Birds of America
By John James Audubon, F. R. SS. L. & E.
THE GREAT-FOOTED HAWK.
[Peregrine Falcon. ENDANGERED. ]
FALCO PEREGRINUS, Gmel.
PLATE XX.--MALE AND FEMALE.
The French and Spaniards of Louisiana have designated all the species of
the genus Falco by the name of "Mangeurs de Poulets;" and the farmers in other
portions of the Union have bestowed upon them, according to their size, the
appellations of "Hen Hawk," "Chicken Hawk," "Pigeon Hawk," &c. This mode of
naming these rapacious birds is doubtless natural enough, but it displays little
knowledge of the characteristic manners of the species. No bird can better
illustrate the frequent inaccuracy of the names bestowed by ignorant persons
than the present, of which, on referring to the plate, you will see a pair
enjoying themselves over a brace of ducks of different species. Very likely,
were tame ducks as plentiful on the plantations in our States, as wild ducks are
on our rivers, lakes and estuaries, these Hawks might have been named by some of
our settlers "Mangeurs de Canards."
Look at these two pirates eating their dejeune a la fourchette, as it were,
congratulating each other on the savouriness of the food in their grasp. One
might think them epicures, but they are in fact gluttons. The male has obtained
possession of a Green-winged Teal, while his mate has procured a Gadwal Duck.
Their appetites are equal to their reckless daring, and they well deserve the
name of "Pirates," which I have above bestowed upon them.
The Great-footed Hawk, or Peregrine Falcon, is now frequently to be met
with in the United States, but within my remembrance it was a very scarce
species in America. I can well recollect the time when, if I shot one or two
individuals of the species in the course of a whole winter, I thought myself a
fortunate mortal; whereas of late years I have shot two in one day, and perhaps
a dozen in the course of a winter. It is quite impossible for me to account for
this increase in their number, the more so that our plantations have equally
increased, and we have now three gunners for every one that existed twenty years
ago, and all of them ready to destroy a Hawk of any kind whenever an occasion
The flight of this bird is of astonishing rapidity. It is scarcely ever
seen sailing, unless after being disappointed in its attempt to secure the prey
which it has been pursuing, and even at such times it merely rises with a broad
spiral circuit, to attain a sufficient elevation to enable it to reconnoitre a
certain space below. It then emits a cry much resembling that of the Sparrrow
Hawk, but greatly louder, like that of the European Kestrel, and flies off
swiftly in quest of plunder. The search is often performed with a flight
resembling that of the tame pigeon, until perceiving an object, it redoubles its
flappings, and pursues the fugitive with a rapidity scarcely to be conceived.
Its turnings, windings and cuttings through the air are now surprising. It
follows and nears the timorous quarry at every turn and back-cutting which the
latter attempts. Arrived within a few feet of the prey, the Falcon is seen
protruding his powerful legs and talons to their full stretch. His wings are
for a moment almost closed; the next instant he grapples the prize, which, if
too weighty to be carried off directly, he forces obliquely towards the ground,
sometimes a hundred yards from where it was seized, to kill it, and devour it on
the spot. Should this happen over a large extent of water, the Falcon drops his
prey, and sets off in quest of another. On the contrary, should it not prove
too heavy, the exulting bird carries it off to a sequestered and secure place.
He pursues the smaller Ducks, Water-hens, and other swimming birds, and if they
are not quick in diving, seizes them, and rises with them from the water. I
have seen this Hawk come at the report of a gun, and carry off a Teal not thirty
steps distant from the sports-man who had killed it, with a daring assurance as
surprising as unexpected. This conduct has been observed by many individuals,
and is a characteristic trait of the species. The largest duck that I have seen
this bird attack and grapple with on the wing is the Mallard.
The Great-footed Hawk does not, however, content himself with water-fowl.
He is sometimes seen following flocks of Pigeons and even Blackbirds. For
several days I watched one of them that had taken a particular fancy to some
tame pigeons, to secure which it went so far as to enter their house at one of
the holes, seize a bird, and issue by another hole in an instant, causing such
terror among the rest as to render me fearful that they would abandon the place.
However, I fortunately shot the depredator.
They occasionally feed on dead fish that have floated to the shores or sand
bars. I saw several of them thus occupied while descending the Mississippi on a
journey undertaken expressly for the purpose of observing and procuring
different specimens of birds, and which lasted four months, as I followed the
windings of that great river, floating down it only a few miles daily. During
that period, I and my companion counted upwards of fifty of these Hawks, and
killed several, among which was the female represented in the plate now before
you, and which was found to contain in its stomach bones of birds, a few downy
feathers, the gizzard of a Teal, and the eyes and many scales of a fish. It was
shot on the 26th December, 1820. The ovary contained numerous eggs, two of
which were as large as peas.
Whilst in quest of food, the Great-footed Hawk will frequently alight on
the highest dead branch of a tree in the immediate neighbourhood of such wet or
marshy grounds as the Common Snipe resorts to by preference. His head is seen
moving in short starts, as if he were counting every little space below; and
while so engaged, the moment he spies a Snipe, down he darts like an arrow,
making a rustling noise with his wings that may be heard several hundred yards
off, seizes the Snipe, and flies away to some near wood to devour it.
It is a cleanly bird, in respect to feeding. No sooner is the prey dead
than the Falcon turns its belly upward, and begins to pluck it with his bill,
which he does very expertly, holding it meantime quite fast in his talons; and
as soon as a portion is cleared of feathers, tears the flesh in large pieces,
and swallows it with great avidity. If it is a large bird, he leaves the refuse
parts, but, if small, swallows the whole in pieces. Should he be approached by
an enemy, he rises with it and flies off into the interior of the woods, or if
he happens to be in a meadow, to some considerable distance, he being more wary
at such times than when he has alighted on a tree.
The Great-footed Hawk is a heavy, compact, and firmly built bird for its
size, and when arrived at maturity, extremely muscular, with very tough flesh.
The plumage differs greatly according to age. I have seen it vary in different
individuals, from the deepest chocolate-brown to light grey. Their grasp is so
firm, that should one be hit while perched, and not shot quite dead, it will
cling to the branch until life has departed.
Like most other Hawks, this is a solitary bird, except during the breeding
season, at the beginning of which it is seen in pairs. Their season of breeding
is so very early, that it might be said to be in winter. I have seen the male
caressing the female as early as the first days of December.
This species visits Louisiana during the winter months only; for although I
have observed it mating then, it generally disappears a few days after, and in a
fortnight later none can be seen. It is scarce in the Middle States, where, as
well as in the Southern Districts, it lives along water-courses, and in the
neighbourhood of the shores of the sea and inland lakes. I should think that
they breed in the United States, having shot a pair in the month of August near
the Falls of Niagara. It is extremely tenacious of life, and if not wounded in
the wings, though mortally so in the body, it flies to the last gasp, and does
not fall until life is extinct. I never saw one of them attack a quadruped,
although I have frequently seen them perched within sight of squirrels, which I
thought they might easily have secured, had they been so inclined.
Once when nearing the coast of England, being then about a hundred and
fifty miles distant from it, in the month of July, I obtained a pair of these
birds, which had come on board our vessel, and had been shot there. I examined
them with care, and found no difference between them and those which I had shot
in America. They are at present scarce in England, where I have seen only a
few. In London, some individuals of the species resort to the cupola of St.
Paul's Cathedral, and the towers of Westminster Abbey, to roost, and probably to
breed. I have seen them depart from these places at day dawn, and return in the
The achievements of this species are well known in Europe, where it is even
at the present day trained for the chase. Whilst on a visit at Dalmahoy, the
seat of the Earl of Morton, near Edinburgh, I had the pleasure of seeing a pair
of these birds hooded, and with small brass bells on their legs, in excellent
training. They were the property of that nobleman.
These birds sometimes roost in the hollows of trees. I saw one resorting
for weeks every night to a hole in a dead sycamore, near Louisville, in
Kentucky. It generally came to the place a little before sunset, alighted on
the dead branches, and in a short time after flew into the hollow, where it
spent the night, and from whence I saw it issuing at dawn. I have known them
also retire for the same purpose to the crevices of high cliffs, on the banks of
Green river in the same state. One winter, when I had occasion to cross the
Homochitta river, in the State of Mississippi, I observed these Hawks in greater
numbers than I had ever before seen.
Many persons believe that this Hawk, and some others, never drink any other
fluid than the blood of their victims; but this is an error. I have seen them
alight on sand-bars, walk to the edge of them, immerse their bills nearly up to
the eyes in the water, and drink in a continued manner, as Pigeons are known to
GREAT-FOOTED HAWK, Wils. Amer. Orn., vol. ix. p. 120.
FALCO PEREGRINUS, Bonap. Syn., p. 27.
COMMON or WANDERING FALCON, Falco peregrinus, Nutt. Man.,
vol. i. p. 53.
GREAT-FOOTED HAWK, Falco peregrinus, Aud. Amer. OrD., VOI. i. p. 85;
vol. v. p. 365.
FALCO PEREGRINUS, Peregrine Falcon, Swains. & Rich. F. Bor. Amer.,
vol. ii. p. 23.
Bill blackish-blue at the tip, pale green at the base, cere oil-green; bare
orbital space orange. Iris hazel. Feet lemon-yellow; claws brownish-black.
Head and hind neck greyish-black, tinged with blue; the rest of the upper parts
dark bluish-grey, indistinctly barred with deep brown. Quills blackish-brown,
the inner webs marked with transverse elliptical spots of reddish-white. Tail
greyish-brown, marked with about twelve bars, the last of which is broad, the
rest diminishing in size and intensity of tint. Throat and fore-neck white; a
broad band of blackish-blue from the angle of the mouth downwards; cheeks
whitish-grey; sides, breast and thighs reddish-white, transversely marked with
dark brown spots in longitudinal series. Under wing feathers whitish,
Length 16 1/2 inches; extent of wings 30; bill 1 1/8 along the ridge;
tarsus 1 7/8, middle toe 2 1/2.
As the bird gets old, the colours of the upper parts acquire a lighter tint
in the male, and sometimes the back is ash-grey; but in the female, they
gradually assume a deeper hue.