Natural History Notes on the Birds

Hawks, Eagles, Falcons, Kites, and Harrier

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About the categories

Name

Common name

Food

The main food category.

Feeding Techniques

How it acquires its food.

Habitat

What kind of area does the bird live?

Plumage

Is there similarity between the male and the female, between winter and spring, young and adult, or are there variations in the plumage amongst the species.

Distribution

Approximately where it is found in the United States.

Breeding

Unique aspects on how the species breeds.

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Special notes on the status or natural history of this bird.

Notes from A. C. Bent

Selections from the Life Histories of North American Birds, edited by A. C. Bent.

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Name

Osprey
Lesson Plan

Food

Fish

Feeding Techniques

Diving from the air into the water to grab fish with its sharp talons. A remarkable sight to watch.

Habitat

Generally along both east and west coasts, and can be seen in a large variety of both fresh and salt water.

Plumage

The male and the female similar plumage.

Distribution

Primarily along the coast of the United States but also in interior areas. Population slipped to very low numbers due to DDT. Since the banning of DDT the Osprey has made an excellent recovery.

Breeding

Both male and female raise the young using large nests usually located high up in a tree or structure. Lately has become very adaptive to human-made artificial nest structures.

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Notes from A.C. Bent

C. S. Allen (1892) records the following list of material that he personally observed in the nests on Plum Island: 

Brushwood, barrel staves, barrel beads, and hoops; bunches of seaweed, long masses of kelp, mullein stalks and cornstalks; laths, shingles, small pieces of boards from boxes; parts of oars, a broken boat-hook, tiller of a boat, a small rudder, and parts of life preservers; large pieces of fish nets, cork, and cedar net floats, and pieces of rope, some of them twenty feet in length; charred wood, sticks from hay bales, and short, thick logs of wood; a toy boat, with one sail still attached; sponges, long strings of conch eggs, and eggs of sharks and dogfish; a small axe with broken handle, part of a hay rake, old brooms, an old plane, a feather-duster, a deck swab, a blacking-brush, and a bookjack; a rubber boot, several old shoes, an old pair of trousers, a straw hat, and part of an oil skin 'sou'wester'; a long fish line, with sinkers and hooks attached, wound on a board; old bottles, tin cans, oyster shells, and large periwinkle shells, one rag doll, shells and bright colored stones, a small fruit basket, part of an eel pot, a small worn out door mat; wings of ducks and gulls, sometimes with parts of the skeleton attached, and one fresh crow's wing, as already related. A strange feature was the frequent presence of bleached bones from the pasture, as the ribs and long bones of sheep and cattle, and especially sheep skulls.

Nearly all the old nests had masses of dried cow dung, and large pieces of sod, with grass still growing.

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Name

Golden Eagle
Lesson Plan

Food

Wide variety of small mammals. The food the eagle eats depends on the season and what is available.

Feeding Techniques

Generally finds its prey while soaring, and then dives onto the prey using its very sharp talons to catch the prey.

Habitat

Open country, plains, and mountains. Needs to have space to soar and look for food.

Plumage

The male and the female have the same plumage.

Distribution

Found mostly in the western United States. This species is also found in Europe and Asia.

Breeding

Both male and female tend the nest and bring food. Nest can be either in a tree or on a cliff ledge.

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Buteos refers to the genus of birds that includes the Red-tailed Hawk, Ferruginous, Rough-legged, Red-shouldered, etc.

Notes from A.C. Bent

Courtship: The courtship of the golden eagle is much like that of the Buteos, to which it is closely related. It consists mainly of spectacular flight maneuvers, spiral sailings in ever-rising circles, in which the birds frequently come close together and then drift apart; as they pass they almost touch. Occasionally one will start a series of nose dives on half-closed wings, swooping up again between dives and giving vent to his joy in musical cries. This form of nuptial play is indulged in by both sexes and is kept up, more or less, all through the nesting season. Perhaps it is only a form of joyful exercise. The birds are apparently mated for life, and if one is killed the survivor immediately seeks a new mate.

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Bald Eagle
Lesson Plan

Food

Feeds on fish but also relies on carrion and stealing food from Ospreys and other birds.

Feeding Techniques

Looks for prey from a perch and also while flying. An opportunistic hunter. See below for an account of prey items in one nest.

Habitat

Perfers to be close to water. Young birds can be found in a variety of places during migration.

Plumage

The male and the female have the same plumage.

Distribution

Returning to its original distribution. Currently (2001) found primarily in the west and the eastern coastline.

Breeding

Both parents raise young in a large nest usually situated in a tree. Has to be around 4 to 5 years old before they breed.

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Bent touches on a problem that has been around for a long time: How to prove that a Bald Eagle has taken live livestock, instead of taking livestock that had already died.

Notes from A.C. Bent

Food: The large amount of food found in the nests of bald eagles containing young indicates that the eaglets, even when small, are fed on much the same food that the adults eat, or that the adults devour much of the food that is brought to the nest, or perhaps both. Mr. Pennock (MS.) found in a nest with two very young eaglets, "certainly not over a few days old", an entire black duck, a headless black duck, and a headless mullet that had weighed 1½ to 2 pounds. In another nest he found a partly eaten lesser scaup duck, an entire horned grebe, and three other grebes more or less mutilated. Mr. Nicholson says (MS.) that the amount of food found in the nests is astonishing, and often much of it has not been touched. He lists rabbits, mostly marsh rabbits, other undetermined mammals, turtles, coots, Florida ducks, lesser scaup ducks, pied-billed grebes, little blue herons, snowy egrets, terns, killdeers, catfish (by far the most frequent species found and some up to 15 pounds in weight), black bass, sargeantfish, crevalle, pompano, and other fish. Under one nest he found between 40 and 60 skulls of mammals, about the size of rabbits. He has never found snakes in an eagle's nest, nor has he ever seen wool or bones of lambs, even in the heart of the sheep country. There is no doubt, however, that bald eagles do occasionally carry off lambs, as several good observers have seen them do it, and the bones have been found in and under their nests. Probably many of these were picked up dead, but sheep herders generally regard eagles as destructive enemies.

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Name

Snail Kite
Lesson Plan

Food

It is no surprise that the Snail Kite eats mostly, snails. The large apple snails. Also supplements its diet with rodents, crabs and even a turtle or two.

Feeding Techniques

Uses its specially adapted beak to extract the snail from the shell.

Habitat

The marshes of Florida

Plumage

The male and the female have different plumage.

Distribution

While there is a strong population in South America the only birds in the United States are found in Florida. The population is threatened by the fluctuating water supply in Florida and the diminishing wetlands.

Breeding

Both parents tend the young.

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Bent compares the flight of the everglade kite to the "marsh hawk" which is an older name for the Northern Harrier. Everglade Kite is an older name for Snail Kite. Some day Snail Kite will be an older name for a newer name given to this bird. Over the first 30 years that I studied birds I knew the Great Egret first as the American Egret, then the Common Egret and then as the Great Egret. This is one of the challenges of studying any animal science. An attempt is made to make the name of the species more accurate and more descriptive.

There are not too many examples of a species like the Snail Kite that eats only one type of food.

Ampullaria depressa is a former scientific name for the freshwater apple snail which now has the scientific name of Pomacea paludosa.

Notes from A.C. Bent

Food: The everglade kite has been well named "snail hawk", for it feeds exclusively on the meat of a large fresh-water snail (Ampullaria depressa), which formerly abounded all over the Everglades and is still abundant in some other fresh-water marshes and sluggish streams in Florida and in many places in South America. It is useless to look for this kite where these snails have been killed off by drainage or drought, as in southern Florida. Their presence can be detected by their pearly egg clusters on the sawgrass or reeds. The kites search for the snails in the open places in the marshes or in shallow ponds, beating slowly back and forth, low over the ground, after the manner of marsh hawks, or hovering over the water like a gull. When the snail is located the kite plunges down to secure it and flies with it in its claws to some favorite perch on a stump, post, low tree, or bush; often an old deserted nest is used as a feeding station. Here the snail is neatly extracted with the aid of the kite's long hooked beak, admirably suited for the purpose, and the shell is dropped unbroken. That the birds use the same perch regularly is shown by the large number of empty shells often found in such places, sometimes as many as 200 or 300. There is no evidence to indicate that this kite ever eats anything but these mollusks.

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Name

White-tailed Kite
Lesson Plan

Food

Small rodents

Feeding Techniques

Hunts from the air and drops on prey using its talons to capture it.

Habitat

Open fields; usually wetlands.

Plumage

The male and the female have the same plumage. Immature birds are brownish.

Distribution

California and Texas

Breeding

Nest built at top of tree by both sexes.

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

One of the success stories is the come back of this bird from the brink of extinction. I birded extensively between the years of 1960 and 1995 in the area that is talked about below and I witnessed the dramatic increase in the population of the White-tailed Kite.

extirpated - eliminated from an area

Notes from A.C. Bent

The above name was applied to the North American bird by Bangs and Penard (1920) to distinguish it from the smaller South American race, to which the name leucurits was originally applied. The northern bird is larger, with longer wing and tail and relatively wider tail feathers. They say of the two ranges: "The small southern form ranges from Argentina and Chile, northward to Venezuela; the large northern form from California, Texas, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Florida, southward through Mexico to British Honduras and Guatemala. There is thus a wide area in southern Central America and northern South America between the ranges of the two forms as outlined above, where the species apparently does not occur at all."

This gentle and attractive bird seems to have become exceedingly rare, or to have been entirely extirpated, in the eastern portions of its North American range. During my six seasons, or parts of seasons, spent in various portions of Florida I have never seen this kite; once a special trip was made to a section where our guide said they had recently nested, but no sign of them was found. Donald J. Nicholson tells me that he has not seen one there since 1910. We could not find it in southern Texas, and I have no recent records of it there. In certain sections of California it seems to be holding its own, though exceedingly local in its distribution, and nowhere universally abundant. I doubt if it ever was very abundant, although Cooper (1870) referred to it as "quite abundant in the middle districts of California, remaining in large numbers during winter among the extensive tule marshes of the Sacramento and other valleys", and Belding (1890) considered it "still a common resident" about these marshes "in the centre of the State." But Belding quotes Dr. B. W. Evermann, as calling it "a rare resident" in Ventura County, as early as 1886; and he quotes W. E. Bryant as saying that "it is still a very rare resident" in Alameda County. It seemed to be the general opinion, at that time, that the white-tailed kite was a disappearing species. As a result, it has since been rigidly protected by law and exempted from collecting permits.

Now comes more recent light on the subject, which is more encouraging. Dr. Gayle B. Pickwell (1930) has published the results of his exhaustive study of the literature and his field work in the Santa Clara Valley. Referring to past and present conditions in that region, he says:

In spite of the fact that Taylor, in 1889, wrote of the Kite, "I venture to assert that there are not more than four pairs this year breeding within a radius of seven miles of that city (San Jose)", today, forty-one years later, there are still that many or more. * *

Let us estimate that an average of four pairs of Kites (too high an estimate for some, too low, perhaps, for others) frequents each. We have then sixteen pairs of Kites in this entire valley. Twenty pairs, forty birds, I feel convinced, account for every Kite from Gilroy to the Bay and from Mount Hamilton to the summit of the Santa Cruz Mountains.

The Kite was certainly more numerous in San Joaquin and Sacramento counties forty to sixty years ago than it is now. In other regions where it was present, especially in marsh districts, undoubtedly it has been seriously reduced in numbers. The condition in hill sections inhabited by it can be but guessed at. Here it probably has suffered least. ...

This Kite is probably a dying species, never within historical times having predominated as such raptorial birds as the Desert Sparrow Hawk or Red-tailed Hawk for instance.

Since the above was written Dr. Pickwell (1932) has published a "requiem" for the kites in this valley; whereas he estimated that there were possibly 16 to 20 of these kites in the Santa Clara Valley in 1928, he now says: "This day (October 30, 1931) there cannot be more than two or three, and all too possibly none." We hope that this is a mere local condition.

His observations on the home life of these kites were made in the foothills of the Mount Hamilton Range in Santa Clara County:

The Slatore ranch lies in the foothills whose summits are grass-covered with wild oats and bromes, with scattered valley oaks and live oaks, and here and there a cluster of California coffee berry (Rhamnus californica) and gnarled Sam bucus. Rocky outcrops, where more moisture may be trapped, have curious copses of scrubby growths of toyon, holly-leaved cherry, sages and sage brush; and the gullies lined with buckeye, California laurel, and poison oak run down to Silver Creek where the laurels and willows predominate. But the hills are mostly smooth as velvet, golden velvet most of the year, and green oaks are scattered over the velvet, like buttons on a buxom vest. In three buttons on this velvet vest were occupied nests of the White-tailed Kite.

That such a habitat is not an unusual Kite home is shown by the fact that all the Kites of Santa Clara Valley today are, excepting one or two pairs, restricted to the lower foothills of the Mount Hamilton Range and Santa Cruz Mountains, on either side of the north end of the Valley. The exception is of not more than two pairs that occur to the north of San Jose between that city and the Alviso salt marshes. These frequent the cottonwoods and eucalyptus trees of the Coyote Creek and, not infrequently, are seen hunting over the treeless marshes at the foot of the Bay in common with Marsh Hawks, native there, and Turkey Vultures and Red-tailed Hawks from the hills.

Bendire (1892) says of their haunts: "Their usual resorts during the breeding season are the banks of streams or the fresh water marshes, especially if a few scattered live oaks or willow groves are close by, and their favorite nesting sites are the tops of live oaks, although other trees are also made use of whose foliage securely conceals the nest during incubation."

The impression I gained from men I talked with in California and from my own limited experience there was that this kite shows a decided preference for the vicinity of water, fresh-water marshes and streams; in such places it finds its food readily available all through the year, and it probably does not wander far away even in winter. According to Audubon (1840) it was found in similar haunts in Texas and Florida.

Nesting: The white-tailed kite nests in a variety of situations. Usually the nesting pairs are widely separated, but sometimes several pairs may be located near each other in favorable situations. Two of the nests studied by Dr. Pickwell (1930) were in "valley oaks (Quercus lobata) , and the third a coast live oak (Quercus agrifolia). The three formed an oblique or scalene triangle on the rolling hills with the longest side 320 yards and the others 200 and 175 yards respectively. To anyone conversant, with the wide spacing of most raptorial birds this juxtaposition of the Kite nest territories seems unusual: indeed, so much in contrast with their near-relatives, semicommunal." The data, which he compiled from the literature cited, show that 11 nests were in live oaks, 3 or more in unspecified oaks, 2 or more in sycamores, and 1 in a maple. The heights from the ground varied from 18 to 50 feet; another that he measured was 59 feet. The nests were made of sticks and twigs of oaks in most cases, one being made of willow twigs. They were lined with grasses, dry stubble, barley straw, weed stems, rootlets, or Spanish moss. Some were described as flat, flimsy structures, and others were large, wellmade, substantial, and deeply hollowed. Of five references that describe nesting sites, "two describe foothills (with oaks), two stream banks (or marshes with live oaks and willow groves nearby), and one a willow swamp."

Dr. B. W. Evermann wrote to Major Bendire that his first nest "was near the end of one of the topmost limbs of a cottonwood." Chester Barlow (1897), for one season at least, indulged in the bad practice of robbing the kites of their second sets. He found that they required about three weeks, or from 19 to 23 days, to lay a second set after the first set had been taken. These birds will almost always make a second attempt to raise a brood, in which they should not be discouraged, for whether they will make a third attempt or not is an open question.

I can add a little from my limited personal experience with the nesting habits of the white-tailed kite, as two of the three nests I saw were in situations different from any mentioned above. I was told that there were about six pairs of these kites nesting on an island in the Suisun Bay marshes. On April 15, 1929, my informant, James Moffitt, took me there to investigate it. It was a low flat island a mile or more square, mostly covered with long, thick grass, quite marshy in places, but largely dry. It was partially surrounded by a canal, which we navigated in a power boat. Extending along the banks of this canal in a curving line was a row of tall eucalyptus trees over a mile long. It was in these trees that the kites were nesting. As we approached we saw a kite sitting in the top of a dead tree, so we landed; and, after a short search, we saw what looked like a nest about 40 feet up in the thick top of a eucalyptus. After we had rapped the tree several times the kite flew off. It was a very uncomfortable tree to climb, but I managed to reach the nest, which was firmly lodged in the topmost crotch. I was surprised to find in it four small young, recently hatched. The nest was well made of small fine twigs, deeply hollowed, and profusely lined with dry grass; it was rather bulky and filled the crotch quite deeply. It had probably been used in previous years, as these kites have often been known to repair and use their old nests. Wishing to find a nest more conveniently located for photography, we spent considerable time hunting through the long row of eucalyptus trees; but, although we located at least three other pairs of kites, we could not find another nest. Although well hidden from below, the nests are open from above and give the birds a good lookout; the birds probably left the nests as they saw us coming.

Another nest was shown to me by M. C. Badger on April 27, 1929. It was located in an extensive tract of small willows and cottonwoods, mixed with a dense tangle of underbrush and vines, growing over many dead or fallen trees and branches, all of which covered a broad sandy plain along a river in Ventura County. The nest was not over 15 feet from the ground, yet well hidden in a thick mass of tangled vines in the top of a small dead willow. It was a well-made nest of coarse sticks and fine twigs, deeply hollowed and lined, in the bottom of the hollow only, with strips of inner bark. It measured 21 inches over all, and the inner cavity was about 7 inches in diameter; it held three eggs. One of the birds was seen in the vicinity, but it did not come near the nest. As the eggs were warm, she had probably slipped off when she heard us coming through the thick brush. Another nest (pl. 17) that he showed me was about 30 feet up in the topmost twigs of a small willow in the middle of another extensive tract of willows, cottonwoods, and thick underbrush.

Eggs: The eggs of the white-tailed kite are among the most beautiful and richly colored of any of the hawks' eggs; consequently they are greatly in demand among oologists. The set usually consists of four or five eggs, sometimes only three, and I have one record of six eggs. In shape they vary from ovate to oval, and the shell is smooth but not glossy. The white, or creamy-white, ground color is usually largely, and often wholly, concealed by the profuse markings of rich browns, large blotches of dark "bone brown" or "liver brown", over washes or splashes of brighter browns, such as "burnt sienna", "amber brown", "hazel", "tawny", or "ochraceous-tawny"; some eggs are finely spotted with the darker browns over the lighter washes, or more rarely over the whitish ground color; in some eggs the heaviest markings are concentrated at one end and very rarely the rest of the egg or the entire egg is mainly white; the splashes and blotches have a longitudinal trend. The measurements of 50 eggs average 42.5 by 32.8 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 45.3 by 33.3, 42.4 by 35.6 and 38.1 by 30 millimeters.

Young: Dr. Pickwell's (1930) evidence "indicates that the incubation period is not less than 30 days. Young are in the nest about 30 days." Probably both sexes incubate; the sexes are so much alike that this is difficult to determine unless the act of nest relief is seen; such an observation does not seem to have bcen made. But both parents are known to share in the care of the young and sometimes an exceptionally aggressive pair will swoop down at the intruder. Chester Barlow (1895) relates the following:

After leaving the female flew over and around me a few times and was presently joined by the male, both flying near and uttering a raspy, clacking note which I had never heard before. This no doubt was giving vent to their anger. Now and then the short, sharp whistle characteristic of the bird was uttered. Soon the female flew to an oak a short distance away and the male took up the battle in earnest. Soaring away perhaps 100 yards he came swiftly toward me almost on a level with my head until within about ten feet when he would switch upwards. Then he would soar up and swoop down at lightning speed, always changing his course before reaching me. The rush of his wings was plainly audible. Again he was joined by the female but after a few attacks both flew to near-by trees where they remained till I had departed.

The young, according to Dr. Pickwell (1930), show, the usual reactions, common to all raptorial birds, when too closely approached. "At first approach the young kite spreads wide the wings and backs off with mouth agape, emitting a rasping note. If the tormentor persists, the bird thrusts its feet forward with a resultant dropping back upon the tail. The third and last stage is to drop completely on the back and to present the most impressive weapons a kite has, the talons."

Plumages: The smallest young, such as I found in the nest, are sparsely covered with short, dull-white down, tinged with "pinkish buff" on the crown and dorsal tracts. At a later downy stage Dr. Pickwell (1930) found the young bird clothed in "heavy bluish down." A nearly full-grown juvenal is a beautiful bird; the forehead is white and the crown mostly "cinnamon", heavily streaked with dusky; the back and scapulars are "hair brown" to "drab-gray", broadly edged with "cinnamon", or white and "cinnamon"; the tail is "pale to pallid mouse gray", with a darker subterminal band and white tips; the lesser and median wing coverts are brownish black, the latter tipped with white; the remiges are "light to pale mouse gray", mostly white-tipped, the primaries darker near the tips; the under parts are white, heavily suffused with "cinnamon" on the breast and less so on the belly; the lores are dusky. Dr. Pickwell (1930) adds: "Toes and tarsus, yellow; beak and claws, black; eyelids, blue; iris, brown."

This plumage is worn but a short time, and the bright colors soon disappear by wear and fading. A postjuvenal molt begins in July and continues through the fall; it involves all the contour plumage and the lesser and median wing coverts. Some November birds have nearly completed the molt but are still largely brown on the back. A January bird shows the last of this molt and is renewing the scapulars and tail feathers. Except for the wing quills, which are probably not shed until later, the young bird is practically adult by spring.

Adults apparently have a prolonged molt late in summer and in fall; a December bird has not yet completed the molt of the wings and tail but is otherwise in fresh plumage. I have seen South American birds molting their flight feathers in July and October, their winter and spring.

Food: The food of this kite includes field mice, wood rats, pocket gophers, ground squirrels, shrews, small birds, small snakes, lizards, frogs, grasshoppers, crickets, beetles, and other insects. Probably very few birds and few of the larger mammals are taken, but mainly the smaller vertebrates and the insects named. It is evidently a highly beneficial species. Dr. Loye Miller (1926) noted, from the examination of a well-filled stomach:

"that both its appetite and its table manners are far from dainty. Remains of four meadow mice (Microtus) and an entire shrew (Sorex oracles) were Identified In the contents of stomach and crop. The shrew was absolutely entire. The largest mouse had been torn apart In the lower thoracic region and the hinder portion bolted entire with skin and fur in place. Two mouse heads had been swallowed hair and all. The fore quarters of the mice seemed to have been stripped of skin, but great masses of skin and fur had been swallowed after stripping them off. Viscera and small bones indicated that most of both mice had been eaten, and there is no reason to believe that any part had been discarded. Well cleaned bones from two other Microtus skulls were still retained in the stomach.

Dr. Pickwell (1930) writes:

The Kite hunts, not by soaring and searching from a lofty position as do Buteos, nor by the low harrier method of the Marsh Hawk, but by a rather erratic scouting from a position intermediate between these two. When prey is seen the bird "stands" with wings quiet. If the air is moving sufficiently to permit it to "kite", as its name would intimate its habit to be, or beats the wings slowly from an angle well above the back. During such a stand it drops its legs. If it stoops it makes no falcon drop of lightning speed with wings drawn into a thin wedge along the sides of the body, but keeps them up in a V angle above and slips down with legs hanging and at a speed one would never guess was more than fast enough to catch a snail. But that they do catch prey, some of it very agile, there is no doubt. And that this method is used to catch it there is no doubt either, for they have been observed to do so.

Laurence G. Peyton (1915) says: "One morning, while working near the nest, my brother saw one of the Kites returning from the direction of the river with something in its claws. While still some distance from the nest it began calling and was quickly joined by the other bird. The first bird remained hovering in the air like a Sparrow Hawk, while the other darted up underneath it, took the food from its claws and returned to the nest while the other sailed away."

Behavior: The flight of the white-tailed kite is light, airy, and graceful; often it is a pretty fluttering flight with quick wing beats, or a stationary hovering flight like a sparrow hawk; and at times it is quite swift. I noticed that when the bird is soaring or scaling there is a bend in the wing, as in the osprey. Dr. Pickwell (1930) describes it as "with wings slightly raised and down-curving at the tips." Also he says: "The leg-dangling habit of the Kites is one of their most conspicuous oddities. On the nesting territory the protesting birds flew here and there nearly constantly, uttering their cries, beating the air slowly with short strokes, the wings held up at a sharp angle above the back, the legs dangling from a point about the center of the body."

W. H. Hudson (1920) says of the South American form:

Its wing-power is indeed marvellous. It delights to soar, like the Martins, during a high wind, and will spend hours in this sport, rising and falling alternately, and at times, seeming to abandon itself to the fury of the gale, is blown away like thistle-down, until, suddenly recovering itself, it shoots back to Its original position. Where there are tall Lombardy poplar-trees these birds amuse themselves by perching on the topmost slender twigs, balancing themselves with outspread wings, each bird on a separate tree, until the tree-tops are swept by the wind from under them, when they often remain poised almost motionless in the air until the twigs return to their feet.

Although ordinarily gentle birds, these kites are often very pugnacious toward certain large birds, crows and hawks, that invade their territory. Several observers have seen them persistently drive away crows and the various Buteos. Dr. Pickwell (1930) writes:

In fact many of our records of Kites have come about because our attention has been drawn first to a large hurried Buteo in the distance and glasses showed there not only Buteo but Kites above swooping down, one, then the other (Kites are nearly always in pairs), in huge parabolas reaching a hundred feet or more above the harried giant. Down one comes with a rush and swings up again. Immediately after, the other one drops, then up, and so around and around they alternate until the distance and blue swallows up Buteo and tormentors. This game is played the year around, in the breeding season and out. Perhaps, as with the excitement that small birds display over the discovery of an owl, there may be a meaning in the Kites' pugnacity. It might well be that the contents of the Kite nest, in the very top of its oak, concealed from below but completely exposed from above, are a temptation to these big hawks the Kites so persistently annoy. If so, then there is something of significance in the fact that Turkey Vultures, though they have always been, in the Kite territory, more numerous than all other large birds, are never molested.

Voice: Dr. Pickwell (1930) also gives the best description of this bird's notes, as follows:

The notes are several in number and no one word or term describes them all. The most frequently uttered is a spasmodic short whistle: keep, keep, keep. At a distance it sounds like chip, chip, chip, or kip, kip, kip, kip, or even more chicken-like, cheep, cheep, cheep. This is the note that is given as the birds beat slowly here and there with legs dangling, and it expresses the mildest solicitude. Undoubtedly Dawson (1923) means this note with his "clewk". The next is more highly pitched and longer, a "plaintive whistle" in truth. It may be transcribed as kreek or kreek. It may be as repeatedly and rapidly uttered as the former and expresses greater solicitude. The last and most solicitous, uttered usually only when an intruder is climbing the tree to a nest, is a prolonged kee-rak or kee-rek. This note comes at the end of a series of keep notes. Its terminus is lower and almost guttural, reminding me much of the whang of a focal-plane shutter. The notes of the young are two. They have a mild, high-pitched kree-eek like the adults, and when at the height of their intimidation display they have a harsh scream uttered with the mouth enormously agape. This reminds one much of the rasping scream of the Barn Owl.

Field marks: The most striking field mark of this kite is its whiteness; in the distance it seems to be wholly white; it might easily be mistaken for a white domestic pigeon, except for its peculiar flight. But it can be recognized by its flight, described above, as far as its outline can be seen. If near enough its black shoulders and, at times, its dangling legs are diagnostic. As seen from below, it appears wholly white with a dark crescent at the bend of the wing and gray at the extreme tip; its tail is decidedly rounded.

Enemies: Milton S. Ray has sent me some extensive notes on his experiences with these kites in several of the central counties of California, from the late nineties up to 1932. He says that jays, magpies, or crows will sometimes puncture or destroy the eggs in an incomplete set. Once he saw a raccoon leaving a nest, and the eggs, which it had contained previously, had entirely vanished. He mentions a very loosely built nest, "so frail and open that one of the four eggs partially fell through the nest." Another nest "was so compactly built that it held water" and, after a storm, the eggs were "almost submerged"; the nest was subsequently deserted.

He agrees with other observers as to the recent disappearance of these kites, saying: "Occasional birds were recorded in the last decade but at the present writing (1932) the birds seem to have disappeared from almost every point simultaneously." As to the cause of its decline, he says:

This Kite is peculiarly friendly and unsuspicious and therefore exceptionally easy to shoot. This is particularly true during the nesting period. Through a mistaken belief that the bird preys on quail, ducks, and other game birds the kites have been widely shot by hunters, gamekeepers, and ranchers. 'the 'hunts" of gun clubs instituted by the various cartridge companies to exterminate owls, hawks, jays, and crows (these hunts are a curse of the present generation) have been largely responsible for the extermination of these beautiful birds. In a number of cases I have actually been able to prevent the birds being shot. In some instances I have found that the rather close resemblances this kite bears to the similer gulls, as Bonaparte's and the kittiwake, has also prevented it from being killed.

DISTRIBUTION

Range: The Southern United States south to central South America; accidental in central and northern States. Not considered migratory and now apparently almost extinct in North America.

Although the white-tailed kite is a transcontinental species, its range (in the United States) is more or less discontinuous, there being great areas from which it is practically or entirely unknown. The range extends north to central California (Geyserville, St. Helena, and Stockton); Oklahoma (Fort Arbuckle); and Florida (near Lake Kissimmee). East to Florida (near Lake Kissimmee and Fort Myers) ; eastern British Guiana (Demerara River) ; eastern Brazil (Porto Real, Bahia, and Itarare) ; and eastern Argentina (Concepcion, Baradero, and Buenos Aires). South to Argentina (Buenos Aires); and Chile (Arauco). West to Chile (Arauco and Santiago) ; northwestern Argentina (Tucuman) ; northern Brazil (Forte de San Joaquim) ; western British Guiana (Mount Rorainta); Lower California (San Carlos and Cape Colnett); and California (Alainitos, Saticoy, Santa Barbara, Hollister, San Jose, Santa Clara, Lake Merced, Nicasio, and Geyserville).

The range as outlined is for the entire species, but the United States form, E. l. majusculus, is not known south of Lower California.

Casual records: Audubon recorded the white-tailed kite as breeding on the Santee River, S. C., but Wayne (1910) believes this to be an error. A specimen was recorded from Martha's Vineyard, Mass., on May 30, 1910; one was shot near Kenner, La., on October 11, 1890; Ridgway reported a pair seen at Mount Carmel, Ill., during the summer of 1863 or 1864; one was said to have been taken near Ann Arbor, Mich., in September 1878, and one in Livingston County on April 21, 1879 (Barrows, 1912) ; while it also has been reported from northern California, as a specimen was obtained about August 6, 1924, at Miranda, and there is also a record from Red Bluff (C. H. Townsend, 1887).

Egg dates: California to Texas: 120 records, February 12 to June 21; 60 records, April 2 to 29.

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Mississippi Kite
Lesson Plan

Food

Large insects

Feeding Techniques

One method is to capture insects while in the air, similar to a flycatcher. See below.

Habitat

Edge of woods.

Plumage

The male and the female have the same plumage.

Distribution

Southeast of the US

Breeding

Nest built at top of tree by both sexes.

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

This account presents us a fairly remarkable image of these predators contorting themselves in the air as they grab flying insects.

Notes from A.C. Bent

Food: Mr. Stevens says in his notes that these kites feed on the wing, snatching locusts from plants and seizing cicadas in flight. A flock of from 3 to 20 will sail about a person, a horseman, or a team, traveling through grassy flats and bushy places, and seize the cicadas as they are scared up. The insect is grasped in the claws and eaten in the air. Usually only the abdomen of the cicada is eaten and the remainder is dropped; the wings and legs of locusts are often picked off and the remainder swallowed. He has found the remains of toads, mice, and young rabbits in the nests with young.

Audubon (1840) graphically describes its feeding as follows:

He glances towards the earth with his fiery eye; sweeps along, now with the gentle breeze, now against it; seizes here and there the high-flying giddy bug, and allays his hunger without fatigue to wing or talon. Suddenly he spies some creeping thing, that changes, like the cameleon from vivid green to dull brown, to escape his notice. It is the red-throated panting lizard that has made its way to the highest branch of a tree in quest of food. Casting upwards a sidelong look of fear, it remains motionless, so well does it know the prowess of the bird of prey; but its caution is vain; it has been perceived, its fate is sealed, and the next moment it is swept away.

All writers seem to agree that the Mississippi kite feeds almost exclusively on the larger insects, such as cicadas, locusts, grasshoppers, crickets, katydids, dragonflies, and large beetles, but small snakes, lizards, and frogs are sometimes taken. Birds apparently are never molested, and small birds show no fear of it.

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Sharp-shinned Hawk
Lesson Plan

Food

Small animals including small birds. See below.

Feeding Techniques

Very agile flyer allows it to pursue very well.

Habitat

Varied habitat.

Plumage

The male and the female have the same plumage. ; adults take 4 years to obtain adult plumage.

Distribution

Throughout the US

Breeding

Large nest is placed midway in a dense coniferous tree.

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Notes from A.C. Bent

Food: Dr. A. K. Fisher (1893) gives a long list of the food of the sharp-shinned hawk and then summarizes it, as follows: "Of 159 stomachs examined, 6 contained poultry or game birds; 99, other birds; 6, mice; 5, insects; and 52 were empty." It is especially fond of young chickens and domestic pigeons, and will make frequent raids on the poultry yard, as long as the supply lasts, or until a charge of shot puts an end to it. The larger females are strong enough to carry off a half-grown chicken or an adult pigeon. Herbert L. Stoddard (1931) has seen one carry off a full-grown bobwhite; and other quails are easy prey for it. R. B. Simpson (1911) has seen it pick a red squirrel off a limb and "fly heavily away with its struggling victim, holding it down as far away from its body as possible." He also saw one attack a pileated woodpecker, which was dodging around a tree trunk and screaming; the hawk's career was promptly ended by a charge of shot. C. J. Maynard (1896) relates the following: These small Hawks are very bold and will not hesitate to attack birds which are larger than themselves, and I once saw one strike down a fully grown Night Heron that chanced to be abroad by day. The Heron was flying from one island to another across some marshes, when the Hawk darted out of a neighboring wood and pounced upon him. The force of the shock was so great that the slowly moving Heron fell to the ground at once but, fortunately for him, in falling, he gave vent to one of those discordant squawks which only a bird of this species is capable of uttering, and which so astonished and frightened the Hawk, that it completely forgot to take advantage of its prostrate prey, but darted away; while the Heron regained its feet, shook itself, and mounting in air, flew wildly into the nearest thicket.

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Cooper's Hawk
Lesson Plan

Food

Mostly birds and additional small mammals.

Feeding Techniques

Very agile flyer.

Habitat

Varied.

Plumage

The male and the female have the same plumage.

Distribution

Throughout the US

Breeding

Large nest is placed midway in a dense coniferous tree.

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

As with the Sharp-shinned Hawk, the female is larger than the male. Various theories have been developed to explain this reversal of the usual pattern of the male being larger than the female.

Notes from A.C. Bent

Behavior: The flight of Cooper's hawk is very similar to that of the sharp-shinned hawk, a low, swift, dashing flight. It surprises its prey by a sudden, swift dash, pouncing upon it before it has a chance to escape. Its short wings and long tail give it such control of its movements that it can dart in and out among the branches of the forest trees with impunity, or dodge through the intricacies of thickets where its victims are hiding. Dr. Daniel S. Gage has sent me some notes illustrating its crafty methods of approach. He was watching a robin at the base of a tree in some thick woods when he saw a hawk come, flying swiftly and keeping the trunk of the tree between him and the robin; when close to the tree the hawk swerved around it and barely missed catching the robin. Again he saw a hawk approach a field of tall weeds, in which some small birds were feeding, flying close to the ground behind a fence, dash over the fence, and pounce on one of the birds. On another occasion, a hawk had seen, while perched on a distant tree, some chickens in a yard close to a house; he flew low, behind the house until close to it, rose over the house and pounced down on one of the chickens, which had no chance to escape until he was right upon them.

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Red-tailed Hawk
Lesson Plan

Food

Wide variety of animals including mammals, reptiles and some birds. The food changes with the territory.

Feeding Techniques

Looks for food while on the wing, dives down to right above the prey and then drops on the prey and grabs it with its talons. Hunting technique varies with the prey.

Habitat

Diverse areas. Becoming more and more suburbanized.

Plumage

The male and the female have the same plumage. This species does vary greatly throughout the country.

Distribution

Throughout the US

Breeding

Both sexes raise the young. Nest usually has about 3 eggs.

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Compare these notes on the courtship of Red-tailed Hawks with the mating behavior of the Red-shouldered Hawk.

Notes from A.C. Bent

Courtship: I believe that this and other large hawks remain mated for life, but, if one of the pair is killed, the survivor soon secures a new mate. The birds are apparently in pairs when they arrive on their breeding grounds, but they indulge in nuptial demonstrations more or less all through the nesting season. I have seen a pair of these hawks, in May when there were young in the nest, indulging in their joint flight maneuvers high above the woods where the nest was located; they soared in great circles, crossing and recrossing each other's paths, sometimes almost touching, and mounting higher and higher until almost out of sight; finally one partially closed its wings and made a thrilling dive from a dizzy height, checking its speed just before it reached the woods. E. L. Sumner, Jr., refers in his notes to such a flight: "About ten times, while they were circling near together, the male would lower his legs and adjust his circles so that he came above his mate, and about four times he actually touched her back, or so it seemed." M. P. Skinner says in his notes: "These hawks at times performed wonderful evolutions high in the air, either one bird alone or several at a time. Such hawks would mount up to a high altitude, then half close the wings and drop down on an invisible incline at great speed only to open the wings again and shoot up at an equal angle. This was repeated again and again while the hawk described a series of deep V's and gradually passed out of sight in the distance."

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Name

Red-shouldered Hawk
Lesson Plan

Food

Wide variety of vertebrates

Feeding Techniques

Looks for food while on the wing, dives down to right above the prey and then drops on the prey and grabs it with its talons. Hunting technique varies with the prey.

Habitat

Open forest usually near some water source

Plumage

Wide variation between the eastern birds and the western birds. The male and the female have the same plumage. .

Distribution

Eastern states and the Pacific coast

Breeding

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

The courtship procedure is a lot more intricate and dramatic than the actual mating as this account demonstrates.

Notes from A.C. Bent

On March 24, 1930, while crossing a back-lying mowing between two plots of woodland, a red-shouldered hawk was seen to come from the west and begin to mount higher by spiraling, until it had gained an altitude of about 1,000 feet, screaming the common kee-you, kee-you note every little while, usually on the outer swoop for the next vault in the rise. At the zenith of its flight the calls were loudest, two-syllabled screams.  

Just at this time another hawk, the female, came from the west, crossed 50 feet overhead, and alighted in a bare oak 200 yards away at the edge of the woodland. The male had evidently been watching the female's approach, as, several moments before I knew of her presence, he began shooting downward with swift lunges for several hundred feet at once, checking the rush and sweeping a wide spiral before again dropping down. No sooner had the female alighted than the male, from a height of at least 200 feet, made a last rapid drop that landed him on the female's back. Just the second before this contact she had spread her wings and crouched down close to the branch and crosswise of it. Copulation was immediate, occupying about 60 seconds. Then the male hopped along the branch and they sat facing opposite directions, immovable, a foot or so apart, for 10 minutes. At the end of this period, the male launched forth and flew back toward the west, where he proceeded to climb beyond the range of the naked eye. Soon after he left the oak, the female followed, but did not go near his location.

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Rough-legged Hawk
Lesson Plan

Food

Wide variety of vertebrates and invertebrates. See below.

Feeding Techniques

Looks for food while on the wing, dives down to right above the prey and then drops on the prey and grabs it with its talons. Hunting technique varies with the prey.

Habitat

Open fields, plains, wetlands

Plumage

The male and the female have the same plumage.

Distribution

Throughout most of the US; except southeastern states

Breeding

Nest is a platform of sticks placed in the middle of a coniferous tree. Quite often the nest is used a number of years.

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

One of the reasons that the US government wanted A. C. Bent to gather the life histories of the birds was to determine which species were beneficial and which were not beneficial. Being beneficial usually meant that they ate harmful rodents and insects, or at least did not eat animals raised by farmers.

Notes from A.C. Bent

Food: As before remarked, the rough-legged hawk is highly beneficial to man in its feeding habits, as it preys on harmful rodents and insects. Seldom or never does it take birds. Dr. A. K. Fisher (1893) gives a table showing the results of examinations of 49 stomachs of this bird. Forty contained mice: nearly all meadow mice: and two contained rabbits, one a gopher and one a weasel. One contained a lizard and 70 insects, and four were empty. Junius Henderson (1927) quotes various observers and their stomach examinations and finds no record of bird remains. Field mice, so destructive to young orchards, were by far the most abundant. In one case the stomach was "filled with grasshoppers", and the latter pests are eagerly devoured by this hawk. In the North, lemmings constitute the chief of its diet.

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Ferruginous Hawk
Lesson Plan

Food

Mammals

Feeding Techniques

Looks for food while on the wing, dives down to right above the prey and then drops on the prey and grabs it with its talons. Hunting technique varies with the prey.

Habitat

Plains, prairie

Plumage

The male and the female have the same plumage.

Distribution

Western states

Breeding

Nest is a platform of sticks placed in the middle of a coniferous tree. Quite often the nest is used a number of years.

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

phase - In some species, especially hawks, there are color variations within the species. Red-tailed Hawks especially have light phases, regular phases and dark phases. But unlike the usual use of the word phase, the individual birds will not grow out of their phase. If they are born as a dark phase they will spend their life as a dark phase bird.

melanistic - a very dark morph bird is called melanistic.

Notes from A.C. Bent

Mr. Cameron (1914) says that. the young bird requires four or five years to attain its fully adult plumage, but I should say that at the end of the second year the young bird molts into a plumage that is practically adult, although from then on the under parts continue to become more extensively white, nearly immaculate in the oldest birds, except for the brown tibiae and barred flanks; the tail becomes progressively whiter and finally pure white, except for faint gray or tawny clouding on the outer webs; and the upper parts become paler, with more white in very old birds. 

The above descriptions apply to birds in the light phase. Dark phase birds are not especially rare and are often found mated with light phase birds. Nearly half of the birds we saw in Saskatchewan were in melanistic plumage. Two young birds were taken from a nest and reared in captivity, one of which developed into a melanistic bird and one into the light phase. A brood of four young, taken from a nest in North Dakota in 1902 by Dr. Louis B. Bishop, developed into four dark juvenals.

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Gray Hawk
Lesson Plan

Food

Lizards, birds, insects

Feeding Techniques

Looks for food while on the wing, dives down to right above the prey and then drops on the prey and grabs it with its talons. Hunting technique varies with the prey.

Habitat

Wooded areas generally near desert

Plumage

The male and the female have the same plumage. juvenile is brownish while adult is gray.

Distribution

The southern most parts of Arizona and New Mexico; can also be found in the southern tip of Texas.

Breeding

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

The Gray Hawk is listed as the Mexican Goshawk in Bent.

Notes from A.C. Bent

One of the greatest delights of my days spent in the mesquite forest near Tucson, Ariz., was the frequent glimpses we had of this beautiful little hawk sailing gracefully over the treetops. Its mantle of pearly gray and its breast finely barred with gray and white were well contrasted with a tail boldly banded with black and white. The exquisite combination of soft grays, black, and white made it, to my mind, one of the prettiest hawks I had ever seen. 

The mesquite forest, where these hawks were quite common. was on the banks of the Santa Cruz River and is more fully described under the preceding species. Major Bendire (1892) also found them common in "the timber in the Rillitto Creek bottom near Tucson" and says that Otho C. Poling found them "in a deep wooded canyon" in the Huachuca Mountains, where he was camped "among some thick spruce and sycamore woods."

He says further: "It seems to be found only in the vicinity of water courses, and not, like many of the other Raptores, on the dry and comparatively barren desert-like .

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Swainson's Hawk
Lesson Plan

Food

A wide variety of vertebrates.

Feeding Techniques

Looks for food while on the wing, dives down to right above the prey and then drops on the prey and grabs it with its talons. Hunting technique varies with the prey.

Habitat

Prairie

Plumage

The male and the female have the same plumage. Has a light and dark morph.

Distribution

Spends winter in South America, breeds throughout the west. Famous for having very large migrating flocks coming up from South America as they return toNorth America to breed. These large flocks are sometimes called "kettles".

Breeding

Nest is a platform of sticks placed in the middle of a coniferous tree. Quite often the nest is used a number of years.

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

In the account below Cameron is referring to Swainson's Hawks but uses the colloguial term, buzzard, which represents, for many people, any large hawk or vulture.

Notes from A.C. Bent

E. S. Cameron (1907) gives the following account of a remarkable flight observed in Montana:  

My first introduction to these hawks was in April, 1890, when an extraordinary invasion of them: probably nearly two thousand birds: alighted around the ranch where I was staying on the west bank of the Powder River. They came in the afternoon from a southerly direction and, for a time at least, followed the downward course of the river, as a neighbor living above reported the enormous hawk army which flew over. The wide river bottom where the ranch is situated is thickly overgrown with cottonwoods, and the fence of the saddle horse pasture all but joins the buildings. When the last birds had arrived, the trees inside this pasture were simply black with them; but as there appeared to be numbers beyond, I saddled my horse in order to reconnoitre further. * * Having ridden round the fence I found that not only were the trees filled with clusters of buzzards, but that the ground below was covered with them sitting in rows among the cattle, the sight surpassing anything I had hitherto seen in bird life. All were obviously worn out and appeared asleep; but those on the ground, if closely approached, were not too tired to fly up and join their comrades in the trees. .. I gave the estimated number of buzzards at about a thousand; but it became obvious afterwards that two thousand would have been nearer the true count, as twenty trees each containing fifty birds give a total of a thousand without including all those on the ground and in more distant cottonwoods.

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Name

Broad-winged Hawk
Lesson Plan

Food

Small mammals, amphibians, reptiles, birds

Feeding Techniques

Looks for food while on the wing, dives down to right above the prey and then drops on the prey and grabs it with its talons. Hunting technique varies with the prey.

Habitat

Wooded areas

Plumage

The male and the female have the same plumage.

Distribution

Eastern states

Breeding

Nest built by both sexes placed midway in large tree.

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Notes from A.C. Bent

Mr. Shelley has sent me the following interesting notes on one of its spectacular flight maneuvers: 

The soaring of the broad-winged hawk, in 1926, was watched on several occasions. A family group of six birds had been noted about a densely wooded tract and a hill known as Smith's Hill, where I often observed adults earlier in the year as they crossed over its rocky summit to hunt over the lower valleys to the west. Little time was available to spend with them, but with the young fledged and on the wing, their hunting excursion as a family unit was always a spectacular sight. A still more pleasing exhibition was when, toward the period of the fall migration, they met in what I considered a spirit of play. In this performance they resembled more than anything a batch of dry leaves lifted and tossed and whirled on a zephyr of brisk autumn wind. A low call would be given, believed to be from an adult, whereupon the birds if separated would congregate at the spot where the first bird wheeled and sailed and called some 200 feet in the air. Then, with the family together, more calls could be heard, growing fainter as the birds rose in their display. Slowly at first, but gradually gaining momentum, the six birds on set pinions soared in and out among each other, round and round in a radius not greater than a quarter mile, lifting and ducking, volpianing and diving steeply toward earth at varying angles, constantly rising, nevertheless, into the clear blue sky. As height was gained and maintained, the dives and sails became swifter, in the forms of arcs and a series of dips and rises; a lower bird rising above them all, only to side-skip, arc, dive, and rise again, another repeating the maneuver then another, and another. As leaves on the wind current, there seemed no advantageous goal to their actions, except to rise, slowly at first and then with the gain of altitude, swiftly, up, up, and finally, lost to sight. Then in from 5 to 20 minutes they reappeared as tiny dots, by the aid of binoculars, as they shot down plummetwise, banked, regained altitude, but slowly lowering, in spectacular sweeps through the air, growing clearer until the entire physique could be made out, and, finally, on set wings, a sail that would take them to the summit of Smith's Hill and the dark wilderness fastness of the Fuller Wood beyond.

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Harris Hawk
Lesson Plan

Food

Small mammals, birds, lizards

Feeding Techniques

Looks for food while on the wing, dives down to right above the prey and then drops on the prey and grabs it with its talons. Hunting technique varies with the prey. See below

Habitat

Desert

Plumage

The male and the female have the same plumage.

Distribution

Southwest US

Breeding

Breeds cooperatively

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Harris Hawks have been known to work collectively in gathering prey and raising young. A nest site would have the male and female, and sometimes an aunt or an uncle helping to gather food.

Again there is the use of an older name for one of the species. Snowy Heron is now called the Snowy Egret.

Resacas - A very Texas term that denotes a dry river channel around the Rio Grande.

Notes from A.C. Bent

The following is from some notes sent by Maj. Allan Brooks to Dr. John B. May:

Harris's hawk is a dual personality, a sort of Jekyll and Hyde character. A casual acquaintance with this species will probably show one, or more probably a pair, of these hawks sitting in the top of a tree that rises above the general scrub, sitting quietly like Buteos apparently taking little interest in their surroundings as they soak up the morning sun. Presently they will take flight, mounting into the air in easy spirals, higher and higher into the blue, and that will probably be the last you will see of them. But to see this hawk in action one has to be afield early while the mists still hang over the resacas. Then Mr. Hyde appears, a flutter of wings as a flock of teal rise in confusion with a dark shape striking right and left among them with all the dash of a goshawk. If unsuccessful, the next attack may be on a group of small herons, one of which may be singled out and followed until killed.

Very often a pair of these hawks combine to secure their quarry, and I have seen a snowy heron shared amicably after it had fallen a victim to one of these raptores. In action and flight it combines many of the characteristics of the Buteos, marsh hawk, and goshawk.

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White-tailed Hawk
Lesson Plan

Food

Small mammals, birds, lizards

Feeding Techniques

Looks for food while on the wing, dives down to right above the prey and then drops on the prey and grabs it with its talons. Hunting technique varies with the prey.

Habitat

Dry grassland, prairie

Plumage

The male and the female have the same plumage.

Distribution

Very south part of Texas

Breeding

Nests on top of shrub or low tree

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Notes from A.C. Bent

The northern representative of this South American species extends its range into the United States only in the open and prairie regions of southern Texas. George B. Sennett (1878) and Dr. James C. Merrill (1879) were the first to record this handsome hawk as a breeding bird in Texas. Both discoveries were made in 1878 near Brownsville, Tex. The latter says of its haunts: "This fine hawk is a rather common resident on the extensive prairies near the coast, especially about the sand ridges that are covered with yucca and cactus."

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Common Black-Hawk
Lesson Plan

Food

Mammals, birds, reptiles, fish and some insects

Feeding Techniques

Hunts from a perch along streams.

Habitat

Wooded canyons, arroyos

Plumage

The male and the female have the same plumage.

Distribution

Very southern part of Arizona and Texas.

Breeding

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Notes from A.C. Bent

From an extensive range in South and Central America this well named, coal-black hawk crosses our southern border to a limited extent from the Lower Rio Grande, in Texas, to southern Arizona. It is much less common here than the zone-tailed, with which it might be easily confused. And, like that bird, it is only a summer resident in the United States. In Arizona it is found in the heavily wooded canyons and arroyos, watered by mountain streams, or in the river bottom forests, always near water. Gerald B. Thomas (1908) says that in British Honduras, where this "is by far the most abundant hawk of the region", its favorite haunt is "the long stretches of sand dunes and savannas studded here and there by clumps of palmetto and gnarled pines."

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Name

Northern Harrier
Lesson Plan

Food

A large variety of birds and mammals.

Feeding Techniques

Flys very low over marsh and grassland areas. Uses its flat round face to help pick up sounds of prey.

Habitat

Wetlands and similar areas.

Plumage

The male and the female have different plumage. Male is grey and female is brown.

Distribution

Throughout the United States

Breeding

Male sometimes will breed with two or three females in an area and make an effort to defend nesting territory.

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Notes from A.C. Bent

Courtship: Many accounts of the spectacular nuptial flight have appeared in print, but I prefer to use the following description of it, one of the best, in some notes sent to me by Mr. Broley: 

This is a vigorous and pleasing series of nose dives, mostly done by the male, although the female frequently takes part in them. This takes place sometimes at an altitude of 500 feet, but the usual flight averages 60 feet up, swooping down to 10 feet from the ground. It might be illustrated by placing a number of capital U's together as UUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUU, as the turn at the bottom is well rounded out, but at the apex the bird almost stalls, tipping downward again to continue the movement. Some observers claim it makes a somersault as it turns, but only on one occasion have I seen any indication of this. The wings are kept fully extended during the whole period, and they appear to be working easily all the time. I have seen a male make 71 of these dips in succession fly on for a short distance and commence anew. The average number of dips would be perhaps 25. The flight is frequently made while the female is flying along near the ground hunting for mice, below the male, or again he may swoop continually in one location while she is standing on the ground. The movement is extremely graceful and is a welcome sight each spring. 

Other observers have described a similar performance, which seems to be characteristic of the species, but most of them have noted a complete somersault, or a sidewise turn, at the top of the rise. E. H. Forbush (1927) says: "As it bounds up and down in the air, it seems to move more like a rubber ball than a bird. When two of these birds are mated or mating they keep together much of the time, either on the ground or in the air. When the female alights the male follows her and walks or flies around her, On the ground he bows to her and swells with amorous ardour. Sometimes the male flies alone across the marsh rising and falling alternately and with each fall turning a complete somersault, as if to show his larger mate what a clever and wonderful bird he really is. Again he 'carries on' in the same way while flying in her company."

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Name

Crested Caracara
Lesson Plan

Food

Carrion, small animals

Feeding Techniques

An opportunist. Will use a variety of means to gather food from checking for road kill to gathering insects.

Habitat

Rangeland

Plumage

The male and the female have the same plumage.

Distribution

South part of Texas

Breeding

Bulky nest placed on top of large shrub, tree, or sometimes cactus.

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Notes from A.C. Bent

Audubon's caracara is a northern race of a South American species that reaches its northern limits in Arizona, Texas, and Florida. It is rare in Arizona but fairly common in parts of Texas and Florida. It is locally known as the "Mexican eagle", or "Mexican buzzard", both appropriate names, as it somewhat resembles an eagle in its manner of flight and partially resembles a vulture in its feeding habits. In Florida it is restricted mainly to the open prairie regions in the center of the State; its center of abundance seems to be on the great Kissimmee Prairie, north of Lake Okeechobee, but it may be found anywhere that similar prairies exist. The Kissimmee Prairie is a large, low, flat, grassy plain,drained by the Kissimmee River and a few small streams; it is dotted with numerous shallow ponds and sloughs, and, especially near the river, there are many small hammocks of large live oaks and cabbage palmettos. Scattered all over the prairie are clumps of saw palmetto, a few scrubby oaks, numerous solitary cabbage palmettos, and an occasional small clump of cypress. In this characteristic home of the caracara, its most conspicuous neighbors are the sandhill crane, nesting in the shallow ponds and sloughs, and the Florida races of the red-shouldered hawk and barred owl, which nest in nearly every hammock. The caracara is not a woodland bird and is seldom seen in the pines and still more rarely in the cypress country.  

In Texas its haunts are similar, according to George Finlay Simmons (1925), "open pasturelands and prairies, generally where dotted by oak mottes or crossed by creeks and arroyos narrowly skirted with trees. Mesquite forests typical of the Rio Grande Coastal Plain from Austin southward. Open divides in the wooded mountainous country. Prefers prairies to wooded country, never breeding in tall trees in wooded bottoms. Wanders along streams into the wooded hills."

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Name

Peregrine Falcon
Lesson Plan

Food

Birds

Feeding Techniques

Attacks from the air; generally dives on prey and bumps it, turns half circle and comes back and grabs prey in the air.

Habitat

Many different habitats.

Plumage

The male and the female have the same plumage. Different subspecies found throughout the country which gives this bird a varied look.

Distribution

Throughout the world, and throughout the United States

Breeding

Both sexes take care of young; usually nests on a cliff.

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Previously called a Duck Hawk; see below.

Notes from A.C. Bent

Food: The duck hawk is primarily a bird killer; nearly all its food consists of birds, ranging in size from mallard ducks down to warblers and nuthatches. The following long list includes many, though probably not all, of the birds that have been recorded in its food: Domestic pigeons and other poultry, grebes, auklets, murrelets, small gulls, terns, petrels, wild ducks from the size of mallards down to teals, small shearwaters, small herons, coots, gallinules, rails, woodcock, snipe, sandpipers, plovers, quail, grouse, ptarmigans, pheasants, sparrow hawks, cuckoos, kingfishers, mourning doves, flickers and other woodpeckers, marsh hawks, whippoorwills, nighthawks, chimney swifts, kingbirds, jays, crows, phoebes, starlings, bobolinks, blackbirds, orioles, grackles, meadowlarks, crossbills, goldfinches, grosbeaks, juncos and other sparrows, purple martins, swallows, tanagers, thrashers, catbirds, warblers, nuthatches, robins, thrushes, and bluebirds. Probably the very largest and the very smallest birds on this list are less often taken than those of intermediate size; pigeons, flickers, jays, meadowlarks, and other birds of similar size probably constitute the bulk of the food in inland localities; on the seacoast and islands, these hawks live almost exclusively on the smaller sea birds.

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Name

American Kestrel
Lesson Plan

Food

More insects than vertebrates

Feeding Techniques

Hovers in the air and then drops down on prey

Habitat

Found in a variety of habitats but prefers open habitats

Plumage

The male and the female have different plumage.

Distribution

Throughout the United States

Breeding

Nests in cavity

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

One of the special adaptations of the American Kestrel is the ability to spot a grasshopper or a mouse as it hovers in the air looking for prey.

Notes from A.C. Bent

Behavior: What appeals to us most in this daring little falcon is its lightness and quickness: the speed of lightning compared to the crash of thunder. Whether dashing past with sweeping wing beats, each wing beat carrying it far away; whether cruising along: the tail folded thin and the sharp wings, like a three-pointed star: the wings barely trembling, like the tips of oars just touching the water; or whether soaring against the sky, with tail fanned out, the wings stretched wide, it is always ready to veer like a flash, to mount higher, to drop to the ground, or to come to rest on a little twig.

Often too - perhaps the most remarkable of its aerial accomplishments - the bird, arresting its flight through the air, hovers, facing the wind, its body tilted upward to a slight angle with the ground, its wings beating lightly and easily. Then, sometimes, with a precise adjustment to the force of the wind, it stops the beating of its wings and hangs as if suspended in complete repose and equilibrium, seeming to move not a hair's breadth from its position. It is hunting, scanning the ground for a grasshopper or a mouse.

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Name

Prairie Falcon
Lesson Plan

Food

Birds

Feeding Techniques

Feeds from the wing - dives quickly on its prey. One of the fastest diving birds

Habitat

Prairie

Plumage

The male and the female have the same plumage.

Distribution

Western US

Breeding

Nests on cliff edges

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Most birds are very protective of their nesting territory. The ability to keep similar species out of the territory makes it more possible for them to obtain enough food for the young that they are raising. The breeding territory becomes larger in lean years, and shrinks during years of abundant prey.

Notes from A.C. Bent

Enemies: Such a bird as the prairie falcon is naturally let alone by most birds, and, because of its lonely life, contacts with others are rare. No doubt antagonisms between two or more pairs of these falcons are fierce and intense. Howard (1902) writes: 

When we were within a few hundred feet of the cliff we were greeted by a sudden screaming, and on looking up saw three prairie falcons in an aerial combat. Their flight was very swift and graceful; undoubtedly two of the birds were the pair nesting in the cliff and the other an intruder. One bird of the pair was following in close pursuit of the enemy while its mate would ascend high into the air and with folded wings drop like a falling stone and at the same time utter a shrill scream. Just at the second one would naturally expect to see the enemy dashed to pieces, a slight turn of the tail would carry him to one side and the would-be assassin would dart harmlessly by like a flash.

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Name

Gyrfalcon
Lesson Plan

Food

Birds; also some mammals

Feeding Techniques

Looks for prey from perch, pursues in flight

Habitat

Tundra, mountain; open country

Plumage

The male and the female have the same plumage.

Distribution

Rarely comes down into the lower 48

Breeding

Generally nests on a cliff in the tundra.

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

The scientific name used by Bent for the Skua (Lestris longicauda) has been replaced with Catharacta skua.

Notes from A.C. Bent

Enemies: Manniche (1910) relates the following two incidents in which the gyrfalcons were attacked by other birds:

A falcon was in the most violent manner attacked by two Ravens. The quarreling birds flew for a while around high up in the air uttering angry cries, after which the Ravens descended and took place side by side on a rock evidently lurking after Lemmings, the holes of which were numerous around the place. The falcon also settled with the same intention on another rock some 50 meters from the Ravens. At my approach the birds rose again in the air and immediately continued their battle. The Ravens seemed much superior to the falcon, which therefore showed an inclination to fly away to avoid their rough treatment.

The battle at last took place just over my head, and I shot one Raven in order to make the fight more even.

Frightened by the shot the two other birds flew away in different directions, but they soon met again, and took up the battle nearer to the coast. Here the falcon got relief from two birds of its own kin, and now the Raven was obliged to depart hastily, while the three falcons settled on the summit of a rock.

Not rarely I observed falcons pursued by Skuas (Lestris longicauda). At the end of August the young Skuas will frequently be sitting around on stones, still cared for by their parents, which with extreme violence will guard their offspring against attacks from falcons. The Skuas exceed by far the Gyrfalcons in ability of flight, and the falcons therefore always wish to escape the pursuit and retire to the rocks. Most frequently 3 or 4 Skuas would join in an attack; the battle would usually be fought out immensely high up in the air.

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Name

Merlin
Lesson Plan

Food

Birds

Feeding Techniques

Feeds from the wing

Habitat

Open country

Plumage

The male and the female have the same plumage.

Distribution

Rocky Mountain states, Pacific and Atlantic coasts

Breeding

Quite often will utilize the former nest of a crow, or hawk without adding anything of its own. Sometimes will nest in the ledge of a cliff.

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

The Hooded Crow mentioned below is a European species. This reminds us that the Merlin has worldwide distribution.

Notes from A.C. Bent

Behavior: Although so small a bird, the merlin is extremely bold. Dr. H. L. Saxby (1874) says of it: "I have repeatedly seen it, with rapid swoops and loud menacing cries, send a cat sneaking home from under a hedge, and I once saw it openly attack a full grown Hooded Crow; only desisting when, attracted by the outcry, two old ones came hurriedly to the rescue. * * * More than once I have known it to seize a newly shot golden plover as it fell, and although unable to lift it many inches from the ground, and constantly compelled to drop it, make such good use of its opportunity as to he far beyond reach with it by the time the shouting and gesticulating shooter, having reloaded, was at liberty to follow in pursuit." J. G. Millais (1892) also once saw a merlin dash at a black cock and send it sprawling. Saxby (1874) also says that it is very easily tamed and becomes a most docile and intelligent pet. One that was allowed full liberty could be instantly recalled by waving about in the sunlight a tin basin in which its food was usually kept.

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Name

Lesson Plan

Food

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About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Notes from A.C. Bent