Birds of America
By John James Audubon, F. R. SS. L. & E.
SHARP-SHINNED OR SLATE-COLOURED HAWK.
ASTUR FUSCUS, Gmel.
PLATE XXV.--MALE AND FEMALE.
It is mentioned in the Fauna Boreali-Americana, that a specimen of this
bird was killed in the vicinity of Moose Factory, and that it has been deposited
by the Hudson's Bay Company in the Zoological Museum of London. This specimen I
have not seen, but confiding entirely in the accuracy of every fact mentioned by
the authors of that work, I here adduce it as a proof of the extraordinary range
of this species in America, which from the extreme north extends to our most
southern limits, perhaps far beyond them, during its autumnal and winter
migrations. I have met with it in every State or Territory of the Union that I
have visited. In the spring of 1837, it was abundant in Texas, where it
appeared to be travelling eastward. I have a specimen procured by Mr. TOWNSEND
in the neighbourhood of the Columbia river; and, when on my way towards
Labrador, I met with it plentifully as far as the southern shores of the Gulf of
St. Lawrence, beyond which, however, none were observed by me or any of my
I never saw this daring little marauder on wing without saying or thinking
"There goes the miniature of the Goshawk!" Indeed, reader, the shortness of the
wings of the Sharp-shinned Hawk, its long tail, although almost perfectly even,
instead of being rounded as in the Goshawk, added to its irregular, swift,
vigorous, varied, and yet often undecided manner of flight, greatly protracted
however on occasion, have generally impressed upon me the idea alluded to.
While in search of prey, the Sharp-shinned Hawk passes over the country, now at
a moderate height, now close over the land, in so swift a manner that, although
your eye has marked it, you feel surprised that the very next moment it has
dashed off and is far away. In fact it is usually seen when least expected, and
almost always but for a few moments, unless when it has procured some prey, and
is engaged in feeding upon it. The kind of vacillation or wavering with which
it moves through the air appears perfectly adapted to its wants, for it
undoubtedly enables this little warrior to watch and to see at a single quick
glance of its keen eyes every object, whether to the right or to the left, as it
pursues its course. It advances by sudden dashes, as if impetuosity of movement
was essential to its nature, and pounces upon or strikes such objects as best
suit its appetite; but so very suddenly that it appears quite hopeless for any
of them to try to escape. Many have been the times, reader, when watching this
vigilant, active, and industrious bird, I have seen it plunge headlong among the
briary patches of one of our old fields, in defiance of all thorny obstacles,
and, passing through, emerge on the other side, bearing off with exultation in
its sharp claws a Sparrow or Finch, which it had surprised when at rest. At
other times I have seen two or three of these Hawks, acting in concert, fly at a
Golden-winged Woodpecker while alighted against the bark of a tree, where it
thought itself secure, but was suddenly clutched by one of the Hawks throwing as
it were its long legs forward with the quickness of thought, protruding its
sharp talons, and thrusting them into the back of the devoted bird, while it was
endeavouring to elude the harassing attacks of another, by hopping and twisting
round the tree. Then down to the ground assailants and assailed would fall, the
Woodpecker still offering great resistance, until a second Hawk would also seize
upon it, and with claws deeply thrust into its vitals, put an end to its life;
when both the marauders would at once commence their repast.
On several such occasions, I have felt much pleasure in rescuing different
species of birds from the grasp of the little tyrant, as whenever it seizes one
too heavy to be carried off, it drops to the ground with it, and, being close
by, I have forced it to desist from committing further mischief, as it fears man
quite as much as its poor quarry dreads itself. One of these occurrences, which
happened in the neighbourhood of Charleston, in South Carolina, is thus related
in my journal.
Whilst walking one delightful evening in autumn, along the fine hedgerow
formed by the luxuriant Rocky Mountain rose-bushes, I observed a male of this
species alighted in an upright position on the top bar of a fence opposite to
me. I marked it with particular attention, to see what might follow. The Hawk
saw me as plainly as I did him, and kept peeping now at me and now at some part
of the hedge opposite, when suddenly, and with the swiftness of an arrow, it
shot past me, entered the briars, and the next instant was moving off with a
Brown Thrush, Turdus rufus, in its talons. The Thrush, though seized by the
sharp claws of the marauder, seemed too heavy for him to carry far, and I saw
both falling to the ground. On running up, I observed the anxiety of the Hawk
as I approached, and twice saw it attempt to rise on wing to carry off its
prize; but it was unable to do so, and before it could disengage itself I was
able to secure both. The Thrush must have been killed almost instantaneously,
for, on examining it, I found it quite dead.
My friend THOMAS NUTTALL, Esq., tells us that in the "thinly settled parts
of the States of Georgia and Alabama, this Hawk seems to abound, and proves
extremely destructive to young chickens, a single one having been known
regularly to come every day until he had carried away between twenty and thirty.
At noon-day, while I was conversing with a planter, one of these Hawks came
down, and without ceremony, or heeding the loud cries of the housewife, who most
reluctantly witnessed the robbery, snatched away a chicken before us." Again,
while speaking of the wild and violent manner of this bird, he adds, "descending
furiously and blindly upon its quarry, a young Hawk of this species, broke
through the glass of the green-house at the Cambridge Botanic Garden; and
fearlessly passing through a second glass partition, he was only brought up by
the third, and caught, though little stunned by the effort. His wing-feathers
were much torn by the glass, and his flight in this way so impeded as to allow
of his being approached."
Whilst travelling to some distance, the Sharp-shinned Hawk flies high,
though in a desultory manner, with irregular quick flappings of the wings, and
at times, as if to pause for awhile and examine the objects below, moves in
short and unequal circles, after which it is seen to descend rapidly, and then
follow its course at the height of only a few feet from the ground, visiting as
it were every clump of low bushes or briar patches likely to be supplied with
the smaller birds, on which it principally feeds. Again, after having satisfied
its hunger, this little warrior at times rises to a great height, and indeed now
and then is scarcely discernible from the ground.
I found a nest of this Hawk in a hole of the well-known "Rock-in-cave" on
the Ohio river, in the early part of the spring of 1819. It was simply
constructed, having been formed of a few sticks and some grasses carelessly
interwoven, and placed about two feet from the entrance of the hole. I had the
good fortune to secure the female bird, while she was sitting on her eggs, which
were nearly hatched, and it was from that individual that I made the figure in
the plate. The eggs, four in number, were almost equally rounded at both ends,
though somewhat elongated, and their ground colour was white, with a livid
tinge, scarcely discernible however amid the numerous markings and blotches of
reddish-chocolate with which they were irregularly covered. The second
opportunity which I had of seeing a nest of this species, occurred not far from
Louisville in Kentucky, when I accidentally observed one of these Hawks dive
into the hollow prong of a broken branch of a sycamore overhanging the waters of
the Ohio. Here the eggs were five in number, and deposited on the mouldering
fragments of the decayed wood. The third and last opportunity happened when I
was on my way from Henderson to St. Genevieve, on horseback. I saw a pair of
these birds forming a nest in the forks of a low oak, in a grove in the centre
of the prairie which I was then crossing. The young in the nest I have never
This interesting species usually resorts to the fissures of rocks for the
purpose of there passing the hours of repose, and generally in places by no
means easy of access, such as precipitous declivities overhanging some turbulent
stream. It is often not until the darkness has so much gained on the daylight
as to render objects difficult to be distinguished, that it betakes itself to
its place of rest, and then I have only been assured of its arrival by the few
cries which it utters on such occasions. The earliness of its departure has
often much puzzled me, for with all my anxiety to witness it, I have never
succeeded in doing so, although on two or three occasions I have watched the
spot more than half an hour before dawn, and remained patiently waiting until
long after the sun had risen, when I clambered to the hole, and always found it
The food of this Hawk consists chiefly of birds of various sizes, from the
smallest of our warblers to the Passenger Pigeon or young chickens, the latter
appearing to afford a special temptation to it, as has been above related. I am
also aware that it feeds occasionally on small reptiles and insects, and I shot
the male represented in the plate, on wing, whilst it held in its claws the
small Shrew also represented. It is extremely expert at seizing some of our
smaller snakes and lizards, and not unfrequently snatches up a frog while
basking in the sun.
The difference of size observed between the males and females, as well as
between individuals of the same sex, is very remarkable; and no doubt it was on
account of this very great disparity that WILSON described specimens of each sex
as distinct species. Its notes are short, shrill, and repeated in a hurried
manner, when the bird is wounded and brought to the ground. It often emits
cries of this kind while falling, but suddenly becomes silent when it comes to
the earth, and then makes off swiftly, with long and light leaps, keeping silent
until approached. Although a small bird, it possesses considerable muscular
power, and its extremely sharp claws are apt to inflict severe pain, should a
person lay hold of it incautiously.
SLATE-COLOURED HAWK, Falco Pennsylvanicus, Wils. Amer. Orn., vol. vi.
p. 13. Adult Male.
SHARP-SHINNED HAWK, Falco velox, Wils. Amer. Orn., vol. vi. p. 116.
FALCO VELOX, Bonap. Syn., p. 29.
FALCO FUSCUS, Bonap. Syn., Append., p. 433.
ACCIPITER PENNSYLVANICUS, Slate-coloured Hawk,
Swains. and Rich. F. Bor. Amer., vol. ii. p. 44.
AMERICAN BROWN or SLATE-COLOURED HAWK, Nutt. Man., vol. ii. p. 87.
SHARP-SHINNED or SLATE-COLOURED HAWK, Falco fuscus, Aud. Amer. Orn.,
vol. iv. p. 522. Adult.
Tail even, tarsi extremely slender. Adult male bluish-grey above; the tail
with four broad bands of blackish-brown, and tipped with white; upper part of
head darker; lower parts transversely barred with light red and white, the
throat white, longitudinally streaked. Female similar, more tinged with yellow
beneath, and with the bands on the breast broader. Young umber-brown above,
more or less spotted with white, the tail with four dark brown bars, lower parts
white, each feather with a longitudinal narrow, oblong, brown spot. Miniature
of Falco Cooperii, and intimately allied to Astur Nisus.
Male 11 1/4, 20 1/2. Female 14, 26.