IT would be quite safe to assert that hardly more than one bird-lover in a hundred– or maybe in a thousand knows much from personal experience about the ” raptores,” or birds of prey, the hawks, eagles, owls, and vultures. Most of them are shy and retiring, resorting to the wildest and most inaccessible places in the general region where they live. The owls are nocturnal and generally hide away by day, so that, as a class, they are very hard to find. Owing to the difficulties in the way of knowing them, they have a sort of social exclusiveness, receiving only the insistent to terms of intimacy. The test of fitness for their society, however, is not one of descent or property, but of activity and enthusiasm. Knowledge of the hawks and owls is a pretty good indorsement of advanced standing in practical ornithology. The pursuit of them is so fascinating and success in it so exciting and gratifying that I especially commend them to the vigorous and active youth, and so am devoting a separate chapter to tell more in detail how to find and know them.
It is a common sight to see hawks soaring high up in the air or flying rapidly across the open country toward the woods, but usually so far away that it seems hopeless to the beginners’ to distinguish them.. Yet most of them can be recognized in an instant, even at quite long range, especially with the aid of the field-glass. In Eastern districts there are two large kinds commonly called ” hen-hawks,” the red-tailed and red-shouldered hawks. The former is a little more heavily built and has whitish underparts with a few darker markings on the breast; in the adult phase the upper side of the tail is of a uniform chestnut-red color, which can be detected as the bird wheels in the air and the sunlight strikes it. The red-shoulder, besides having a slight rufous color on the ” shoulder ” of the wing, has the under-parts of a much darker hue than the red-tail, brownish and heavily marked, and the tail banded with alternate black and white. The immature red-tail has a banded tail, but with fewer bands, and its light under-parts are characteristic. Both these species’ soar and, circle a good deal in flight, and are also seen perching motionless on isolated trees, especially the red-tail.
Another hawk with almost equal spread of wings but of more slender build is the marsh hawk, distinguished by the conspicuous white spot on the rump. This variety generally flies rather low, quartering over swampy land. In winter another large hawk with white on the rump is occasionally seen about open land, the American rough-legged hawk, a sluggish bird, as large as the red-tail, feathered to the toes. The osprey, or fish hawk, has white underparts and long narrow wings which generally are held with a sharp bend.
Of the medium-sized or smaller hawks there are two that are especially common, and quite similar,–the Cooper’s and the sharp-shinned hawks. They are closely related, and are characterized by the long tail, short wings, and a flight by quick flappings, with very short intervals of sailing. They can readily be distinguished by size; the sharp-shin is notably smaller, not much bigger than a robin.
Taking these common hawks as a basis, learn to distinguish them from certain others. One species about the size of Cooper’s is the broad-winged hawk.
In coloration these two are a good. deal alike, but the broad-wing is a sort of miniature red-shoulder in form and movement. It has a short banded tail, slower wing-beats, and soars and circles like its larger relative. The duck hawk is about this size, a very dark bird with sharp wings and quick, incisive flight, but is so rare that most students will never see it. The goshawk is built like the Cooper’s, but is notice-ably larger, the adult having beautifully pencilled gray under-parts.
Then there are smaller hawks to distinguish from the sharp-shin. The pigeon hawk or falcon is a spring and fall migrant to and from Canada, a dark-colored bird, a sort of miniature duck hawk in general appearance. The other little fellow is the sparrow hawk, distinguished by its reddish back, a frequenter of open farm-lands.
Westward one finds the Swainson’s hawk, a big bird, like the red-tail except that the tail has no red and is banded, and also the large ferruginous rough leg, distinguished by its white tail. In the South there are several interesting species called kites. These are the principal hawks that the beginner is liable to meet.
Eagles are also hawks, strictly speaking. The golden eagle is so rare that the bald eagle, the bird of our national emblem, is the only species which one can expect to meet. The immature eagles are a dark brown, almost blackish, all over, the white head and tail not being acquired at first. The eagle is so much larger than any hawk that no one could fail to recognize it, unless in the distance they should confound the immature eagle and the buzzards or vultures, which, of course, have the bare skinny head and neck. Their soaring, though, is quite after the manner of the eagle. In the Middle States, and now and then in southern New England, the turkey buzzard is found, and farther south the other species, the black buzzard, a more heavily-built bird with a rather in-distinct whitish patch on the wing.
The principal large owl is the great horned owl, with large ear-tufts and yellow iris. Another species, a trifle smaller, is the barred owl, which lacks ear-tufts and has black eyes. Even when not seen they can be distinguished by their hootings; the former usually has three notes in its ” song,” while the barred owl launches out in a more elaborate effort. In winter the white snowy owl from the Arctic sometimes makes us a visit, more often along the coast, and fortunate is the student who meets with it. In all my travels I have run across but one.
Of medium-sized owls there are two which we may encounter almost anywhere in Northern and Middle districts, the long-eared and short-eared owls. The former has ear-tufts and is a bird of dense woods and swamps, the latter is a frequenter of open meadow, marsh, or sea-shore, and practically lacks ear-tufts. The barn owl, with the ” monkey-face ” and white breast, is found in Middle and Southern latitudes, hiding by day in old buildings or hollow trees.
The common little owl is the screech owl, with ear-tufts, found frequently about houses and orchards. There is also the saw-whet owl, very tiny, with no ear-tufts, a bird of the deep woods and rather rare. Well to the north are found the great gray, the Richardson’s and the hawk owls, and on the prairies of the West and of interior Florida the quaint burrowing owl.
By far the best way to really know these birds is to find their nests and thus be able to study their home-life. They are nearly all early breeders. The great horned owl is first, beginning in Middle and Northern districts by the first of March. The barred owl usually follows suit about the first of April, often by March twentieth. Very early April is the time for the red-tailed hawk, soon followed by the red-shouldered hawk and the long-eared, screech, and saw-whet owls. About May tenth is the time for Cooper’s, marsh, broad-winged, fish, and sparrow hawks, and a week or two later the sharp-shin brings up the rear.
Most of the hawks nest in tall trees in the woods, building a rather rude platform of sticks in a main crotch, or taking and repairing some old nest of crow, squirrel, or another hawk. The exceptions are the sparrow hawk, which lays in a hollow tree on or bordering open land, and the marsh hawk which builds a rude nest on the ground in a swamp. Most of the owls use hollow trees or other cavities, but the great horned and barred owls are just as apt to appreciate an old open nest of hawk, squirrel, or crow, though they often use hollows. The long-eared owl habitually uses an open nest in the woods, and the short-eared nests on the ground in a swampy place, among grass and weeds, or under a bush.
The special hunt for the nests of hawks and owls is a fascinating piece of work. In preparation for it, a good plan is to previously explore the woodland tracts throughout the section of country to be investigated, during the preceding autumn and winter. The nests are large and conspicuous, and are frequently used again and again, either by the same bird each year, or by different pairs of raptorial birds, or else a pair occupies each of several nests in rotation year by year. If an old nest is not reoccupied, an-other may be built near it. Most of the species are inclined each season to return to the same tract of woods. Sometimes they alternate between different adjoining tracts of timber, but where they have nested once they are apt to do so again, certainly within several years. Moreover the woods which suit one pair are apt to be congenial to others for the same reason, so each selected tract is liable to continue productive, if the birds are not killed off.
It is well to inquire of residents as to where hawks or owls have been seen or heard, as well as to direct one’s own eyes and ears toward the same end. Where they are repeatedly heard or seen, there they will probably nest, or are so doing. Sometimes from open fields, with my glass, I have watched the wooded ranges of the adjacent hills and seen hawks fly right to their nests. All nests, even of the late-breeding sharp-shin, are built before the leaves are out, which is, of course, the time to find them. There is all the difference in the world between leafless woodland with its open vistas, and the same when it is dense and dark with foliage, so get at the work early.
The main prerequisite of success, then, is to know the country thoroughly, where every bit of large timber is, even small patches of it, and on the final hunt to go through it systematically. One can do better, ordinarily, in a region where there are few or no large continuous areas of forest, but where the old, tall timber is in scattered groves. This restricts the area over which the nests might be scattered.
Time can be saved by driving or riding from one such tract to another, thus covering many miles in a day.
In good woods there will be seen many old nests, any one of which is liable to be occupied. Most of them are up tall trees, and it will not pay to try to climb to each one. When a nest is seen, watch it carefully on approaching, to see if a bird should fly from it, as they sometimes do at first sight of the intruder. Individuals, even of the same species, vary much in this regard. Some will leave when one is a gunshot off; others can hardly be driven off by pounding the base of the tree. Some return to scold, while others never show themselves again. So hunt quietly. If no bird flies off, pound the tree with a club, and watch not only this nest, but any others near.
Some birds go at the first blow, others, especially in cold or wet weather, refuse to budge. The long-eared owl is apt to do this, which makes this nest a hard one to find. One great horned owl whose nest I found would not leave, early in the season, for any amount of pounding. When the young grow large, most raptorial birds tend to become much shyer, though some are bold enough to swoop at an intruder, though they rarely strike. But another horned owl, even in early March, would leave the nest before I came within gunshot. There is no uniform rule, and it is always interesting to see just how the birds will act.
In case the bird should happen to be temporarily absent from an occupied nest, as is often the case, especially before incubation has begun, one should know how to examine the nest itself for signs. One of the best signs is when downy feathers cling to the nest. If these are light-colored because freshly broken, one can see that something is doing. The sticks of a new nest stand up crisp and strong, whereas in an old one they are apt to be rotted down and sodden together. Birds of prey do not use dead leaves in building, as do squirrels, yet some will build a platform of sticks on top of an old squirrel’s nest, so one must look sharp in every case for possible signs.
It is very desirable to use the field-glass to see these details clearly, which are not easy to detect unaided in a Iofty tree, especially a thick evergreen. The sharp-shin prefers an evergreen, but the other species will use a deciduous tree just about as readily, though preference differs in different localities.
The finding of the nests of hawks and owls gives the very best sort of an opportunity to study them, and particularly to secure photographs. One can also learn a great deal about the habits of these wary, secretive birds, few of which are known adequately and intimately. To illustrate, let me tell a story. I pitched my umbrella-tent a little way from a tree in a hemlock wood, on which, thirty-five feet from the ground, was the nest of a sharp-shinned hawk. Only one of the eggs had hatched, and the youngster, nearly ready to fly, was hungry enough for a whole family. I had a camera rigged up near the nest, and was in hiding for hours, on several occasions.
Now and then one of the old birds would bring a small bird to the youngster, all plucked, which he would tear up and gulp down in short order. At one time a family party of red-eyed vireos were feeding in the foliage close around the tent, calling to each other rather noisily. Suddenly I heard a violent rush of air, and the sharp-shin, almost striking the tent, seized a vireo, and perched with it close by. I could hear the dying wails of the poor victim, as the hawk began to pluck it. This process took some five minutes, during which time the young hawk was nearly frantic, jumping about the nest, stretching its neck, whining and begging. Then the old one flew up on the nest, delivered the morsel, and stood upright and still, watching her young hopeful struggling to rend the quarry. At this juncture I pulled the thread connecting with the camera and secured a picture.
Acquaintance with the raptorial birds in nesting-time will give a basis for recognizing them when they are met at other times of the year. In autumn a great many of them are passing south, even at times in flocks, straggling along in open country, following water-courses or ranges of hills. When we are quietly prowling about in the woods, a hawk may suddenly dash in near by and give a chance to examine it before we are detected and the bird has flown. We may watch them as they circle in the air, or descend upon their prey.
The poultry-yard affords some episodes in hawk or owl story, but it is unfair to attribute depredations to all kinds of hawks. The Cooper’s and sharp shinned hawks and the great horned owl are the worst transgressors, also the rare goshawk when it is with us. The so-called hen-hawks only occasionally attack poultry, generally in winter when other food is scarce.
Most of the hawks migrate south for the winter, though a few individuals of all kinds sometimes remain to brave the cold. The red-tail is usually the commonest resident hawk in winter. The owls are somewhat more stationary, though they migrate to some extent, as is shown by the appearance of the snowy and other boreal owls.
This class of birds may be hard to find and know, yet there is for this very reason a romantic interest attaching to them. To know them well is a mark of a keen, active, successful practical ornithologist. Who then will go out in the forest and the cold and master the hawks and owls?