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Letter From Skunk Hollow: Handsome hawk of different feather lands in ‘hood

A strange bird in an everyday landscape presents an opening and a passage into a larger, older and wilder world than one we occupy day to day, or think we do.

Can you name that hawk?
MinnPost photo by Ron Meador

A new breed of hawk turned up last week, compact and handsome and initially mysterious.

We were motoring rather urgently to the Willow River for a few hours of hiking and wildlife spotting on a weekend afternoon when Sallie saw her from the driver’s side window, just past our nearest neighbor’s mailbox.

She was perched out in the open, not 15 feet above ground in a tree not 20 from the pavement, and gave no sign of noticing the car that had just jerked to a halt, not even when the critters inside rolled the windows down to gawk.

Sallie had binoculars and I had a camera. The bird let us admire her for 20 minutes at least, 10 from the tree on Sallie’s side of the road and 10 from another on mine, this one in a clump of spruce that didn’t obstruct our view but screened the hunter from whatever lunchables might happen along.

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We had the Audubon bird book in the car but not the Peterson guide to hawks, which Sallie feels is essential because distinguishing hawks is hard, so a field identification was out of the question.

The hawk stretched and preened and ruffled and did some other bird things for which I have not yet learned the verbs.

I sat and pressed the shutter and whispered, and almost got her dropping off the perch for her prey. But she went from leisurely scanner to diving blur without a twitch to signal it.

We waited a bit for her to return to the roost, curious to see what she caught; being mannerly, she elected not to peel and eat in front of us.

And so we headed to the Willow, where we passed a few hours without another wildlife sighting of note.

Invitation to the wild

A strange bird in an everyday landscape is an invitation. It presents an opening and a passage – even a guide, you could say – into a larger, older and wilder world than the one we occupy day to day, or think we do.

I have lived most of my life in cities and assumed it was necessary to travel beyond the boundary of settlement to encounter anything but remnants of a wild and natural place. But it’s simply not so, and my last few years of living in a semi-rural place have been rich in revelations of how not so it is.

Still, for potent example it’s hard to top a hawk on the hunt about three minutes’ walk from the end of your driveway.

That Sallie didn’t know this bird on sight told me she was at least a little bit unusual, because in fact Sallie does know the hawks typical of this region and can tell a red-tail from an osprey where I can see only a scribble in the sky.

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She has the birder’s skill, too, of seeing and classifying at the same time: stout body, mottled back, short tail with bold, black and white bands.

That’s a lot, but back home with the Audubon and the Peterson, it didn’t narrow the list to fewer than about five possibilities, and none of the plates looked convincingly like our new neighbor.

So I tried my embarrassingly simple, absurdly reliable approach to Bird Identification for Dummies with iPads: a Google image search for a simple text string like, in this case, hawk short banded tail.

Up came the pictures and sixth on the list was a close approximation of our hawk — and it carried the Cornell ornithology lab’s imprimatur besides:

The broad-winged hawk, with a summer breeding ground that includes Minnesota, sometimes confused with but easily distinguished from young red-tailed hawks as well as red-shouldered, sharp-shinned and Cooper’s hawks.

A second image search on broad-winged hawk turned up matches so close they could have come out of my camera. Well then.

Common and uncommon

According to the species page at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, broad-winged hawks are common in Minnesota but less so south of, roughly, Lake Mille Lacs. The Audubon Society’s map calls them common north and east of a line that runs from about Pine City through Thief River Falls, uncommon below.

MinnPost photo by Ron Meador
Broad-winged hawks are common in Minnesota but less so south of, roughly, Lake Mille Lacs.

These ranges pertain to the spring/summer breeding season only, for the bird is a transcontinental migrator whose habitat lies in two great lobes, joined to make an hourglass shape. Summer territory covers the eastern half of the United States and adjoining parts of southern Canada; wintering grounds encompass the northwestern third of South America and most of the Central American isthmus. (Cuba and Puerto Rico have nonmigrating populations.)

So it’s quite likely that our girl is recently arrived after rather a long flight. Cornell reports that four broad-winged hawks heading south and tracked by satellite migrated 4,350 miles on average, at a pace of 69 miles a day, which on my calculator comes out to 63 days of flying time.

There are places in this country – Hawk Ridge in Duluth is one of them – where mass migrations of broad-winged hawks can number in the hundreds of thousands. They swoop and swirl in flight, diving and climbing, and their flocks have become known as “kettles” because this movement suggests something being stirred from above.

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And though the mass migrations may be smaller than they were centuries ago, and while broad-winged hawks in some parts of the country are suffering the pressures of habitat loss because of forest fragmentation, this bird is listed as a species of least concern by governments and conservations.

So nice to make a new bird-world acquaintance whose outlook for survival is at the moment unclouded.

Female of the species?

I’m using terms like “she” and “her” and “our girl” somewhat carelessly here, inviting charges of personification and plainly saying something I do not know to be true about this bird’s gender.

But the one identification point that doesn’t quite fit for me is the size comparison that equates broad-winged hawks with crows. This hawk seems larger than a typical crow, especially in flight with wings spread wide, and is of a species whose females are bigger than the males.

Plus, it grates on me to hear, in any but a cursory reference, such a sentient and magnificent animal called “it.”   

Plus, it seems to me that the masculine options get more than their fair share of use when people apply pronouns to creatures of unknown gender, the more so with predators and those of fierce appearance.

So, the “she” stands without further defense except to say – have a look at some imaginative discourses of the past, all found in the Smithsonian Institution’s life history series begun by Arthur Cleveland Bent and published online at birdzilla.com.

Early in May, ’93, a nest was found just completed. No eggs were ever deposited and but one bird seen in the vicinity. At every visit he showed as much solicitude as if it was occupied, and several times upon ascending, fresh green poplar leaves had been added to the lining. The nest was not deserted until the latter part of June; the conclusion that it was built by an unmated or bereaved male, seems well founded. – Frank L. Burns (1911).

Within the forest the Broad-winged Hawk leads, for the most part, an untroubled and sedentary life contenting itself with such animal food as may be had with the least possible exertion and confining its hunting operations to areas of no very great extent. – William Brewster (1925).

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(I guess Mr. Brewster might be in a sedentary mood himself if he’d flown 4,000 miles without, or possibly even with, the help of an airline.)

On May 1, 1954, as I was passing, a male broadwing was seen perched on a limb beside the extreme northern nest; and a female sat on a limb beside the center nest, both birds facing east. The male commenced his moderate, whiny, screamed call: the mating call; and after six quick utterances flew over to the female, who, seeing his act, turned to face the westward: part of the mating maneuver. He alighted on her and mating, or copulation, was immediate, lasting one full minute, the male continuing the mating call throughout and balancing himself by leisurely half-flaps of the wings. He then flew to a perch nearby and sat there in a noncommittal attitude. – Lewis O. Shelley, undated.

A man who owns a trout farm once brought me a broad-winged hawk that he said had been catching his trout, but its crop contained a frog, recently swallowed, and in its stomach was a partially digested field mouse. This hawk does occasionally catch small fishes; Mr. Forbush (1927) refers to one that had 17 minnows in its gullet. I can find very little evidence that it ever attacks poultry; most observers say that it never does. – Brewster again (undated).

An incubating female was brought to me on May 18 by a farmer, who said that it had a nest in a large oak tree near his home, and that it was killing his chickens, and that he had shot it just after it had eaten a chicken. I skinned it and opened the stomach in his presence, and showed him, to his astonishment, that its crop contained the remains, easily distinguishable, of a young rat. – Ellison A. Smyth, Jr.  (1912).

The tail of the sitting bird could be plainly seen sticking over the edge of the nest, but no amount of pounding on the base of the tree would move her. Consequently my brother climbed up, and much to our surprise she still remained on the nest when he reached it. I then climbed up and joined him, but the hawk stayed perfectly still and did not show the least sign of fear or anger. In fact, she showed rather less emotion than a “broody” hen sitting.

We stroked her and finally lifted her off the nest and tossed her into the air, when she flew to a tree not far away where she was soon joined by her mate. They then flew about among the trees uttering their creaking, wheezy notes, never showing a sign of the anger that is common with most of the other hawks. – J. Hooper Bowles (undated).

(I don’t  think we’ll be trying that at home.)

Toward evening on April 21, 1925, a vast flight of Hawks arrived from the south and settled in the numerous trees of both towns and all the groves and tree-claims, from several miles west of Wheaton [Minnesota] to several miles east of Herman: a front of at least twenty-five miles. They remained until the following evening when all the survivors left, going northward.

The appearance of the Hawks on the evening of the twenty-first brought out every man who owned a gun in both towns and most of the farmers in the surrounding country. It was stated that residents of Wheaton stood on their lawns and shot dozens from the trees and as they circled about. At the same time a similar fusillade was in progress at Herman and on the farms between and adjoining.

It was estimated that at least three thousand Hawks were killed at Wheaton and one thousand at Herman. A “Crow-shoot” happened to be in progress at Wheaton and the participants brought in one thousand five hundred of these Hawks. There is no way of estimating how many were killed by the farmers, but the number was probably many hundreds, if not thousands. – Thomas S. Roberts (1932).

It’s now a federal crime to kill hawks in that way, but a version of the “crow-shoot” survives in Minnesota through liberal rules for a “crow harvest” that is estimated to take some 11,500 birds per year. Nuisance reduction is a leading justification for this, although property owners can legally kill damage-causing crows pretty much anytime.

“Harvest” seems an especially odd euphemism here, considering that nobody really eats crow – although, come to think of it, it might be a good thing if that could be required of the gunners.