habits of this famed bird differ so materially from those of
almost all others of its genus, that an accurate description
of them cannot fail to be highly interesting to the student
Hawk may be looked upon as having more of a social disposition
than most other Hawks. Indeed, with the exception of the Swallow-tailed
Hawk (Falco furcatus), I know none so gregarious in its habits.
It migrates in numbers, both during spring, when it shews itself
along our Atlantic shores, lakes, and rivers, and during autumn,
when it retires to warmer climes. At these seasons, it appears
in flocks of eight or ten individuals, following the windings
of our shores in loose bodies, advancing in easy sailings or
flappings, crossing each other in their gyrations. During the
period of their stay in the United States, many pairs are seen
nestling, rearing their young, and seeking their food within
so short a distance of each other, that while following the
margins of our eastern shores, a Fish Hawk, or a nest belonging
to the species, may be met with at every short interval.
Hawk may be said to be of a mild disposition. Not only do these
birds live in perfect harmony together, but they even allow
other birds of very different character to approach so near
to them as to build their nests of the very materials of which
the outer parts of their own are constructed. I have never observed
a Fish Hawk chasing any other bird whatever. So pacific and
timorous is it, that, rather than encounter a foe but little
more powerful than itself, it abandons its prey to the White-headed
Eagle, which, next to man, is its greatest enemy. It never forces
its young from the nest, as some other Hawks do, but, on the
contrary, is seen to feed them even when they have begun to
procure food for themselves.
all these facts, a most erroneous idea prevails among our fishermen,
and the farmers along our coasts, that the Fish Hawk's nest
is the best scare-crow they can have in the vicinity of their
houses or grounds. As these good people affirm, no Hawk will
attempt to commit depreciations on their poultry, so long as
the Fish Hawk remains in the country. But the absence of most
birds of prey from those parts at the time when the Fish Hawk
is on our coast, arises simply from the necessity of retiring
to the more sequestered parts of the interior for the purpose
of rearing their young in security, and the circumstance of
their visiting the coasts chiefly at the period when myriads
of water-fowl resort to our estuaries at the approach of winter,
leaving the shores and salt-marshes at the return of spring,
when the Fish Hawk arrives. However, as this notion has a tendency
to protect the latter, it may be so far useful, the fisherman
always interposing when he sees a person bent upon the destruction
of his favourite bird.
Hawk differs from all birds of prey in another important particular,
which is, that it never attempts to secure its prey in the air,
although its rapidity of flight might induce an observer to
suppose it perfectly able to do so. I have spent weeks on the
Gulf of Mexico, where these birds are numerous, and have observed
them sailing and plunging into the water, at a time when numerous
shoals of flying fish were emerging from the sea to evade the
pursuit of the dolphins. Yet the Fish Hawk never attempted to
pursue any of them while above the surface, but would plunge
after one of them or a bonito-fish, after they had resumed their
usual mode of swimming near the surface.
of the Fish Hawk in the air are graceful, and as majestic as
those of the Eagle. It rises with case to a great height by
extensive circlings, performed apparently by mere inclinations
of the wings and tail. It dives at times to some distance with
the wings partially closed, and resumes its sailing, as if these
plunges were made for amusement only. Its wings are extended
at right angles to the body, and when thus flying it is easily
distinguishable from all other Hawks by the eye of an observer
accustomed to note the flight of birds. Whilst in search of
food, it flies with easy flappings at a moderate height above
the water, and with an apparent listlessness, although in reality
it is keenly observing the objects beneath. No sooner does it
spy a fish suited to its taste, than it checks its course with
a sudden shake of its wings and tail, which gives it the appearance
of being poised in the air for a moment, after which it plunges
headlong with great rapidity into the water, to secure its prey,
or continues its flight, if disappointed by having observed
the fish sink deeper.
plunges into the water in pursuit of a fish, it sometimes proceeds
deep enough to disappear for an instant. The sure caused by
its descent is so great as to make the spot around it present
the appearance of a mass of foam. On rising with its prey, it
is seen holding it in the manner represented in the Plate. It
mounts a few yards into the air, shakes the water from its plumage,
squeezes the fish with its talons, and immediately proceeds
towards its nest, to feed its young, or to a tree, to devour
the fruit of its industry in peace. When it has satisfied its
hunger, it does not, like other Hawks, stay perched until hunger
again urges it forth, but usually sails about at a great height
over the neighbouring waters.
Hawk has a great attachment to the tree to which it carries
its prey, and will not abandon it, unless frequently disturbed,
or shot at whilst feeding there. It shews the same attachment
to the tree on which it has built its first nest, and returns
to it year after year.
winters along the southern coasts of the Floridas, and proceeds
eastward as the season advances. In the Middle Districts, the
fishermen hail its appearance with joy, as it is the harbinger
of various species of fish which resort to the Atlantic coasts,
or ascend the numerous rivers. It arrives in the Middle States
about the beginning of April, and returns southward at the first
appearance of frost. I have occasionally seen a few of these
birds on the muddy lakes of Louisiana, in the neighbourhood
of New Orleans, during the winter months; but they appeared
emaciated, and were probably unable to follow their natural
inclinations, and proceed farther south.
as the females make their appearance, which happens eight or
ten days after the arrival of the males, the love-season commences,
and soon after, incubation takes place. The loves of these birds
are conducted in a different way from those of the other Falcons.
The males are seen playing through the air amongst themselves,
chasing each other in sport, or sailing by the side or after
the female which they have selected, uttering cries of joy and
exultation, alighting on the branches of the tree on which their
last year's nest is yet seen remaining, and doubtless congratulating
each other on finding their home again. Their caresses are mutual.
They begin to augment their habitation, or to repair the injuries
which it may have sustained during the winter, and are seen
sailing together towards the shores, to collect the drifted
sea-weeds with which they line the nest anew. They alight on
the beach, search for the driest and largest weeds, collect
a mass of them, clench them in their talons, and fly towards
their nest with the materials dangling beneath. They both alight
and labour together. In a fortnight the nest is complete, and
the female deposits her eggs, which are three or four in number,
of a broadly oval form, yellowish-white, densely covered with
large irregular spots of reddish-brown.
is generally placed in a large tree in the immediate vicinity
of the water, whether along the sea-shore, on the margins of
the inland lakes, or by some large river. It is, however, sometimes
to be seen in the interior of a wood, a mile or more from the
water. I have concluded that, in the latter case, it was on
account of frequent disturbance, or attempts at destruction,
that the birds had removed from their usual haunt. The nest
is very large, sometimes measuring fully four feet across, and
is composed of a quantity of materials sufficient to render
its depth equal to its diameter. Large sticks, mixed with sea-weeds,
tufts of strong grass, and other materials, form its exterior,
while the interior is composed of sea-weeds and finer grasses.
I have not observed that any particular species of tree is preferred
by the Fish Hawk. It places its nest in the forks of an oak
or a pine with equal pleasure; but I have observed that the
tree chosen is usually of considerable size, and not unfrequently
a decayed one.
assists in incubation, during the continuance of which the one
bird supplies the other with food, although each in turn goes
in quest of some for itself. At such times the male bird is
now and then observed rising to an immense height in the air,
over the spot where his mate is seated. This he does by ascending
almost in a direct line, by means of continued flappings, meeting
the breeze with his white breast, and occasionally uttering
a cackling kind of note, by which the bystander is enabled to
follow him in his progress. When the Fish Hawk has attained
its utmost elevation, which is sometimes such that the eye can
no longer perceive him, he utters a loud shriek, and dives smoothly
on half-extended wings towards his nest. But before he reaches
it, he is seen to expand his wings and tail, and in this manner
he glides towards his beloved female, in a beautifully curved
line. The female partially raises herself from her eggs, emits
a low cry, resumes her former posture, and her delighted partner
flies off to the sea, to seek a favourite fish for her whom
are at length hatched. The parents become more and more fond
of them as they grow up. So truly parental becomes the attachment
of the old birds, that an attempt to rob them of those dear
fruits of their love, generally proves more dangerous than profitable.
Should it be made, the old birds defend their brood with great
courage and perseverance, and even sometimes, with extended
claws and bill, come in contact with the assailant, who is glad
to make his escape with a sound skin.
are fed until fully fledged, and often after they have left
the nest, which they do apparently with great reluctance. I
have seen some as large as the parents, filling the nest, and
easily distinguished by the white margins of their upper plumage,
which may be seen with a good glass at a considerable distance.
So much fish is at times carried to the nest, that a quantity
of it falls to the ground, and is left there to putrify around
the foot of the tree. Only one brood is raised each season.
Hawk seldom alights on the ground, and when it does so, walks
with difficulty, and in an extremely awkward manner. The only
occasions on which it is necessary for them to alight, are when
they collect materials for the purpose of repairing their nest,
or for building a new one, in spring.
I have found
this bird in various parts of the interior of the United States,
but always in the immediate neighbourhood of rivers or lakes.
When I first removed to Louisville in Kentucky, several pairs
were in the habit of raising, their brood annually on a piece
of ground immediately opposite the foot of the Falls of the
Ohio in the State of Indiana. The ground belonged to the venerable
General CLARK, and I was several times invited by him to visit
the spot. Increasing population, however, has driven off the
birds, and few are now seen on the Ohio, unless during their
migrations to and from Lake Erie, where I have met with them.
I have observed
many of these birds at the approach of winter, sailing over
the lakes near the Mississippi, where they feed on the fish
which the Wood Ibis kills, the Hawks themselves being unable
to discover them whilst alive in the muddy water with which
these lakes are filled. There the Ibises wade among the water
in immense flocks, and so trample the bottom, as to convert
the lakes into filthy puddles, in which the fishes are unable
to respire with ease. They rise to the surface, and are instantly
killed by the Ibises. The whole surface is sometimes covered
in this manner with dead fish, so that not only are the Ibises
plentifully supplied, but Vultures, Eagles, and Fish Hawks come
to participate in the spoil. Except in such places, and on such
occasions, I have not observed the Fish Hawk to eat of any other
prey than that which it had procured by plunging headlong into
the water after it.
I have frequently
heard it asserted that the Fish Hawk is sometimes drawn under
the water and drowned, when it has attempted to seize a fish
which is too strong for it, and that some of these birds have
been found sticking by their talons to the back of sturgeons
and other large fishes. But, as nothing of this kind ever came
under my observation, I am unable to corroborate these reports.
The roosting place of this bird is generally on the top branches
of the tree on which its nest is placed, or of one close to
are very plentiful on the coast of New Jersey, near Great Egg
Harbour, where I have seen upwards of fifty of their nests in
the course of a day's walk, and where I have shot several in
the course of a morning. When wounded, they defend themselves
in the manner usually exhibited by Hawks, erecting the feathers
of the head, and trying to strike with their powerful talons
and bill, whilst they remain prostrate on their back.
fish which I have seen this bird take out of the water, was
a weak-fish, such as is represented in the plate, but sufficiently
large to weigh more than five pounds. The bird carried it into
the air with difficulty, and dropped it, on hearing the report
of a shot fired at it.
Falco Haliaetus, Wils. Amer, Orn., vol. v. p. 13. FALCO HALIAETUS,
Bonap. Syn., p. 26. FISH HAWK or OSPREY, Falco haliaetus, Aud.
Orn. Biog. vol. i. p. 415; vol. v. p. 362.
blue at the base and margin; cere light blue. Iris yellow. Feet
pale greyish-blue, tinged with brown; claws black. The general
colour of the upper parts is dusky brown, the tail barred with
pale brown. The upper part of the head and neck white, the middle
part of the crown dark brown. A broad band of the latter colour
from the bill down the side of the neck on each side. Under
parts of the neck brownish-white, streaked with dark brown.
Under parts generally white. Anterior tarsal feathers tinged
inches; extent of wings 54; bill along the back 2; tarsus 2
1/4, middle toe 3."