Popular Science Monthly/Volume 55/September 1899/Hawk Lures


By W. E. CRAM.

IT is a pretty well known fact among hunters and students of Nature generally that most flesh-eating animals, whether in fur or feathers, can be more readily called by imitating the squeaking of mice than in any other way, and proves conclusively enough that these creatures depend largely on the sense of hearing in their struggle for a livelihood.

My first practical illustration of this fact occurred so long ago that it seems almost like ancient history.

For some reason or other one summer's vacation began some six hours earlier than was expected, and although apparently insignificant enough when compared with the entire three months that were to follow, that extra half holiday was probably valued out of all due proportion by the pupils, owing to its unexpectedness, and for that reason, perhaps, more than any other, is still recalled by one at least as distinctly as ever.

One of the boys had a contrivance known as a bird-call-—a simple instrument of wood and some soft metal—that, on being turned, produced noises that bore not the slightest resemblance to Mephistopheles. the cries of any bird, but were not entirely unlike the squeaking of a mouse in distress.

Some of us were more or less skeptical as to its powers of attracting birds, and decided to put it to the test. So we loafed about under the apple trees working the. thing for all it was worth, but no birds came about us, and the bird-call was in danger of being thrown away in disgrace, when a small brown beast appeared from under a pile of boards and came running toward us, till suddenly scenting danger it disappeared. There was some discussion at the time whether it was a rat, chipmunk, or red squirrel; none had seen it very clearly or could give any very definite description of it, but in all probability it was a weasel attracted by what it supposed to be the voice of its accustomed prey.

About halfway between that time and the present a young long-eared owl became an important member of our family, a most original and amusing bird, without the slightest fear of any of us. He was christened Mephistopheles.

As he was learning to fly, it seemed advisable that he should be taught to come at our call to be fed; and accordingly one day, by way of experiment, I held out a piece of meat to him and squeaked like a mouse. There was a rush of downy pinions, and his talons were neatly arranged about my lips. He was evidently a good deal excited, but was careful not to hurt me any more than was absolutely necessary in order to secure the mouse which he fancied he had cornered in my mouth. I was just reckless enough to try it again on the following day as he perched on the low branch of an apple tree. His power of detecting Northern Shrike. the direction whence the sound came proved fully equal to the occasion, and the result was the same as in the first instance. The end of Mephisto was tragic in the extreme. He was sometimes fastened by a linen cord six or eight feet long and as large as a lead pencil, which when not in use was hung across the perch where he slept. Evidently he felt that the food furnished him was too effeminate, for the powerful stomachs of all birds of prey require a certain amount of such indigestible matter as hair, feathers, or bone to keep them in good condition. So one ill-fated night, in looking about for something that would answer that purpose, he unfortunately hit upon the' cord as a substitute, and proceeded to swallow one end of it. The first few feet must have fully satisfied his cravings, but there was the rest to be disposed of, and the most feasible method that presented itself naturally was to go on swallowing. The thing must have grown extremely dry and distasteful as inch after inch disappeared, still there was nothing for it but to go on, which he did. In the morning he was strangely silent and gloomy, with hardly a foot of cord protruding from his beak. Any attempt on our part to remove the cord proved not only fruitless but painful, so it was cut off close to his beak, whereupon he swallowed what remained in his mouth and looked relieved. His meal proved too much for him, however, and he only lived a few days after it.

The different species of hawks vary greatly as regards the readiness with which they may be called—most of them, in fact, absolutely refusing to be lured in any way. As might be expected from its habits, the marsh hawk is the most susceptible, and in still weather may be brought from a distance of one hundred yards or more. At the first squeak he wheels about in the air and comes directly toward you with most unexpected impetuosity and swiftness. His discomposure on discovering the fraud is usually most amusing, as he stops short in mid air, with wings and legs asprawl, and turning his back on you, hurries off in feverish haste.

The red-tailed and red-shouldered hawks are also easily attracted in this manner, but the rough-legged hawks, although they live almost entirely on mice, are not so readily deceived, though this is undoubtedly owing more to their extreme wariness than to any dullness of hearing on their part.

None of the falcons or short-winged hawks pay the slightest attention to the most lifelike squeaking, so that evidently when they do deign to attack such ignoble quarry as a field mouse they depend more on their eyesight than on the sense of hearing. One still October day the red-tailed hawks were soaring and screaming above the pines beneath which I was hidden; by mimicking their cries I enticed one of them nearer and nearer, till at last he closed his wings and alighted bolt upright on a dead stump not fifty feet away. Changing my tactics, I endeavored to convince the hawk that a family quarrel was in progress among the mice in the thick clump of pines below him, and was rewarded by seeing him turn first one keen eye and then the other on my place of concealment; then he leaned forward and crouched catlike on his perch, half opening his broad wings and shifting his feet about in his impatience. But he evidently desired more positive evidence than his ears could give him before making the final dash for his breakfast. There was a slender dead branch beside me, and cautiously taking this, I shoved it slowly along under the carpet of pine needles out into the opening, as one sometimes amuses a kitten with a pencil beneath the tablecloth. The instant the hawk's eye caught the movement of the pine needles he descended with a whir almost to the point of seizing the stick in his claws; then, catching sight for the first time of the author of his disappointment, he rose flapping into the air, shrieking out his anger to the skies. If we had been more evenly matched in weight, I fear I should have suffered the most extreme punishment for my deceit.

The northern shrike is generally given the credit of living to a certain extent on mice, but the only evidence pointing in that direction that I have ever seen is that, like the mouse-eating hawks and owls, he comes quickly enough to the call; nor is there any need of concealment when dealing with this bird. He will come fearlessly within a few yards of you, hopping and flying from twig to twig, with his long tail continually moving up and down in his excitement, apparently impelled more by motives of curiosity than hunger.

But when it comes to calling up to you such shy creatures as the mink or fox the utmost caution is necessary, for although lacking the keenness of eyesight possessed by birds, the acuteness of their sense of smell and hearing is something marvelous; yet when conditions are favorable they may sometimes be brought quite close and studied to advantage.

Standing one day beside an old tumble-down rail fence that ran along between the woods and salt marshes, half hidden in the brambles and tall grass, I caught the merest glimpse of a mink slipping along between the bottom rails. As he was evidently unaware of my presence, I determined to see more of him, and squeaked in as mouselike a manner as possible, and quickly had the satisfaction of seeing him make his appearance on a projecting stake much nearer than when I had first seen him. Stretching himself along the stake, he appeared to listen and look in my direction, but although I was standing in plain sight on the edge of the marsh hardly a rod away, the fact that he was obliged to look directly into the sun made it quite impossible for him to clearly distinguish what he saw. At the end of a few moments he dropped into the grass and started in my direction, the trembling grass blades clearly indicating his progress as he approached nearer and nearer, until almost at my feet he vanished, and, in spite of the most patient waiting on my part, absolutely refused to show himself again.

The last instance of the kind that has come under my notice happened on a clear moonlight night as I was wheeling along a lonely road between old apple orchards. Some part of the machine squeaked at intervals in a way that might possibly have been mistaken for a mouse. At all events, an owl appeared to have been deceived thereby, for he came flapping out of the orchard and flew alongside, at times coming quite close and again swinging off into the shadow, till at last, convinced that his supper lay not in that direction, he put on fresh speed and left me far behind. Perhaps he would have done as he did if the bicycle had not squeaked, but, judging from his behavior, I am inclined to think otherwise.