Saturday, March 5, 2011

The Eagle's Jackal

I've been intending to post a story on the artist-naturalists Mark Catesby (1682-1749) and John James Audubon (1785-1851). The story is written and I'll get around to posting it, but not today. For now, two looks at the osprey:

Mark Catesby, ca. 1730

John James Audubon, ca. 1830

An excerpt from Audubon's entry on the osprey in The Birds of America:

The habits of this famed bird differ so materially from those of almost all others of its genus, that an accurate description of them cannot fail to be highly interesting to the student of nature.

The Fish Hawk may be looked upon as having more of a social disposition than most other Hawks. Indeed, with the exception of the Swallow-tailed Hawk (Falco furcatus), I know none so gregarious in its habits. It migrates in numbers, both during spring, when it shews itself along our Atlantic shores, lakes, and rivers, and during autumn, when it retires to warmer climes. At these seasons, it appears in flocks of eight or ten individuals, following the windings of our shores in loose bodies, advancing in easy sailings or flappings, crossing each other in their gyrations. During the period of their stay in the United States, many pairs are seen nestling, rearing their young, and seeking their food within so short a distance of each other, that while following the margins of our eastern shores, a Fish Hawk, or a nest belonging to the species, may be met with at every short interval.

The Fish Hawk may be said to be of a mild disposition. Not only do these birds live in perfect harmony together, but they even allow other birds of very different character to approach so near to them as to build their nests of the very materials of which the outer parts of their own are constructed. I have never observed a Fish Hawk chasing any other bird whatever. So pacific and timorous is it, that, rather than encounter a foe but little more powerful than itself, it abandons its prey to the White-headed Eagle, which, next to man, is its greatest enemy. It never forces its young from the nest, as some other Hawks do, but, on the contrary, is seen to feed them even when they have begun to procure food for themselves.

Notwithstanding all these facts, a most erroneous idea prevails among our fishermen, and the farmers along our coasts, that the Fish Hawk's nest is the best scare-crow they can have in the vicinity of their houses or grounds. As these good people affirm, no Hawk will attempt to commit depredations on their poultry, so long as the Fish Hawk remains in the country. But the absence of most birds of prey from those parts at the time when the Fish Hawk is on our coast, arises simply from the necessity of retiring to the more sequestered parts of the interior for the purpose of rearing their young in security, and the circumstance of their visiting the coasts chiefly at the period when myriads of water-fowl resort to our estuaries at the approach of winter, leaving the shores and salt-marshes at the return of spring, when the Fish Hawk arrives. However, as this notion has a tendency to protect the latter, it may be so far useful, the fisherman always interposing when he sees a person bent upon the destruction of his favourite bird.


From the delightful Online Etymology Dictionary:

fishing hawk, mid-15c., from Anglo-Fr. ospriet, from M.L. avis prede "bird of prey," from L. avis praedæ, a generic term apparently confused with this specific bird in Old French on its similarity to ossifrage.

"sea-eagle, osprey," c.1600, from L. ossifraga "vulture," fem. of ossifragus, lit. "bone-breaker," from ossifragus (adj.) "bone-breaking," from os (gen. ossis) "bone" + stem of frangere "to break" (see fraction). By this name Pliny meant the lammergeier (from Ger., lit. "lamb-vulture"), a very large Old World vulture that swallows and digests bones and was believed also to drop them from aloft to break them and get at the marrow. But in England and France, the word was transferred to the osprey, perhaps on similarity of sound.

For me, that reference to "Fish Hawk" recalls Fishhawk Mountain in Macon County, where the deadly Peeks Creek slide originated.


In his Natural History, Mark Catesby wrote about the "Fishing Hawk":

This Bird weighs three pounds and a quarter; from one end of the wing to the other extended, five foot, five inches: the Bill is black, with a blue sear; the Iris of the eye yellow; the Crown of the head brown, with a mixture of white feathers: from each Eye, backwards, runs a brown stripe; all the upper part of the Back, Wing and Tail, dark-brown; the Throat, Neck and Belly, white: the Legs and Feet are remarkably rough and scaly, and of a pale-blue colour; the Tallons black, and almost of an equal size: the Feathers of the Thighs are short, and adhere close to them, contrary to others of the Hawk kind; which nature seems to have designed for their more easy penetrating the water.

Their manner of fishing is (after hovering a while over the water) to precipitate into it with prodigious swiftness; where it remains for some minutes, and seldom rises without a fish: which the Bald Eagle (which is generally on the watch) no sooner spies, but at him furiously he flies: the Hawk mounts, screaming out, but the Eagle always soars above him, and compels the Hawk to let it fall; which the Eagle seldom fails of catching, before it reaches the Water. It is remarkable, that whenever the Hawk catches a Fish, he calls, as if it were, for the Eagle; who always obeys the call, if within hearing.

The lower parts of the Rivers and Creeks near the sea abound most with these Eagles and Hawks, where these diverting contests are frequently seen.

Finally, Catesby contemporary John Lawson wrote about eagles and ospreys in A New Voyage to Carolina.

As the Eagle is reckon'd the King of Birds I have begun with him. The first I shall speak of, is the bald Eagle; so call'd, because his Head, to the middle of his Neck, and his Tail, is as white as Snow. These Birds continually breed the Year round; for when the young Eagles are just down'd, with a sort of white woolly Feathers, the Hen-Eagle lays again, which Eggs are hatch'd by the Warmth of the young ones in the Nest, so that the Flight of one Brood makes Room for the next, that are but just hatch'd. They prey on any living thing they can catch. They are heavy of Flight, and cannot get their Food by Swiftness, to help which there is a Fishawk that catches Fishes, and suffers the Eagle to take them from her, although she is long-wing'd and a swift Flyer, and can make far better way in her Flight than the Eagle can. The bald Eagle attends the Gunners in Winter, with all the Obsequiousness imaginable, and when he shoots and kills any Fowl, the Eagle surely comes in for his Bird; and besides, those that are wounded, and escape the Fowler, fall to the Eagle's share. He is an excellent Artist at stealing young Pigs, which Prey he carries alive to his Nest, at which time the poor Pig makes such a Noise over Head, that Strangers that have heard them cry, and not seen the Bird and his Prey, have thought there were Flying Sows and Pigs in that Country. The Eagle's Nest is made of Twigs, Sticks and Rubbish. It is big enough to fill a handsome Carts Body, and commonly so full of nasty Bones and Carcasses that it stinks most offensively. This Eagle is not bald, till he is one or two years old.

The Fishing-Hawk is the Eagle's Jackal, which most commonly (though not always) takes his Prey for him. He is a large Bird, being above two thirds as big as the Eagle. He builds his Nest as the Eagles do; that is, in a dead Cypress-Tree, either standing in, or hard by, the Water. The Eagle and this Bird seldom sit on a living Tree. He is of a gray pied Colour, and the most dexterous Fowl in Nature at Catching of Fish, which he wholly lives on, never eating any Flesh....

1 comment:

Jim Parker said...

Ospreys are marvelous creatures. One of my most vivid memories of the Florida Keys are the huge osprey nests atop the phone/electrical poles on the road to the Keys. Especially upon the less traveled Card Sound Road to the upper portion of Key Largo.