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Winged Freebooters - from Harper's


The great goshawk, a bird in a coat of blackish-brown covered with blotches of black and reddish-white, is a terrible enemy to wild rabbits, hares, and squirrels, and to all the small feathered inhabitants of field and forest. It is about two feet long, and although it is not a bird of very rapid flight, its cunning and strength are such that its prey rarely escapes. Should the terrified hare hide itself in some thicket, the goshawk patiently perches on an elevated branch near at hand, where it will wait hours, motionless, until the poor hare, thinking its enemy departed, ventures from its retreat, when in an instant it is swooped down upon, and struck dying to the ground.

Goshawks are found in the Middle and Western States during the autumn and winter. In the summer they go far to the northward to rear their young. They build a large nest of twigs and coarse grasses on some lofty branch of a tree, and lay three or four eggs of dull bluish-white slightly spotted with reddish-brown.

These savage birds are very common in Maine, where they make great havoc among the flocks of wild-ducks and Canada grouse, and will even, when driven by hunger, venture an attack on the fowls of the farm-yard. Its sharp eye always gleaming and on the alert, the goshawk sweeps over fields and woods, changing its course in an instant by a slight movement of its rudder-like tail whenever any desired prey is sighted. It is the most restless of birds, and is almost constantly on the wing, seldom alighting except for breakfast and dinner.

Audubon relates a curious instance of sagacity in a goshawk, which he himself witnessed. A large flock of blackbirds flying over a pond were pursued by one of these birds, which, dashing into the flock, seized one after the other of the poor little victims, apparently squeezing each one with its powerful talons, and then allowing it to drop on the surface of the water. Five or six had been captured before the fleeing blackbirds gained the shelter of a thick forest. The goshawk then swept leisurely back, and with graceful curves descended to the pond and collected its victims, taking the dead birds one by one and carrying them away as if laying up a store for its evening meal.


Instances have been known where this bird has itself fallen a victim to its own designs. Dead goshawks have been found with their talons hopelessly entangled in thorn and furze bushes, upon which they had pounced with the object of seizing some little rabbit or squirrel which had sought shelter beneath the undergrowth. A hunter once witnessed such an occurrence, the rabbit scampering away in safety across the field, while the great bird remained entangled in the bush. The hunter forbore to shoot at the little rabbit which had made so fortunate an escape, and killed the wicked bird of prey instead.

Goshawks are found in nearly every portion of Europe, and have sometimes been trained to assist in hunting; but as they are more ferocious than the falcon, they are less easily controlled, and are always on the watch to regain their liberty.

A smaller variety of the great hawk family, but one spreading equal terror among small birds, is the sparrow-hawk—a bold, provoking bird, with dark brown back and wings, and breast of rusty brown or grayish-white crossed by narrow bars of a darker tint. The sparrow-hawk feeds mostly upon small birds, but it will also catch moles, field-mice, and even grasshoppers. It flies low, skimming along but a few feet from the ground, its sharp little eyes always on the watch for prey.

When tamed, the sparrow-hawk becomes affectionate toward its owner, but will rarely accept civilities from any other person. One of these birds, which had been tamed by a lady, was accustomed to perch on the shoulder of its mistress, and eat from her hand. It was intensely jealous, and would fly savagely at any one to whom its mistress showed the least favor. This particular pet proved as troublesome as a thieving cat, for was any fine fat chicken or partridge left lying on the kitchen table, if the cook's back was turned for a moment, the prize was either mangled or borne away to a hiding-place by the mischievous bird.

The sparrow-hawk is not a nest-builder, but will usurp the nest of the crow or some other large bird. If a deserted nest can be found, the sparrow-hawk will immediately take possession; but if no such presents itself, this bad-hearted, quarrelsome bird does not hesitate to depose the rightful owner, and proceed to occupy a home to which it has neither right nor title.

The sparrow-hawk, the malicious hen-hawk, and cruel pigeon-hawk, are very common throughout the United States and Europe.