Gateway to the Classics: Handbook of Nature Study: Birds by Anna Botsford Comstock
Handbook of Nature Study: Birds by  Anna Botsford Comstock


Red-tailed hawk on nest.

Photo by R. W. Hegner.

The Hen Hawks

Teacher's Story

"Above the tumult of the cañon lifted, the gray hawk breathless hung,

Or on the hill a winged shadow drifted where furze and thornbush clung."

—Bret Harte.

IT is the teacher's duty and privilege to try to revolutionize some popular misconceptions about birds, and two birds, in great need in this respect, are the so-called hen hawks. They are most unjustly treated, largely because most farmers consider that a "hawk is a hawk," and should always be shot to save the poultry, although there is as much difference in the habits of hawks as there is in those of men. The so-called hen hawks are the red-shouldered and the red-tailed species, the latter being somewhat the larger and rarer of the two; both are very large birds; the red-shouldered has cinnamon brown epaulets, the tail blackish, crossed by five or six narrow white bars, and the wing feathers are also barred. The red-tailed species has dark brown wings, the feathers not barred, and is distinguished by its tail which is brilliant cinnamon color with a black bar across it near the end; it is silvery white beneath. When the hawk is soaring, its tail shows reddish as it wheels in the air. Both birds are brown above and whitish below, streaked with brown.

The flight of these hawks is alike and is very beautiful; it consists of soaring on outstretched wings in wide circles high in the air, and is the ideal of graceful aerial motion. In rising, the bird faces the wind and drops a little in the circle as its back turns to the leeward, and thus it climbs an invisible winding stair until it is a mere speck in the sky. This wonderful flight, on motionless wings, is what has driven to despair our inventors of airships who have not been able to fathom the mystery of it from a practical standpoint. When the bird wishes to drop, it lifts and holds its wings above its back, and comes down like a lump of lead, only to catch itself whenever it chooses to begin again to climb the invisible spiral. And all this is done without fatigue, for these birds have been observed to soar thus for hours together without coming to earth. When thus soaring the two species may be distinguished from each other by their cries; the red-tailed gives a high sputtering scream, which Chapman likens to the sound of escaping steam; while the red-shouldered calls in a high not unmusical note "kee-you, kee-you" or "tee-ur, tee-ur."

The popular fallacy for the teacher to correct about these birds, is that they are enemies of the farmers. Not until one has actually been seen to catch the chickens should it be shot, for very few of them are guilty of this sin. Sixty-six per cent of the food of the red-tailed species consists of injurious animals, i. e., mice and gophers, etc., and only 7 per cent consists of poultry; the victims are probably old or disabled fowls, and fall an easy prey; this bird much prefers mice and reptiles to poultry. The more common red-shouldered hawk feeds generally on mice, snakes, frogs, fish and is very fond of grasshoppers. Ninety per cent of its food consists of creatures which injure our crops or pastures and scarcely 1 ½ per cent is made up of poultry and game. These facts have been ascertained by the experts in the department of Agriculture at Washington who have examined the stomachs of hundreds of these hawks taken from different localities. Furthermore, Dr. Fisher states that a pair of the red-shouldered hawks bred for successive years within a few hundred yards of a poultry farm, containing 800 young chickens and 400 ducks, and the owner never saw them attempt to catch a fowl.

However, there are  certain species of hawks which are to be feared; these are the Cooper's hawk and the sharp-shinned hawk, the first being very destructive to poultry and the latter killing many wild birds. These are both somewhat smaller than the species we are studying. They are dark gray above and have very long tails, and when flying, they flap their wings for a time and then glide a distance. They do not soar on motionless outspread pinions by the hour.


The red-tailed hawk.

When hawks are seen soaring, they are likely to be hunting for mice in the meadows below them; their eyes are remarkably keen; they can see a moving creature from a great height, and can suddenly drop upon it like a thunder bolt out of a clear sky. Their wonderful eyes are far-sighted when they are circling in the sky, but as they drop, the focus of the eyes changes automatically with great rapidity, so that by the time they reach the earth they are near-sighted, a feat quite impossible for our eyes unless aided by glasses or telescope.

These so-called hen hawks will often sit motionless, for hours at a time, on some dead branch or dead tree; they are probably watching for something eatable to stir within the range of their keen vision. When seizing its prey, a hawk uses its strong feet and sharp, curved talons. All hawks keep their claws sharp and polished, even as the warrior keeps his sword bright, so as to be ready for use; the legs are covered by a growth of feathers extending down from above, looking like feather trousers. The beak is hooked and very sharp and is used for tearing apart the flesh of the quarry. When a hawk fights some larger animal or man, it throws itself over upon its back and strikes its assailant with its strong claws as well as with its beak; but the talons are its chief weapons.

Both species build a large, shallow nest of coarse sticks and grass, lined with moss, feathers, etc.; it is a rude, rough structure, and is placed in tall trees from fifty to seventy-five feet from the ground. Only two to four eggs are laid; these are whitish spotted with brown. These hawks are said to remain mated for life and are devoted to each other and their young. Hawks and eagles are very similar in form and habits, and if the eagle is a noble bird so is the hawk.

Lesson XXVI

The Red-Shouldered and Red-Tailed Hawks

Leading thought—Ignorant people consider all hawks dangerous neighbors because they are supposed to feed exclusively on poultry. This idea is false and we should study carefully the habits of hawks before we shoot them. The ordinary large reddish "hen-hawks," which circle high above meadows, are doing great good to the farmer by feeding upon the mice and other creatures which steal his grain and girdle his trees.

Methods—Begin by observations on the flight of one of these hawks and supplement this with such observations as the pupils are able to make, or facts which they can discover by talking with hunters or others and by reading.


1. How can you tell a hawk, when flying, from a crow or other large bird? Describe how it soars. Does it move off in any direction; if so, does it move off in circles? How often does it make strokes with its wings? Does it rise when it is facing the wind and fall as it turns its back to the wind?

2. Have you seen a hawk flap its wings many times and then soar for a time? If so, what hawk do you think it was? How does it differ in habits from the "hen-hawks?"

3. Have you noticed a hawk when soaring drop suddenly to earth? If so, why did it do this?

4. How does a hawk hunt? How can it see a mouse in a meadow when it is so high in the air that it looks like a circling speck in the sky? If it is so far-sighted as this, how can it be near-sighted enough to catch the mouse when it is close to it? Would you not have to use field glasses or telescope to do this?

5. When a hawk alights what sort of a place does it choose? How does it act?

6. Do hawks seize their prey with their claws or their beaks? What sort of feet and claws has the hawk? Describe the beak. What do you think this shaped beak is meant for?

7. Why do people shoot hawks? Why is it a sign of ignorance in people to wish to shoot all hawks?

8. What is the food of the red-shouldered hawk as shown by the bulletin of the U. S. Department of Agriculture or by the Audubon leaflets?

9. Where does the hawk place its nest? Of what does it build its nest?

10. Compare the food and the nesting habits of the red-shouldered and red-tailed hawks?

11. How devoted are the hawks to their mates and their young? Does a hawk, losing its mate, live alone ever after?

12. Describe the colors of the hen hawks and describe how you can tell the two species apart by the colors and markings of the tail.

13. What is the cry of the hawk? How can you tell the two species apart by this cry? Does the hawk give its cry only when on the wing?

14. Why should an eagle be considered so noble a bird and the hawk be so scorned? What difference is there between them in habits?

Supplementary reading—Audubon Educational Leaflets Nos. 8, 9 and 10; "The Sparrow Hawk," Familiar Wild Animals, Lottridge; "Eyes and Cameras," also pp. 101-102, The Bird Book, Eckstorm; Birds that Hunt and are Hunted, pp. 317-319, 326, Blanchan; "Cloud Wings, The Eagle," in Wilderness Ways; "The Sky King and His Family," "Hannah Lomond's Bairn," in Neighbors with Wings and Fins; American Birds, Finley.

Reference books—The Bird, Beebe, pp. 389, 376, 208-211; Hawks and Owls from the Standpoint of the Farmer, Fisher, U. S. Department of Agriculture.

Yet, ere the noon, as brass the heaven turns,

The cruel sun smites with unerring aim,

The sight and touch of all things blinds and burns,

And bare, hot hills seem shimmering into flame!

On outspread wings a hawk, far poised on high,

Quick swooping screams, and then is heard no more:

The strident shrilling of a locust nigh

Breaks forth, and dies in silence as before.

—"Summer Drought," by J. P. Irvine.

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