W E call "Birds of Prey" those which feed on the smaller animals, such as rabbits, mice, frogs, and snakes, as well as on other birds. The chief kinds in our country are eagles, falcons, hawks, and owls.
If you live in the mountains of Scotland, or the north of England, you may, perhaps, have seen an eagle (see picture, p. 51). But the birds of prey you are most likely to know are hawks and owls.
I am sure that sometimes when you are in the fields, you must have seen a bird with long pointed wings and a tail like a fan hovering in the air. This is the Kestrel or common hawk. Country people call him the "wind-hover." His wings beat the air so quickly that you can scarcely see them move, yet he keeps quite still in the same place. His bright eyes look eagerly on the ground. Now he darts a little up or down, and floats along some distance. Now he hovers again, and all at once drops to the ground. He has seen a mouse in the grass, and rises up with it in his claws.
Farmers often shoot kestrels because they steal young partridges and chickens, when they cannot find other food. But they are very useful in killing field-mice, moles, beetles, and all kinds of vermin.
If you cannot tame a young hawk, nor find a dead one, you can see on pp. 51 and 61 how to know a bird of prey. Look at the long toes and sharp claws of the eagle or the hawk. They pierce the skin of any animal he seizes. His hooked beak is very strong, and has sharp edges, so that it cuts like shears. The upper half is pointed, and hangs over the lower half. A few strong pecks with this cruel beak soon kill the tiny mouse or larger animals, which are swallowed whole or torn to pieces. After a little time the furry skins and the bones are thrown up in a ball. The feet and legs of a bird of prey are covered with scales, so that when he is fighting he is not so much hurt by hard pecks.
The kestrel's wings are strong and pointed, and he can fly quickly, or keep himself floating, as he pleases. He is about as large as a wood-pigeon. His back and wings are a bright brick-red, and his tail is grey, tipped with white, with a black band across. The long feathers of his wings are black, while his breast is pale yellow.
Another common hawk is the Sparrow-hawk, which has dark grey wings and a reddish-brown breast with orange stripes. He does not often hover, but glides along the hedges looking for birds and mice. He does more harm than the kestrel, for he often kills game. But he is useful in destroying mice, and insects, and in preventing the small birds, which eat the corn, from becoming too numerous. The mother sparrow-hawk is much larger than the father.
Owls, like hawks, have hooked beaks and long sharp claws. But their beak is not so strong, and their feet are more useful for climbing. Their four toes stand, three in front and one behind, like most birds, but they can turn back the outer front toe so as to have two in front and two behind, like the woodpecker.
Notice too the difference in their eyes. A hawk has his eyes on the sides of his head, but the owl has his in front of his face like you or I. So, when he hunts in the twilight, he can peer down at things close to him. He can make the pupil of his eye as large as the cat does, so as to gather all the light there is. His feathers are so soft and downy that he makes very little noise as he flies, and he has large hidden ears with flaps over them, and can hear the slightest sound. Some owls have ear tufts sticking up in the air like a cat's ear.
The owl you hear so often crying "to-whoo, to-whoo" is the brown or Tawny Owl. He hunts in the early morning and late evening. In the day-time he hides in holes of the trees and in church towers. If he is driven into the sunlight he winks and blinks, and cannot see clearly. But in the dusk, or the moonlight he flies noiselessly along the hedges, and catches mice, moles, frogs, and birds, swallowing the small ones whole and throwing back the feathers and skin in little balls.
The Barn Owl is a much lighter bird than the brown owl. His back and wings are buff colour and his breast and face are white. He cries "te-whit, te-whee" in a loud screech, and is therefore often called the "Screech Owl." He hides in the barn, or in trees, by day and hunts by night, feeding chiefly on mice. When he comes out by daylight the chaffinches and other little birds tease him, for they know he cannot see well.
Compare a hawk and an owl. Notice the cere, or piece of bare skin at the top of the beak, which all birds of prey have. It is partly covered by bristles in the owls. Try to draw the foot and beak of the eagle, pp. 51 and 73.