich brown on the back, and white-barred or streaked with reddish on the breast. He flies with tremendous swiftness, and doesn't seem afraid to tackle anything. This is probably the most destructive hawk we have, a nest with young birds usually containing remnants of partridges, chickens, and perhaps a dozen kinds of small birds, but very seldom any signs of mice or insects. When together, these chicken hawks are always quarreling with each other, and pairs separate about as soon as the young birds are able to take care of themselves. Their scream is, I think, the most petulant, angry, ear-piercing note to be heard in the woods.

The three small hawks are the merlin, the sharp-shinned, and the sparrow hawk. The first two are commonly called pigeon

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Broad-winged Hawk.

hawks. Sharp-shinned is almost exactly like a small Cooper's hawk, but not so compactly built; in disposition he is quite as bad, and makes up in general recklessness what he lacks in size; he is less businesslike, however, and flies through the woods in a crazy, erratic sort of way, apparently with no particular object in view, striking savagely at every living thing he sees, though seldom following a bird if he misses it the first time. These birds have a curious way when alone of darting back and forth between two branches, striking with their claws at some particular knot or leaf, as if for practice, and then performing a most indescribable kind of war dance. Being especially fond of young chickens, they will come day after day to the same yard, and are only too often successful in their hunting. At such times it is almost impossible to shoot them, as they come with a rush and are gone, sneaking from orchard to orchard, and you have to guess at their whereabouts from the cries of the small birds that have nests in the neighborhood. A colony of swallows, however, makes an excellent pack of sky hounds to hunt them with, as they keep directly over the hawk, and by watching their movements you may judge what direction to take in order to head him off. Even if you get a good shot at him you may call yourself lucky if you succeed in bringing him down, for he is harder to hit than snipe or woodcock, and is rarely captured until fairly riddled with shot.

Merlins are solid, muscular, beautiful little birds, with close-fitting, dark-colored plumage. They are never very numerous, except in the fall, when they come in flights, and are most abundant near the seacoast and salt marshes. They fly swiftly and steadily, seldom changing their course, and as sure as one of them starts in pursuit of a bird that bird is doomed, for the merlin seldom gives up the chase.

He is not a difficult bird to shoot, for, though tenacious of life, his flight is steady, and, as a general thing, on being hit by a shot, he turns and flies back in the direction whence he came, giving the sportsman a second chance.

In my opinion, the sparrow hawk is the handsomest of his race; his back is bright, golden cinnamon, his wings steely blue and jet black, and his tail chestnut, with a broad black band; his breast is beautifully marked with chainlike patterns of black spots. His mate is chestnut above, banded with black. Unlike other hawks, the plumage of these birds does not vary with age. They usually make their appearance in some still, cloudy day, about the last of March, and take up their position in the meadows; from then until September they are always to be seen either perched on the topmost twig of some tall elm or hovering in the air on the lookout for prey. Their nest is in some hollow tree or deserted woodpecker's hole, or even a last year's crow's nest. I have often tried to account for the seemingly friendly relations existing between the sparrow hawks and golden-winged wood-pecker; both frequently occupy holes in the same branch, and sit side by side on top of some tall stub without the least sign of disagreement, although, unless I am very much mistaken, the sparrow hawk often attacks larger birds, and might easily carry off the young ones when the old birds were absent.

About the last of June the young hawks are ready to fly, and at once betake themselves to the nearest thick treetop, preferring an evergreen if possible. They appear to enjoy the change from their former stuffy apartments immensely, and preen their feathers in the bright sunlight, each waiting patiently its turn to be fed by the parents, who are chasing the half-fledged blackbirds and sparrows about the meadows, or darting after grasshoppers and locusts in the grass. At the first cry of warning the youngsters scramble down into the thick foliage, and hide there as skillfully as young owls. At first they have no especial fear of man, and sometimes on approaching them I have seen the old birds

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Cooper's Hawk.

deliberately knock them off their perch and compel them to fly, driving them into the pines for safety.

I once took a hawk of this kind from the nest when only a few days old, and brought him up according to the rules most approved by the old falconers. He was never confined in any way, and as soon as he had learned to fly had the run of the entire place. His favorite haunt was a series of gutters under the eaves, where he would spend hours at a time hunting for spiders or digging the wasps' nests to pieces for the larvæ. When spoken to at such times he would look out over the edge of the gutter, with his head on one side, and answer with soft, chattering cries, and immediately go back to his work. Let no one make the mistake of thinking that the loud screaming or whistling of hawks is their usual voice, although it is the only one easily heard at the distance hawks usually insist on keeping from the observer. One has only to watch a pair of hawks of any kind close at hand, to learn that probably nine tenths of the cries uttered by them in the course of a day are either low and guttural or soft and almost musical. But it was not until I had had one about me for an entire summer that I realized what an almost limitless variety of notes he had at his command. Sweepstakes, as we named him, would sit on my shoulder or the rim of my hat, and chatter away with so much expression that it seemed the worst kind of stupidity on my part not to be able to understand everything he said. When he had gained the full strength of his wings he would come flying to me for protection from a furious mob of small birds which he had exasperated by his bungling attempts at hunting, and alighting on the rim of my hat go scrambling round and round it with a great rustling and scratching of his claws. When perched on any one's wrist or finger, he was always careful not to let his claws prick the skin, and was more thoughtful about such matters than the best-natured kitten in the world. He was especially fond of being stroked with the wing feather of some large bird, and was always uneasy if any of his own feathers were ruffled or misplaced. He would almost always come when called, even though not in the least hungry. Sometimes if he saw Jack, the white bull terrier, going about with a bone in his mouth, he would light on the bone and ride

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Sparrow Hawk.

there until he had eaten what he wanted. If it took him some time to get enough. Jack, who was a most exemplary gentleman, would drop the bone, and lying down beside it quietly wait for his very good friend to finish. But his very fearlessness proved his destruction, for he got into the way of flying across the pastures to a farmhouse half a mile away, and was shot, to the bitter regret of all who had known him. The next season I took a female sparrow hawk from the nest, when nearly grown, but she was never quite as familiar as Sweepstakes, and in a few days ran or rather flew away. If she had gone north toward the meadows, she would probably have found her parents, at that time engaged in teaching her brothers and sisters the rudiments of hunting, and would probably never have returned. Instead of this she took the opposite direction, and in a few days came back with a tremendous appetite, hungrily eating everything that was given her. When haying time came on she would follow about the field, lighting on rake handles or shoulders, or even the cart, when she was not feeding on grasshoppers till she could hardly fly. Toward the end of summer she would be gone for days on hunting excursions, her ability in this direction having increased, but on her return would be as familiar as ever.

One day, however, she appeared nervous and frightened, and on taking her in my hand I noticed that shot had cut through her wing feathers, and those on her breast were rumpled and bloody. Suddenly she caught sight of some one in the road more than a hundred yards away, and was instantly in the air, soaring out over the fields and up toward the clouds until almost out of sight. She seldom came about the house after that, and though when I saw her in the meadows was apparently not afraid, she yet refused to come at my call. Early the next spring a female sparrow hawk lighted on the roof of the barn, and at one time seemed to show signs of coming down to me, but evidently thought better of it, and flew off toward the north. Perhaps it was only a wild hawk; still, I prefer to think that she is still alive, and has escaped those who shoot hawks only to obtain the bounty offered for their scalps by the State.

While traveling in the Balearic Islands. M. Gaston Vuiller, passing through a gorge in Minorca, found the road barred by extemporized stone walls, tree trunks, and all sorts of loose obstacles, while the foliage above was hung "with colored ribbons and garlands of flowers and fruit, like the route of a triumphal procession." This was in preparation for a wedding festival, and in obedience to a custom of placing every possible obstacle in the way of brides and bridegrooms in order to remind them how difficult is the path to happiness, while the festoons above express the good wishes of the people. The proper attention for a lover on this island to pay his sweetheart is "to steal silently upon her from behind and suddenly to discharge his musket into the ground at her feet, and a well-brought-up girl never winces under the trial." Suitors announce their good feeling for the family by discharging a musket in the sitting room after spending the evening with them, but before saying "good night." If the "good night" has been said, the firing is held to signify a challenge to a rival.