Birds of America
By John James Audubon, F. R. SS. L. & E.
THE AMERICAN SPARROW-HAWK.
FALCO SPARVERIUS, Linn.
PLATE XXII.--MALE AND FEMALE.
We have few more beautiful Hawks in the United States than this active
little species, and I am sure, none half so abundant. It is found in every
district from Louisiana to Maine, as well as from the Atlantic shores to the
western regions. Every one knows the Sparrow-Hawk, the very mention of its name
never fails to bring to mind some anecdote connected with its habits, and, as it
commits no depredations on poultry, few disturb it, so that the natural increase
of the species experiences no check from man. During the winter months
especially it may be seen in the Southern States about every old field, orchard,
barn-yard, or kitchen-garden, but seldom indeed in the interior of the forest.
Beautifully erect, it stands on the highest fence-stake, the broken top of
a tree, the summit of a grain stack, or the corner of the barn, patiently and
silently waiting until it espies a mole, a field-mouse, a cricket, or a
grasshopper, on which to pounce. If disappointed in its expectation, it leaves
its stand and removes to another, flying low and swiftly until within a few
yards of the spot on which it wishes to alight, when all of a sudden, and in the
most graceful manner, it rises towards it and settles with incomparable firmness
of manner, merely suffering its beautiful tail to vibrate gently for awhile, its
wings being closed with the swiftness of thought. Its keen eye perceives
something beneath, when down it darts, secures the object in its talons, returns
to its stand, and devours its prey piece by piece. This done, the little hunter
rises in the air, describes a few circles, moves on directly, balances itself
steadily by a tremulous motion of its wings, darts towards the earth, but, as if
disappointed, cheeks its course, reascends and proceeds. Some unlucky Finch
crosses the field beneath it. The Hawk has marked it, and, anxious to secure
its prize, sweeps after it; the chase is soon ended, for the poor affrighted and
panting bird becomes the prey of the ruthless pursuer, who, unconscious of
wrong, carries it off to some elevated branch of a tall tree, plucks it neatly,
tears the flesh asunder, and having eaten all that it can pick, allows the
skeleton and wings to fall to the ground, where they may apprise the traveller
that a murder has been committed.
Thus, reader, are the winter months spent by this little marauder. When
spring returns to enliven the earth each male bird seeks for its mate, whose
coyness is not less innocent than that of the gentle dove. Pursued from place
to place, the female at length yields to the importunity of her dear tormentor,
when side by side they sail, screaming aloud their love notes, which. if not
musical, are doubtless at least delightful to the parties concerned. With
tremulous wings they search for a place in which to deposit their eggs secure
from danger, and now they have found it.
On that tall mouldering headless trunk, the Hawks have alighted side by
side. See how they caress each other! Mark! The female enters the deserted
Woodpecker's hole, where she remaining some time measuring its breadth and
depth. Now she appears, exultingly calls her mate, and tells him there could
not be a fitter place. Full of joy they gambol through the air, chase all
intruders away, watch the Grakles and other birds to which the hole might be
equally pleasing, and so pass the time, until the female has deposited her eggs,
six, perhaps even seven in number, round, and beautifully spotted. The birds
sit alternately, each feeding the other and watching with silent care. After
awhile the young appear, covered with white down. They grow apace, and now are
ready to go abroad, when their parents entice them forth. Some launch into the
air at once, others, not so strong, now and then fall to the ground; but all
continue to be well provided with food, until they are able to shift for
themselves. Together they search for grasshoppers, crickets, and such young
birds as, less powerful than themselves, fall an easy prey. The family still
resort to the same field, each bird making choice of a stand, the top of a tree,
or that of the great mullein. At times they remove to the round, then fly off
in a body, separate, and again betake themselves to their stands. Their
strength increases, their flight improves, and the field-mouse seldom gains her
retreat before the little Falcon secures it for a meal.
The trees, of late so richly green, now disclose the fading tints of
autumn; the cricket becomes mute, the grasshopper withers on the fences, the
mouse retreats to her winter quarters, dismal clouds obscure the eastern
horizon, the sun assumes a sickly dimness, hoarfrosts cover the ground, and the
long night encroaches on the domains of light. No longer are heard the
feathered choristers of the woods, who throng towards more congenial climes, and
in their rear rushes the Sparrow-Hawk.
Its flight is rather irregular, nor can it be called protracted. It flies
over a field, but seldom farther at a time; even in barren lands, a few hundred
yards are all the extent it chooses to go before it alights. During the love
season alone it may be seen sailing for half an hour, which is, I believe, the
longest time I ever saw one on the wing. When chasing a bird, it passes along
with considerable celerity, but never attains the speed of the Sharp-shinned
Hawk or other species. When teazing an Eagle or a Turkey-Buzzard, its strength
seems to fail in a few minutes, and if itself chased by a stronger Hawk, it soon
retires into some thicket for protection. Its migrations are pursued by day,
and with much apparent nonchalance.
The cry of this bird so much resembles that of the European Kestrel, to
which it seems allied, that, were it rather stronger in intonation, it might be
mistaken for it. At times it emits its notes while perched, but principally
when on the living, and more continually before and after the birth of its
young, the weaker cries of which it imitates when they have left the nest and
follow their parents.
The Sparrow-Hawk does not much regard the height of the place in which it
deposits its eggs, provided it be otherwise suitable, but I never saw it
construct a nest for itself. It prefers the hole of a Woodpecker, but now and
then is satisfied with an abandoned Crow's nest. So prolific is it, that I do
not recollect having ever found fewer than five eggs or young in the nest, and,
as I have already said, the number sometimes amounts to seven. The eggs are
nearly globular, of a deep buff-colour, blotched all over with dark brown and
black. This Hawk sometimes raises two broods in the season, in the Southern
States, where in fact it may be said to be a constant resident; but in the
Middle and Eastern States, seldom if ever more than one. Nay, I have thought
that in the South the eggs of a laying are more numerous than in the North,
although of this I am not quite certain.
So much attached are they to their stand, that they will return to it and
sit there by preference for months in succession. My friend BACHMAN informed me
that, through this circumstance, he has caught as many as seven in the same
field, each from its favourite stump.
Although the greater number of these Hawks remove southward at the approach
of winter, some remain even in the State of New York during the severest weather
of that season. These keep in the immediate neighbourhood of barns, where now
and then they secure a rat or a mouse for their support. Sometimes this species
is severely handled by the larger Hawks. One of them who had caught a Sparrow,
and was flying off with it, was suddenly observed by a Red-tailed Hawk, which in
a few minutes made it drop its prey: this contented the pursuer and enabled the
pursued to escape.
THEODORE LINCOLN, Esq. of Dennisville, Maine, informed me that the
Sparrow-Hawk is in the habit of attacking the Republican Swallow, while sitting
on its eggs, deliberately tearing the bottle-neck-like entrance of its curious
nest, and seizing the occupant for its prey. This is as fit a place as any to
inform you, that the father of that gentleman, who has resided at Dennisville
upwards of forty years, found the Swallow just mentioned abundant there on his
arrival in that then wild portion of the country.
In the Floridas the Sparrow-Hawk pairs as early as February, in the Middle
States about April, and in the northern parts of Maine seldom before June. Few
are seen in Nova Scotia, and none in Newfoundland, or on the western coast of
Labrador. Although abundant in the interior of East Florida, I did not observe
one on any of the keys which border the coast of that singular peninsula.
During one of my journeys down the Mississippi, I frequently observed some of
these birds standing on low dead branches over the water, from which they would
pick up the beetles that had accidentally fallen into the stream.
No bird can be more easily raised and kept than this beautiful Hawk. I
once found a young male that had dropped from the nest before it was able to
fly. Its cries for food attracted my notice, and I discovered it lying near a
log. It was large, and covered with soft white down, through which the young
feathers protruded. Its little blue bill and yet grey eyes made it look not
unlike an owl. I took it home, named it Nero, and provided it with small birds,
at which it would scramble fiercely, although yet unable to tear their flesh, in
which I assisted it. In a few weeks it grew very beautiful, and became so
voracious, requiring a great number of birds daily, that I turned it out, to see
how it would shift for itself. This proved a gratification to both of us: it
soon hunted for grasshoppers and other insects, and on returning from my walks I
now and then threw a dead bird high in the air, which it never failed to
perceive from its stand, and towards which it launched with such quickness as
sometimes to catch it before it fell to the ground. The little fellow attracted
the notice of his brothers, brought up hard by, who, accompanied by their
parents, at first gave it chase, and forced it to take refuge behind one of the
window-shutters, where it usually passed the night, but soon became gentler
towards it, as if forgiving its desertion. My bird was fastidious in the choice
of food, would not touch a Woodpecker, however fresh, and as he grew older,
refused to eat birds that were in the least tainted. To the last he continued
kind to me, and never failed to return at night to his favourite roost behind
the window-shutter. His courageous disposition often amused the family, as he
would sail off from his stand, and fall on the back of a tame duck, which,
setting up a loud quack, would waddle off in great alarm with the Hawk sticking
to her. But, as has often happened to adventurers of similar spirit, his
audacity cost him his life. A hen and her brood chanced to attract his notice,
and he flew to secure one of the chickens, but met one whose parental affection
inspired her with a courage greater than his own. The conflict, which was
severe, ended the adventures of poor Nero.
I have often observed birds of this species in the Southern States, and
more especially in the Floridas, which were so much smaller than those met with
in the Middle and Northern Districts, that I felt almost inclined to consider
them different; but after studying their habits and voice, I became assured that
they were the same. Another species allied to the present, and alluded to by
WILSON, has never made its appearance in our Southern States.
AMERICAN SPARROW-HAWK, Falco sparverius, Wils. Amer. Orn.,
vol. ii. p. 117.
FALCO SPARVERIUS, Bonap. Syn., p. 27.
AMERICAN SPARROW-HAWK, Falco sparverius, Nutt. Man., vol. i. p. 58.
FALCO SPARVERIUS, Little Rusty-crowned Falcon,
Swains. and Rich. F. Bor. Amer., vol. ii. p. 31.
AMERICAN SPARROW-HAWK, Falco sparverius, Aud. Orn. Biog.,
vol. ii. p. 246; vol. v. p. 370.
Upper part of the head and wing-coverts light greyish-blue, seven black
spots round the head, and a light red patch on the crown; back light red,
spotted with black; tail red, with a broad subterminal black band. Female with
the head nearly as in the male; the back, wing-coverts, and tail banded with
light red and dusky. Young similar to the female, but with more red on the
head, which is streaked with dusky.
Length 12 inches; extent of wings 22.