Our Bird Neighbors – Duck Hawk

(Falco peregrinus anatum)


Length—Male, 16 inches ; female, 19 inches.

Male and Female—Upper parts dark bluish ash, the edges of feathers paler ; under parts varying from dull tawny to whitish, barred and spotted with black, except on throat and breast. A black patch on each cheek gives appearance of moustache. Wings stiff, long, thin, and pointed. Tail and upper coverts regularly barred with blackish and ashy gray. Bill bluish, toothed, notched ; the cere yellow. Talons long and black.

Range—North America at large. South to Chile. Nests locally throughout its United States range.

Season—Chiefly a winter visitor, but a perpetual rover.

The falconers of Europe divided birds employed in their sport into two classes, those of falconry and those of hawking; the latter class containing such ” ignoble ” birds as our goshawk, broad winged buzzard, the sparrow hawk, and those of their kin that dart upon their quarry by a side glance ; the true falcons being “noble ” birds, because they soar to heights unseen, and drop from a perpendicular like a thunderbolt on a selected victim. It was the European counterpart of our duck hawk that furnished royal sport in the Middle Ages.

American sportsmen best know how unerring is the marksmanship of this marauder. The teal, one of the swiftest travellers on wings, will be whistling its way above the sloughs, when, quicker than thought, its throat is seized by an unseen, unsuspected foe dropped from the clouds. It is choked to death even while both birds are falling to the ground ; and in less time than its takes to tell, the ” noble” falcon will have torn the feathers from the duck’s warm breast, and begun a bloody orgy. Only the fortunate duck attacked above water, into which it may plunge and swim below the surface, stands a reasonable chance of escape. Geese and the larger fowls may be stunned by the blow as the falcon falls upon them ; but not until the assassin, after repeated onslaughts, finally strangles its prey, does the plucky bird cease its heroic fight for life. Little birds are eaten entire, but the entrails of larger ones remain untouched. Following the immense flocks of water-fowl in their migrations, the falcon makes sad havoc among them. It is amazing how large a bird the villain can bear away with ease. Pigeons, Bob Whites, grouse, meadow larks, hares, and herons are conspicuous victims ; but even the courageous crow becomes a limp coward in the neighborhood of this most audacious, fleet-winged, strong-footed rascal. ” No bird is more daring,” says Mr. Chapman ; ” I have had duck hawks dart down to rob me of wounded snipe lying almost at my feet, nor did my ineffective shots prevent them from returning.” Ospreys often band together to wreak their vengeance on the eagle, but apparently the falcon pursues his bloody career unmolested. In his presence every bird quakes.

The nest, built on rocky cliffs or in the hollow limbs of tall trees, contains three or four creamy white or fawn colored eggs irregularly blotched, smeared, and streaked with brown and brownish red.

The Pigeon Hawk (Falco columbarius), a much smaller filibuster than the preceding, being a foot or less in length, bears some resemblance to it in habits. Without hesitation it will attack a bird of its own or greater size, strangle it, pluck it, and feast upon its breast. Following in the wake of migrant song birds, it keeps an interested eye on a weak or wounded robin, bobolink, or blackbird, to pounce upon it the instant it straggles behind the flock. In the air and when perching, it so closely resembles the passenger pigeon that it has not infrequently been mistaken and shot for one. The pigeon hawk is an equally rapid flyer, and, of course, far more dashing than that rather spiritless bird. As if to be avenged for the misdirected shots that kill its race instead of the pigeons, the hawk eats them whenever it has an opportunity. Open country and the edges of woods, particularly near water, are its favorite hunting grounds throughout a range extending over the whole of North America. As it nests chiefly north of the United States, and spends its winters south, even touching northern South America and the West Indies, it is as a spring and autumn migrant that we know the pigeon hawk here. Its upper parts vary between slaty blue and brownish gray, with a broken rusty or buff collar ; its primaries are barred with white ; the under parts are buff or pale fawn color, almost white on the throat ; the breast and sides have large oblong brown spots, and the tail has three or four grayish white bars and a white tip. As the bird is far from shy, it is not difficult to get a glimpse at the plumage while it perches on a low branch waiting for its prey to heave in sight.