Neltje Blanchan.

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

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Online LibraryNeltje BlanchanBirds that hunt and are hunted; life histories of one hundred and seventy birds of prey, game birds and water fowls → online text (page 26 of 29)
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any animal of similar size. In the West, where food is still
plenty, their bill of fare is quite varied. This, 1 am informed, in-
cludes, occasionally, young fawns of antelope and deer, but
more frequently small mammals of different kinds, as the yellow-
bellied marmot, prairie dogs, hares, wood rats, squirrels, and
smaller rodents, water fowl, from wild geese to the smaller
ducks and waders, grouse and sage fowl. On the extensive
sheep ranches they are said to be occasionally quite destructive
to young lambs." Several seemingly well authenticated cases
of the golden eagle carrying off very young children are recorded
in this country and Europe, but our authorities sneer at them.

Strangely enough, a pair of eagles, instead of being fiercely
aggressive, as one would suppose, when their nest is ap-
proached, are quite indifferent and will circle around at a great
height and watch the intruder with unimpassioned calm, or
else entirely disappear. Trees or rocky cliffs seem to be chosen
for nesting sites indiscriminately, the abundance of food in any
vicinity being their first consideration in the choice of a home.
Each pair of eagles have their fixed range of five or six miles, or
more, and become so attached to it only persistent persecution
will drive them away. Some nests are quite five feet in diam-
eter, and contain twigs, weeds, hay, cattle hair, and feathers
enough to fill a wagon ; others are no larger than a hen hawk's ;
nearly all are flat on top, with just enough depression to bring
the top of the egg on a level with the side. For a few days
before the eggs are laid, a pair of eagles will perch, side by side,
hours at a time, an attitude common to many birds of prey at
this tender season. Two or three dull white, roughly granu-
lated eggs, sometimes plain, more often blotched or speckled
with brown, appear at an interval of two or three days, or even
a week ; after four weeks of constant incubating by both par-


Kites, Hawks, Eagles, etc.

ents, the fluffy white brood appear; but, although they grow
rapidly, it is fully two months before they leave the eyrie. Just
as soon as they can fly and secure a living, the old birds cast
them off. They are three years in perfecting their plumage, it is
said, and they may live a century.

Bald Eagle

(Halicetus leucocephalus)


Length Male 30 to 33 inches; female 35 to 40 inches.

Male and Female Head, neck, and tail white ; after third year
rest of plumage dusky brown, the feathers paler on edges;
bill and feet yellow; legs bare of feathers. Immature birds
are almost black the first year ("black eagles "); the bases of
feathers white; bill black. Second year they are "gray
eagles " and are then actually larger than adults. The third
year, they come into possession of "bald" heads and white

Range North America, nesting throughout range.

Season Permanent resident.

Emblem of the republic, standing for freedom to enjoy life,
liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, it must be owned that our
national bird is a piratical parasite whenever he gets the chance.
"The majority of the Falconida? have an attractive physique and
superior strength as well as a haughty bearing," says Mr. Cham-
berlain. "They are handsome, stalwart ruffians, but they are
nothing more. They are neither the most intelligent nor most
enterprising of birds, nor the bravest. They are not even the
swiftest or most dexterous on the wing; and in bearing, proudly
as they carry themselves, are not supreme." With every pro-
vision of nature for noble deeds : keenest sight, superb strength,
hardihood, fully developed wings, it is seldom that the American
eagle obtains a bite to eat in a legitimate way, but almost
invariably by stratagem and plunder. Near the sea and other
large bodies of water he sits in majesty upon a cliff, or on the
naked limb of some tree commanding a wide view, and watches
the osprey a conspicuous sufferer and other water fowl course


Kites, Hawks, Eagles, etc.

patiently over the waves up and down the coast for a fish.
Instantly one is caught, down falls the eagle like Jove's thunder-
bolt from Mount Olympus, and as escape from so overpowering
a foe is impossible, the successful fisher quickly drops its prey, while
the eagle, dexterously catching it before it touches the water,
makes off to his eyrie among the clouds to enjoy it at leisure.
Dead fish cast up on the beach, carrion disgorged by intimidated
vultures, sea and shore birds (particularly in the South) are
devoured by this rapacious feeder. Ducks, geese, gulls, and
notably coots, that he condescends to catch himself, are favorite
morsels when fish fail. It is said wounded birds suit this
unsportsmanlike hunter best. These are picked clean of feathers
before the flesh is torn from their bones. In the interior young
domestic animals are carried off, but scientists raise their eye-
brows at tales of children being borne away by eagles ; yet it
would seem that some rare instances are well authenticated.
Audubon had an adult male in captivity that weighed only
fourteen and a half pounds, and although it ate enormously one
may grant that an uncaged bird might weigh twenty pounds ;
still a young child often exceeds that figure, and there is the
great resistance of the air to be overcome as well.

When the nesting season approaches, which in the south
begins in February and at the far north in May, the eagles may
be seen hunting in couples and soaring in great spirals with
majestic calm at a dizzy height. As they swoop earthward, the
tops of the trees over which they pass sway in the current of air
they create. These birds, like most of their class, remain mated
throughout their long life, but often quarrel at other seasons than
this, when one encroaches upon the prescribed territory where
the other is hunting. Now they are especially noisy : cac-cac-
cac screams the male, a sound too like a maniac's laugh to be
pleasant. The cry of the female is more harsh and broken,
sufficiently different for one well up in field practice to tell the sex
of the bird by its voice.

A tall pine tree near water is, of all nesting sites, the favorite.
Next to that a rocky ledge of some bold, inaccessible cliff, or that
failing too, the bulky cradle may be laid directly on the ground ;
but whatever site may be chosen, that forever remains home, a
shelter at all seasons, the dearest spot on earth. An immense
accumulation of sticks, sod, weeds, corn stalks, hay, pine tops,


Kites, Hawks, Eagles, etc.

moss, and other coarse materials make a flat structure four or
five feet in breadth and sometimes of even greater height after a
succession of annual repairs. While the two or three large,
rough, dull white eggs are being incubated by both mates, and
especially after the young appear, these eagles, unlike the golden
species, become truly magnificent in the fierce defence of their
treasures ; yet a rooster is easily a match for the cowardly eagle
at other times. Immense quantities of food must be carried to the
helpless young for the three or four months while they remain in
the nest, and for weeks after they learn to fly. Because imma-
ture birds reverse nature's order and are larger than adults, and
their plumage undergoes three changes before they appear at the
close of the third year in white heads and tails, some early
writers described the black eagle, Washington's eagle, and the
bald-headed eagle as three distinct birds, even Audubon and
Nuttall treating this one species as two. In whatever phase of
plumage, one may know our national bird by its unfeathered
tarsi. It is safe to say any eagle seen in the eastern United States
is the bald-head, which name, of course, does not indicate that
the bird is actually bald like the vultures, but simply hooded
with white feathers.

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 whit-
ish, 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.


Kites, Hawks, Eagles, etc.

The falconers of Europe divided birds employed in their sport
into two classes, those of falconry and those of hawking; the lat-
ter 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 marks-
manship 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, unsus-
pected 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. Follow-
ing the immense flocks of water-fowl in their migrations, the fal-
con 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.


Kites, Hawks, Eagles, etc.

The Pigeon Hawk (Falco columbarius), a much smaller fili-
buster 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 re-
sembles 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, particu-
larly 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 brown-
ish 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 ob-
long 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 diffi-
cult to get a glimpse at the plumage while it perches on a low
branch waiting for its prey to heave in sight.

American Sparrow Hawk

(Falco spar-verius)


Length 10 to 1 1 inches. Sexes the same size.

Male Top of head slaty blue, generally with a reddish spot on
crown, and several black patches on sides and nape; back
rufous, with a few black spots or none; wing coverts ashy
blue with or without black spots ; tail bright rufous, white

Kites, Hawks, Eagles, etc.

tipped, and with a broad black band below it, the outer
feathers white with black bars ; under parts white or buff,
sometimes spotted with black.

Female Back, wing coverts, and tail rufous with numerous black
bars; under parts plentifully streaked with dark brown.

Range Eastern North America, from Great Slave Lake to north-
ern South America. Nests from northern limits of range to
Florida; winters from New Jersey southward.

Season Summer resident in the northern United States and
Canada; March to October; winter or permanent resident
south of New Jersey.

Perched on a high dead limb, the crossbar of a telegraph
pole, a fence post, or some distended branch such a point of
vantage as a shrike would choose for similar reasons the beauti-
ful little sparrow hawk eagerly scans the field below for grass-
hoppers, mice, hair sparrows, and other small quarry to come
within range. The instant its prey is sighted, it launches itself
into the air, hovers over its victim, then drops like a stone,
seizes it in its talons, and flies back to its perch to feast. It
is amusing to watch it handle a grasshopper, very much as a
squirrel might eat a nut if he had but two legs. Or, becom-
ing dissatisfied with its hunting grounds, it will fly off over the
fields gracefully, swiftly, now pausing on quivering wings to
reconnoitre, now on again, past the thickets on the outskirts of
woods, through the orchard and about the farm, suddenly
arresting flight to pounce on its tiny prey. Its flight is not
protracted nor soaring. Never so hurried, so swift, or so fierce
as other small hawks, it is none the less active, and its charm-
ing hovering posture gives its flight a special grace. Kill-ee-
hill-ee-kill-ee it shrilly calls as it flies above the grass. Every
farmer's boy knows the voice of the killy hawk. Less shy of
men than others of its tribe, showing the familiarity of a robin
toward us, and it is certainly more social than most hawks, for
one frequently sees several little hunters on the same acre, espe-
cially around the bird roosts in the spring and autumn migrations.
The sparrow hawk would be a universal favorite were it not for
its rascality in devouring little birds. So long as there is a grass-
hopper or a meadow mouse to eat, it will let feathered prey alone;
but these failing, it is a past master in dropping like a thunderbolt
upon the tree sparrows, juncos, thrushes, and other small birds

Kites, Hawks, Eagles, etc.

found on the ground in thickets and the borders of woods. But
it does not eat the farmer's broilers: the little sharp-shinned and
the Cooper's hawk attend to them. However, the average farmer,
who confounds the sins of the former with the far slighter
offences of the sparrow hawk, shoots the bird that destroys
more enemies to his prosperity than he could guess. Of the
three hundred and twenty stomachs of the sparrow hawk ex-
amined by Mr. Fisher for the Department of Agriculture, two
hundred and fifteen contained grasshoppers or other large insects,
eighty-nine contained mice, and not one contained poultry.

Unlike other birds of prey, the sparrow hawk builds no nest,
but lays in the hollows of trees, crevices of rocks, or even about
outbuildings on a farm ; but a deserted woodpecker's hole is its
ideal home. Although this bird arrives from the south in March,
it does not nest until May, when from three to seven cream or
fawn-colored eggs, finely and evenly marked with reddish brown,
are carefully tended by both the mates that remain lovers for life.

American Osprey

(Pandion baliaetus carolinensis)

Called also: FISH HAWK

Length Male 2 feet, or a trifle less ; female larger.

Male and female Upper parts dusky brown, the feathers edged
with white as a bird grows old ; head and nape varied with
white and a dark stripe on side of head; under parts white;
the breast of male sometimes slightly, that of female always,
spotted with grayish brown; tail with six or eight obscure
dark bars. Bill blackish and with long hook; iris red or
yellow ; long, powerful feet, grayish blue.

Range North America from Hudson Bay and Alaska to northern
South America and the West Indies; nesting throughout its
North American range.

Season Summer resident, March to October, except in southern
part of range.

Is there a more exhilarating sight in the bird kingdom than
the plunge of the osprey ? From the height where it has been
circling and coursing above the water, it will quickly check itself
and hover for an instant at sight of a fish swimming near the


Kites, Hawks, Eagles, etc.

surface ; then, closing its great wings, it darts like a streak of
feathered lightning, and with unerring aim strikes the water with
a loud splash. Perhaps it will disappear below for a second
before it rises, scattering spray about it in its struggles to clear the
surface, and fly upward with its prey grasped in its powerful
talons. The fish is never carried tail end foremost; if caught so,
the hawk has been seen turning it about in mid air. Small fry
are usually eaten a-wing; larger game are borne off to a perch, to
be devoured at leisure ; and it is said that when an osprey strikes
its talons through the flesh of a fish too heavy to be lifted from
the water, the prey turns captor and drowns his tormentor,
whose claws reaching his vitals soon end his life, when bird and
fish, locked in a death grasp, are washed ashore. The osprey
rarely touches fish of value for the table; catfish, suckers, and
such prey as no one grudges it, form its staple food. It also eats
with relish dead fish lying on the beach.

The bald eagle, perched at a high point of vantage, takes
instant note of the successful fisher, and with a majestic swoop
arrives before the osprey has a chance to devour its prey. Now
a desperate chase begins if the intimidated bird has not already
relaxed its grasp of the prize; and pursuing the hawk higher and
higher, the eagle relentlessly torments it until it is glad to drop
the fish for the pirate to seize and bear away, leaving it temporary
peace. Again the industrious osprey secures a glistening, wrig-
gling victim; again the eagle pursues his unwilling purveyor.
After unmerciful persecution, a number of fish hawks will band
together and drive away the robber.

Birds of this order show strong affection for their life-long
mates and the young, and for an old nest that is often a true
home at all seasons, and to which they return year after year if
unmolested, simply repairing damages inflicted by winter storms.
The osprey also shows a marked preference for a certain perch to
which it carries its prey, and there it will sit sometimes for hours
at a time. The ground below is heavily strewn with bones,
scales, and other indigestible parts offish. An immense accumu-
lation of sticks, rushes, weed stalks, shredded bark, salt hay,
odds and ends gathered among the rubbish of seaside cottages,
feathers, and mud make old nests, with their annual additions,
bulky, conspicuous affairs in the tree tops. New nests are often
rather small, considering the size of the bird. Both mates incu-


Kites, Hawks, Eagles, etc.

bate the eggs, which are from two to four, extremely variable in
size and coloration, sometimes plain dull white, sometimes almost
wholly chocolate brown, but normally buff, heavily marked with
chocolate, especially around the larger end. Colonies of nesters
are frequently reported along our coasts, and instances of a pair
of grackles utilizing a corner of the osprey's ample cradle for
theirs are not rare. In four weeks or less after their eggs are laid,
the fish hawks are kept busy shredding food for their downy,
helpless young.



(Family Strigidce)

American Barn Owl

(Strix pratincola)

Length 15 to 1 8 inches: female the larger.

Male and Female Upper parts mottled gray and buff finely
speckled with black and white; heart-shaped facial disks
and under parts whitish or buff, the latter with small round
black spots; tail white or buff, mottled with black, and
sometimes with three or four narrow black bars like the
wings; eyes small, black; no horns; long, feathered legs;
long, pointed wings reaching beyond tail.

Range United States, rarely reaching Canada, south to Mexico,
nesting from New York state southward.

Season Permanent resident, except at northern limit of range.

The American counterpart of "wise Minerva's only fowl,"
known best by its startling scream, keeps its odd, triangular face,
its speckled and mottled downy feathers, and its body, that looks
more slender than it really is, owing to its long wings, well con-
cealed by day ; and so silently does it move about at night that
only in the moonlight can one hope for a passing glimpse as the
barn owl sails about on wide-spread, tapering wings, and with a
hawk-like movement, from tree to tree. "The face looks like
that of a toothless, hooked-nosed old woman, shrouded in a
closely fitting hood," says Mrs. Wright, "and has a half-simple,
half-sly expression that gives it a mysterious air." Periodically a
very old hoax is played on a credulous public by some newspaper
reporter who declares that in such a town, by such a man, a curi-
ous creature has just been caught, half-bird and half-monkey !

By day, all owls look sleepy and sad ; but at dusk, when rats

Barn Owls

and mice creep timidly forth, the barn owl, now thoroughly
awake, sallies from its hole and does greater execution before
morning than all the traps in town. Shrews, bats, frogs, grass-
hoppers, and beetles enlarge its bill of fare. A pair of these
mousers that had their nest in an old apple tree near a hayrick
that concealed the spectator, brought eight mice to their brood in
the hollow trunk in less than an hour.

The head of a mouse, the favorite tid-bit, is devoured first;
then follows the body, bolted whole if not too large. One foot
usually holds the smaller quarry; but a rat must be firmly grasped
with both feet, and torn apart before it is bolted. Since owls
swallow skin, bones, and all, these indigestible parts are afterward
ejected in pellets. Disturb the owls at their orgy, and they click
their bills and hiss in the most successful attempt they ever make
to be ferocious. They are not quarrelsome even among them-
selves when feeding, and the smallest songster can safely tease
them to a point that would goad a less amiable bird to rashness.
A querulous, quavering cry frequently repeated, k-r-r-r-r-r-r-ik,
suggesting the night jar's call, is sometimes more frequently heard
than the wild, peevish scream usually associated with this owl.

In spite of civilization's tempting offers, a hollow tree has
ever remained the favorite home of the barn owl, that nevertheless
deserves its name, for barns and other outbuildings on the farm,
steeples, and abandoned dove cots become equally dear to it once
they have sheltered a brood. A pair of these owls have nested for
years in one of the towers of the Smithsonian Institution ; many
eggs have been laid directly on roofs of dwellings ; some in mining
shafts ; others in deserted burrows of ground squirrels and other
rodents; in fact, all manner of queer sites are chosen. Strictly
speaking, the barn owl builds no nest, unless the accumulation of
decayed wood, disgorged bones of mice, etc., among which the

Online LibraryNeltje BlanchanBirds that hunt and are hunted; life histories of one hundred and seventy birds of prey, game birds and water fowls → online text (page 26 of 29)