Birds of Nebraska: Newspaper Accounts, 1854-1923

Sandy Griswold. April 2, 1919. Omaha Sunday World-Herald 54(18): 14-N. Spelling of some words corrected.

The Feathered Marauders of Our Fields and Streams

Answering a query of a young bird student as to which species of the hawk is considered by ornithologists the most destructive of bird life, we would say that none of the tribe is ascribed by modern and advanced authorities in the economic life of our birds as especially destructive in this line, in fact, none but whose beneficial qualities outrank those of inimical character, with one or two exceptions.

However, the worst of the predatory species is undoubtedly the sharp-shinned, Cooper's and goshawk, followed closely by the duck and pigeon hawk. All of these subsist largely, in the absence of an easily acquired diet, on mice, snakes, lizards and the larger of the insects, on our gregarious game birds and the numerous family of song birds.

In obliging you with a brief description of these so-called predatory birds, I will say that they are all beautiful and we could illy afford to banish them from our forest, fields and streams, where they lend such an indescribable animation and picturesqueness to the landscape. Not even excepting the magical barn swallow or the roseate tern, no bird athwarts the skies or moves through the spaces with more exquisite grace and buoyancy than these very hawks.

An Odd Supper.

First among this quartet of bird eating birds, in my estimation, comes the sharp-shinned hawk, which is a small edition of the Cooper's hawk. His back and upper parts are a deep slate in color, and he has a perfectly square tail instead of the rounded appendage of most of his tribe. This is barred with black and white. Underneath the bird is a clean pearl, barred on the breast with rusty buff and brown. The under-wing is white, spotted with dusky splotches. He has a small, cruel head, and telescopic topaz eyes, and flies, when in pursuit of real worthy game, with almost lightning speed.

Among his choicest tidbits, sad as it is, are the lovely little gold finch - our common yellowbird - the field sparrow and bush frequenting warblers. But he also has a passion for teal duck, quail and even the rugged prairie chicken itself, and when in pursuit of one of these birds, he swoops and dodges, twists and turns quicker, even, than its panic-stricken quarry, and when the pursued bird becomes exhausted, that end the race.

In the air or on the ground, the hawk strikes it with his long, needle-pointed talons. There is no escape for any of this class of birds when once the race starts, but the warblers and song birds are safe when they strike a copse of low trees or a thicket of undergrowth. The sharp-shinned is truly a little reprobate, as much so as his large prototype, the goshawk, and is quite plentiful along Nebraska's wooded streams, especially in the early spring and late fall.

Holy Terror of the Air.

The goshawk is probably the holy terror of all the scourges of the air. He is much larger than the sharp-shinned, and has the typical rounded tail. The goshawk, according to my opinion, is the only wholly useless member of the family, save for his perfect beauty and aerial accomplishments. He is really largely destructive, by habit and education, and is fairly common hereabouts in all seasons of the year. Upper parts bluish slate, darker on the head. The tail is similar to the back, banded with ebony bars, the largest feathers tipped with white. Under parts marked with irregular wavy lines of gray and white, with delicate bars on all the flanks. His feet are yellow, a distinguishing characteristic.

The goshawk is always looking for trouble and is a desperate, truculent, uncompromising buccaneer, but, as with most of the hawks, the picture of graceful elegance. Notwithstanding his extreme savagery, he is a devoted mate, which, it must be said, offsets, but disproportionately at that, his destruction of the farmers' and the sportsmen's most valued assets, the insectivorous and game birds.

Where game is scarce the goshawk is enabled to keep in fairly good condition on mice, snakes, batrachians, lizards, beetles and crickets so, after all, he is instrumental in accomplishing some good. He is also the most courageous as well as the most desperate of all his kindred, a marauder of the barnyard without and equal. He has been known to drop like a thunderbolt out of a clear sky almost at the farmer's feet and carry off a fat young pullet, and has audaciously robbed many a sportsman of his wounded game.

Delights in Murder.

Prairie Chicken, quail, song birds and rabbits are hunted down with the most relentless savagery. The goshawk, in fact, delights in killing all the time, not alone when pushed by the pangs of hunger, and often he abandons a victim untasted. He is a swift and powerful flyer and always on the alert for deviltry. He can out-speed even the greenwing teal, which flies at an average rate of 125 miles an hour, and often captures this bird and other ducks in the air, severs their windpipes and carries his victim away for miles. The goshawk does not perch and wait for his prey like the Cooper's hawk. he goes after it, and has been known to kill as high as a half dozen prairie chickens out of a flock, before attempting to indulge in the bloody orgie of his banquet. On such occasions, he generally tears out the tenderest parts of the breasts alone.

The goshawk has been known to dash into a flock of thistle birds or other feathery mites and seize one with each foot, his long sharp talons causing instant death. These birds nest early and both male and female have a far-reaching, piercing cry, and are the one terror of all small bird life.

Duck Hawk's Talents.

The duck hawk is a little less talented in his depredations than the goshawk. His upper parts are of a darkish blue, with pale edges, and underneath varying from dull tawny to whitish, barred and spotted with black, except on the breast and throat. There is a black patch on either cheek, which gives it a marked facial attractiveness. His wings are thin, long, stiff and pointed; tail regularly barred with blackish gray, bill bluish, toothed and notched, eye yellow, talons long and black, rather a large member of the family, and haunts local territory in the late fall and winter. He is another wolf for teal duck, and they rarely escape, save when over open water, into which they plunge and dive. The duck hawk can also kill a Canada goose, but he must first stun it by repeated swoops, and he prefers wild fowl to any other menu. Little birds are too insignificant for his lordly attention, but when he does capture them he devours them entire, his preference in this line being a quail and meadowlarks. He follows the wild fowl on their migrations and kills many of them, often wantonly. I have seen a duck hawk swoop down out of the clouds and seize and carry off a dead duck not twenty-five yards from my blind; not once, but several times.

A Small Assassin.

The pigeon hawk is much smaller, and while bold and savage, much less destructive, and will attack any bird of his own size or under. he preys largely upon our smaller birds, robins and blue birds suffering largely from his marauds. When on the wing he greatly resembles the fabled passenger pigeon, hence his name. He is also a fast flyer, but lacks much of the dash of several of his congeneres. He is a spring and autumn migrant, and haunts the thin woods and willow copses along our streams. Upper parts slatey blue and brownish gray; broken rusty buff collar; primaries barred with white; under parts pale fawn, almost pure white on the throat, large oblong brown spots on sides and breast. A most fearless and insolent depredator, and his hunting method is to perch on some low limb along our water ways and wait for passing duck or unsuspecting warbler.

Cooper's hawk is much larger and has the rounded tail of many of his kind, and like the goshawk, is extremely destructive to bird and wild fowl life. He is common at all seasons throughout Nebraska, and his raids on the farmers' hen yard are frequent and deadly. The smaller birds of copse and field, however, are his preferable prey, but is often satisfied with field mice, garter snakes, batrachians and insects.