Neltje Blanchan.

Birds that hunt and are hunted; life histories of one hundred and seventy birds of prey, game birds and water fowls online

. (page 24 of 29)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

live chiefly in the southern part of the United States. These
birds have head and neck bare of feathers or covered only with
down ; toes and tarsus bare likewise ; claws not much incurved
and not very sharp ; perfectly developed wings for continuous,
majestic flight; and strong digestive organs adapted to carrion,
since these birds are most active scavengers. Vultures are gre-
garious. They alone, among the birds of prey, feed their young
by disgorging food.

Turkey Vulture

Black Vulture

Kites, Hawks, Eagles

(Family Falconidce)

A loud, startling cry ; powerful legs and feet for striking at
prey; the hind fourth toe as long as the others, for grasping;

301



Birds of Prey

sharp, decurved nails or talons, indicate the extreme of ferocity
among the feathered tribes. Small mammals, reptiles, batra-
chians, and insects make up a far larger proportion of this
family's food than birds and poultry, although agriculturists
generally little appreciate its great service in protecting their
crops. Solitary birds of freedom, they hold themselves high
aloof from the world; nevertheless, eagerly vigilant, their won-
derfully acute eyes keep constantly alert for food. Flocks are
occasionally seen, but in the act of migrating only, for they are
not truly gregarious, like vultures. Some species remain mated for
life, and become strongly attached to a nesting site, where they
return year after year, a pair preempting an entire neighborhood.

Swallow-tailed Kite

Marsh Hawk or Harrier

Sharp-shinned Hawk

Cooper's Hawk

American Goshawk

Red-tailed Hawk

Red-shouldered Hawk

Swainson's Hawk

Broad-winged Hawk

Rough-legged Hawk

Golden Eagle

Bald Eagle

Duck Hawk

Pigeon Hawk

American Sparrow Hawk

American Osprey, or Fish Hawk

Barn Owls

(Family Strigidce)

A broad, triangular, facial disc ; a jagged edged middle toe
nail, and some peculiarities of bone structure, separate these
birds from the other owls. They have also very long, pointed
wings, reaching beyond the tail; soft, downy, speckled plum-
age; legs feathered to toes; extremely acute, long claws, and
comparatively small eyes among other outer characteristics; but
in habits they differ little from their kin.

American Barn, or Monkey-faced Owl
302



Birds of Prey

Horned and Hoot Owls

(Family Bubonidce)

Like the osprey in the hawk group, owls have a peculiarly
flexible, reversible hind toe; eyes not capable of being rolled but
set firmly in the sockets, necessitating the turning of the head to
see in different directions; feathered discs around the eyes;
loose, mottled plumage, some species with feathered ear tufts
(horns), others without; hooked beaks and muscular feet for
perching and for grasping prey : these are their chief charac-
teristics. Birds of the woodland, more rarely of grassy marshes
and plains, nearly all nocturnal in habits, since their food con-
sists mostly of small mammals that steal abroad at night to
destroy the farmer's crops, the owls are among the most val-
uable of birds to the agriculturist. Unless too large, the prey
is bolted entire the hair, claws, bones, etc., being afterward
ejected in matted pellets.

American Long-eared Owl

American Short-eared Owl

Barred or Hoot Owl

Saw-whet or Acadian Owl

Screech Owl

Great Horned Owl

Snowy Owl

American Hawk Owl

Burrowing Owl



303



AMERICAN VULTURES

(Family Cathartidce)

Turkey Vulture

(Cathartes aura)

Called also: TURKEY BUZZARD

Length ^o inches ; wing spread about 6 feet.

Male and Female Blackish brown ; wing coverts and linings
grayish ; head and neck naked and red, from livid crimson
to pale cinnamon, and usually with white specks ; base of
bill red, and end dead white; feet flesh colored. Head
of female covered with grayish brown, fur-like feathers.
Young darker than adults; bill and skin of head dark and
the latter downy. Nestlings of yellowish white.

Range Temperate North America, from Atlantic to Pacific,
rarely so far north as British Columbia; southward to Pata-
gonia and Falkland Islands. Casual in New England.

Season Permanent resident, except at extreme northern limit
of range.

Floating high in air, with never a perceptible movement of
its widespread wings, as it circles with majestic, unimpas-
sioned grace in a great spiral, this common buzzard of our
southern states suggests by its flight the very poetry of motion,
while its terrestrial habits of scavenger are surely the very prose
of existence. In the air the bird is unsurpassed for grace, as,
rising with the wind, with only the slightest motion of its great,
flexible, upturned wings, it sails around and around, for hours at a
time, at a height of two or three hundred feet; then descending in
a long sweep, rises again with the same calm, effortless soaring
that often carries it beyond our sight through the thin, summer
clouds. Humboldt recorded that not even the condor reaches
greater heights beyond the summits of the Andes than this
buzzard, which often joins its South American relative in its

34



Vultures

dizzy sport. Since the buzzard is gregarious, there are usually
a dozen great birds amusing themselves by wheeling through
space in pursuit of pleasure, and abandoning themselves to the
amusement with tireless ecstasy. Is it not probable that so
much exercise is taken to help digest the enormous amount of
carrion bolted ? For this reason, it is thought, the wood ibis soars
and gyrates.

Other birds have utilitarian motives for keeping in the
air; several of the hawks, for example, do indeed sail about in a
similar graceful spiral flight, notably the red-tailed species, but
a sudden swoop or dive proves that its slow gyrations were
made with an eye directly fastened on a dinner. The crow
soars to fight the hawk that carries off its young; the king-
bird dashes upward to pursue the crow ; but, amidst the quarrels
and cruelties of other birds, the turkey buzzard sails serenely
on its way, molested by none, since it attacks none, and
makes no enemies, feeding as it does, for the most part, on
carrion that none grudge it. The youngest chickens in the
barnyard show no alarm when a turkey buzzard alights in their
midst. They know that no more harmless creature exists.
It is the most common bird in the South, being protected
there by law in consideration of its service to the cities' street
cleaning departments, which, in some places where Colonel
Waring's methods are unheard of, it constitutes in the main.
Every field has its buzzards soaring overhead and casting
their shadows, like clouds, on the grain below. Depending
on their services, the farmers allow the dead horse, or pig, or
chicken to lie where it drops, for the vultures to peck at until
the bones are as clean as if purified by an antiseptic. Fresh
meat has no attractions for them; their preference is for flesh
sufficiently foetid to aid their sight in searching for food, and on
such they will gorge until often unable to rise from the ground.
When disturbed in the act of overhauling a rubbish heap in the
environs of the city, for the bits of garbage that no goat would
touch, they express displeasure at a greedy rival by blowing
through the nose, making a low, hissing sound or grunt, the
only noise they ever utter, and by lifting their wings in a threat-
ening attitude. With both beak and claws capable of inflicting
painful injury, the buzzard resorts to the loathsome trick of
disgorging the foul contents of its stomach on an intruder.

35



Vultures

This automatic performance is practised even by the youngest
fledglings when disturbed in the nest. It certainly is a most ef-
fective protection. Petrels also practise it, but not so commonly.

The turkey buzzard shows a decided preference for warm
latitudes, never nesting farther north than New Jersey on the
Atlantic coast, though, strangely enough, it has penetrated into
the interior so far as British Columbia. Lewis and Clarke met it
about the falls of the Oregon, and it is still not uncommon on
the Pacific slope. Nevertheless, it is about the shambles of
towns in the West Indies and other hot countries that the buz-
zard finds life the pleasantest It has the tropical vice of laziness,
so closely allied to cowardliness, and lives where there is the
least possible necessity for exercising the stronger virtues. Our
soldiers in the war with Spain tell of the final touch of horror
given to the Cuban battle-fields where their wounded and dead
comrades fell, by the gruesome vultures that often were the first
to detect a corpse lying unseen among the tall grass.

As night approaches, one buzzard after another flies toward
favorite perches in the trees, preferably dead ones, and settles,
with much flapping of wings, on the middle branches ;
then stretching its body and walking along the roost like
a turkey, until it arrives at the chosen spot, it hisses or
grunts through its nostrils at the next arrival, whose additional
weight frequently snaps the dead branch and compels a number
of the great birds to repeat the prolonged process of settling to
sleep.\ But, very frequently, the traveller in the South notices
buzzards perched, like dark spectres, on the chimneys of houses,
at night, especially in winter, in order to warm their sensitive
bodies by the rising smoke, and/after a rain, they often spread
their wings over the flues to dry their water-soaked feathers.
(Ehis spread-eagle attitude is also taken, anywhere the bird hap-
pens to be, when the sun comes out after a drenching shower^}

Without exerting themselves to form a nest, the buzzards
seek out a secluded swamp, palmetto "scrub," sycamore
grove, or steep and sunny hillside, and deposit from one to
three eggs, usually two, in the cavity of a stump, or lay them
directly on the ground, under a bush, or on a rock any-
where, in fact, that necessity urges. Rotten wood is a favorite
receptacle, but the angular bricks of ruined chimneys are not
disdained. The eggs are of a dull yellowish white, irregularly

306



Vultures

blotched with chocolate brown markings, chiefly at the larger
end. Very rarely eggs are found without these markings.
Laying aside, for a time, his slothful ways, the male carefully
attends his sitting mate. As a colony of buzzards, when nest-
ing, indulges its offensive defensive action most relentlessly,
few, except scientists, care to make a close study of the birds'
nesting habits.

Black Vulture

(Catharista atrata)

Called also: CARRION CROW

Length About 24 inches. Wing spread over four feet.

Male and Female Dull black ; under part of point of wings

silvery gray ; head, neck, and base of bill dusky ; tip of bill

and feet flesh colored or grayish ; head and neck bare.
Range Common in South Atlantic and Gulf states, through

Mexico to South America. Occasional in Western states.

Rare north of Ohio.
Season Permanent resident.

With a heavier, more thickset body than the turkey buz-
zard's and shorter wings, this very common "carrion crow"
may be identified in mid-air by its comparative lack of grace in
flight, its frequent wing flapping, and its smaller size, which is
more apparent than real, however, since its stocky build offsets
its narrower wing-spread. Five or six quick, vigorous flaps of
the wings send the bird sailing off horizontally ; another series
of wing flappings carries it up higher for another sail ; but the
flight is heavy and labored when compared with the majestic
spiral floating of the buzzard, and it lacks the fascination that
characterizes that other vulture's motion. Seen on the ground,
the dusky head of the carrion crow is alone sufficient to differen-
tiate it from the red-headed buzzard. It is also black instead of
brown ; and its tail is short and rounded.

A more southerly range and a decided preference for the sea-
coast, and for the habitations of men, again distinguish it; but in
nesting and other habits than those noted these two vultures are
almost identical. From North Carolina southward, every city
and village contains a horde of these dusky scavengers, walking

307



Vultures

about the streets as familiarly as chickens to pick up the scraps
of food that so quickly become putrid in a warm climate ; or,
perched upon the chimney tops, drying and warming their grim,
spectre-like bodies. Every market place is haunted by them
more persistently than by the turkey buzzard ; for the carrion
crows will be walked on by the crowd rather than leave the
refuse of the butcher's stalls. One bird in Charleston, S. C, has
visited a certain butcher regularly for twenty years. While both
species are cowards, it is the black vulture that invariably secures
the tidbit in the refuse heap from under the very beak of the
turkey buzzard that stands in ridiculous awe of its heavy weight.
But it is only at feeding time that these two vultures associate.
The black vulture is decidedly the more gregarious. A carcass
of horse or hog will sometimes be entirely concealed under an
animate mass of these sable scavengers, perhaps two hundred or
more fiercely clawing at the loathsome food. They gave the
final touch of horror to the scene after the destruction of the
Spanish fleet at Santiago when the sailors were washed ashore,
and to the battlefields where our own dead soldiers lay. One of
the Rough Riders who had shown magnificent courage in the
presence of the enemy, went into violent hysterics at the sight
of the vultures hovering over his fallen friends in the underbrush
about Baiquiri.



308



KITES, HAWKS, EAGLES, ETC.

(Family Falconidce)

Swallow-tailed Kite

(Elanoides forficatus)

Called also: FORK-TAILED KITE; SNAKE HAWK.

Length About 24 inches, or according to development of tail.
Wing spread about 4 feet.

Male and Female Head, neck, under parts, including wing
linings, band across lower back, snow white ; rest of plum-
age glossy black, showing violet and green reflections. Bill
bluish black; feet and very short legs, light. Tail 14 inches
long and cleft like a swallow's for half its length.

Range United States, especially in the interior, from Pennsyl-
vania and the great plains southward to Central and South
America. Casual in New England, Minnesota, Manitoba,
and Assiniboia; nesting irregularly throughout its range ;
winters chiefly south of United States.

Season Summer resident. April to October.

Not excepting even the turkey vulture, the tern or the
swallow, no bird moves through the sky with more exquisite
grace and buoyancy than this beautiful black and white, sharp
winged kite, whose motion combines the special fascinations
of each of its three close rivals. Soaring upward, buzzard
fashion, until it sometimes fades from sight, or floating like it on
motionless pinions; now swooping with the dash of a tern and
catching itself suddenly just above the earth to skim along the
surface like a swallow ; swaying its trim body with a cut of the
wing and the lashing of its long forked tail, it pauses neither for
rest nor food, but apparently spends every waking moment in the
air. It is supposed it even sleeps while it floats, so little con-
scious effort is evident in its flight ; and it feeds a-wing by tear-
ing off bits of the snake, or other prey, firmly grasped in its
small feet. This has been seized while passing and without

39



Kites, Hawks, Eagles, etc.

pause. In this way too the bird takes a drink. Because they
are so little used for walking, for one almost never sees this kite
on the ground, its legs are very short and all but invisible.

Most abundant in the western division of the Gulf states and
above the great plains, the numbers of this bird let it be
recorded nowhere seem to have diminished, since it feeds almost
exclusively on snakes, lizards, and the larger insects such as
locusts, crickets, and grasshoppers, and never on other birds.
Even, the dullest mind recognizes it as harmless and beneficent.
Naturally a bird so little persecuted shows no great fear of man.
Its shrill, penetrating wee-wee-wee has been uttered in the very
ears of a picnic party within sight of a huge hotel in Minnesota.

But when the nesting season arrives, these kites seek out
uninhabited, inaccessible regions where it is well worth while to
follow them, however, since their flight, always charming, dash-
ing, and elegant, now assumes matchless perfection impossible
to describe. Even their wooing is done on the wing. Several
pairs may build in a neighborhood, which is usually a dense wood
near water that attracts their prey within easy reach ; and at the
top of some tall, straight tree, anywhere from sixty to one hundred
and forty feet from the ground, an irregular nest of large loose
twigs, lined or unlined with moss, may likely as not rise from the
foundations of one used the previous year. From two to four white
eggs, boldly spotted or blotched with different shades of brown,
are laid any time from April to June, according to the latitude. It is
thought both kites take turns at the incubating, which is closely
attended to ; or at least the male is particularly devoted to his
sitting mate, always being seen near by. In leaving the nest a
bird rises upward suddenly as if sent up by a spring, instead of
flying sidewise as most birds do; and in alighting it first poises
itself directly above the eggs, then descends on apparently
motionless wings so softly and lightly the large body might be
a single feather dropping from the sky.



310



Kites, Hawks, Eagles, etc.

Marsh Hawk

(Circus Hudsonius)

Called also: MARSH HARRIER: BLUE HAWK; MOUSE
HAWK

Length Male 19 inches; female 22 inches.

Mate Upper parts gray or bluish ash, washed with brownish ;
upper tail coverts pure white; silver gray tail feathers with
five or six dusky bars, the outer primaries darkest; upper
breast pearl gray, shading into white underneath, where
the plumage is sparsely spotted with rufous. Hooked bill,
and feet black.

Female and Young Upper parts dark amber ; the head and neck
streaked, other parts margined or spotted with reddish
brown; upper tail coverts white; middle tail feathers
barred with gray and black, others barred with pale yellow
and black. Under parts rusty buff, widely streaked on
breast and more narrowly underneath with dusky. The
younger the bird the heavier its blackish and rufous colora-
tion, many phases of plumage being shown before emerging
into the gray and white adult males.

Range North America in general, to Panama and Cuba; nests
throughout North American range; winters in southern
half of it.

Season Summer resident at northern half of range.

Close along the ground skims the marsh hawk, since field
mice and other small mammals, frogs, and the larger insects
that hide among the grass are what it is ever seeking as it
swerves this way and that, turns, goes over its course, "quar-
tering " the ground like a well trained dog on the scent of a
hare the peculiarity of flight that has earned it the hare-hound
or harrier's name. A few easy strokes in succession, then a
graceful sail on motionless wings, make its flight appear leis-
urely, even slow and spiritless, as compared with the impetuous
dash of a hawk that pursues feathered game; hence this is counted
an "ignoble" hawk in the scornful eyes of falconers used to the
noble sport of hawking. Open stretches of country, wide
fields, salt and fresh water marshes, ponds, and the banks of
small streams, whose sides are not thickly wooded, since trees
simply impede this low flier's progress, are its favorite hunting
grounds ; and it will sometimes alight on a low stump, or in the

3"



Kites, Hawks, Eagles, etc.

grass itself, for it is a low percher too. Because its quarry is
humble, and farmers, on the whole, appreciate its service in de-
stroying meadow mice, crickets, grasshoppers, and other pests,
this bird suffers comparatively little persecution, and still remains
one of the most widely distributed and common of its tribe.
That it occasionally preys upon small birds, when other food
fails, cannot be denied; but nearly one-half of all the stomachs
examined by Mr. Fisher, for the Department of Agriculture, con-
tained mice.

In the nesting season especially, the harrier belies that
name, but, proving his title to Circus, his Latin one, wheels
round and round and floats high above the earth, describing some
beautiful evolutions as he goes, that are calculated simply to
stimulate afresh the ardor of his well beloved, since evidence
strongly points to a life partnership between the mates. Soaring
in the sky, suddenly he falls, turning several somersaults in the
descent. "At other times," says Mr. Ernest Seton Thompson, " he
flies across the marsh in a course which would outline a gigantic
saw, each of the descending parts being done in a somersault,
and accompanied by screeching notes which form the only love
song within the range of his limited powers." All hawks have
a screaming, harsh cry, not distinctly different in the different
species to serve as a clew to identity except to those well up in
field practice; but the white lower back of the harrier, its long
tail, and its terrestrial habits serve to identify it in any phase of
plumage. Owing to its long wings, it appears much larger in
the air than on the ground. Four to six dull or bluish white eggs,
unmarked, are laid in May, in a nest built of twigs, hay, and
weeds, on the ground ; yet the clumsy affair was the joint effort
of the mates, that also take turns in sitting and in feeding the
young.

Sharp-shinned Hawk

( Accipiter velox)

Called also: PIGEON HAWK; LITTLE BLUE DARTER

Length Male 10 to 12 inches; female 12 to 14 inches.
Male and Female Upper parts slaty gray. Tail, which is about 3
inches longer than tips of wings and nearly square, is ashy
312



Kites, Hawks, Eagles, etc.

gray, barred with blackish, and with a whitish tip; throat
white, streaked with blackish. Other under parts whitish,
barred on sides and breast with rusty, buff, and brown,
lining of wings white, spotted with dusky; head small;
tarsus slender and feathered half way ; feet slender. Imma-
ture birds have dusky upper parts, margined with rufous ;
tail resembling adults'. Under parts buff or whitish, streaked
or spotted with rusty or blackish.

Range North America in general; nesting throughout the United

States and wintering from Massachusetts to Guatemala.
Season Permanent resident, except at northern parts of range.

A smaller edition of Cooper's hawk (to be distinguished
from it chiefly by its square, instead of rounded, tail), like it,
dashes through the air with a speed and audacity that spread
consternation among the little song and game birds and poultry,
once it appears, like a flash of "feathered lightning," in their
midst. Cries of terror from many sympathizers when a spar-
row, a goldfinch, a warbler, or some tiny victim is making
desperate efforts to escape, first attract one's notice; but of what
avail are the stones hurled after a hawk that swoops and dodges,
twists and turns, in imitation of every movement of the panic
stricken bird he presses after, closer and closer, until, at the end
of a long chase, when it is exhausted and almost worried to
death, he strikes it with talons so sharp and long that they
penetrate to the very vitals ? Now alighting on the ground,
he rends the warm flesh from its bones with a beak as savage as
the talons. If the little bird had but known enough to remain
in the thicket! A race for life in the open seems to give the
pursuing villain a fiendish satisfaction: let his little prey but
dash toward the woods, where he knows as well as it does that
it is safe, and one fell swoop cuts the journey short. There can
be little said in praise of a marauder that boldly enters the
poultry yard and devours dozens of chicks, attacks and worsts
game birds quite as large as itself, and that eats very few mice
and insects and an overwhelming proportion of birds of the
greatest value and charm. The so called "hen-hawks" and
"chicken-hawks" much slandered birds do not begin to be
so destructive as this little reprobate that, like its larger proto-
type and the equally villainous goshawk, too often escape the
charge of shot they so richly deserve.

313



Kites, Hawks, Eagles, etc.

Unhappily, the sharp-shinned hawk is one of the most
abundant species we have. Doubtless because it is small and
looks inoffensive enough, as it soars in narrow circles overhead,
its worse than useless life is often spared.

Cac, cac, cac, very much like one of the flicker's calls, is
this hawk's love song apparently, for it seldom, if ever, lifts its
voice, except at the nesting season. Now it seeks the woods to