Arredondo Sparrow Hawk
( Originally Published Ealry 1900's )
AREDONDO GRANT " is the name of a tract of country of perhaps forty thousand acres, lying in central Florida. It is a region of low, rolling sand hills, dotted with numerous shallow ponds and thinly clad in forests of yellow pine. Many small farms and orange groves add variety to the landscape. The origin of the name dates back to the time the Spaniards ruled the country and General Arredondo received the territory for services to the Spanish government.
The variety of bird life here is not great, but the species which occur are generally represented by many individuals. One of the most common is the little American sparrow hawk, which remains throughout the sea-sons. It is the smallest of the falcons. Seldom have I seen a bird which aroused in me a keener interest or deeper sympathy than did one of these sparrow hawks, whose path of life for some years ran parallel with my own.
To distinguish him from another hawk which lived to the westward outside of the Grant, I called our hero the Arredondo sparrow hawk. Later, when I learned to know him well, I named him Dick.
The first time I remember to have seen Dick was on a clear balmy morning in middle January while the last of the orange pickers were going about their work. He came out of the woods flying high and going as though an eagle were after him. Over the orange grove he swiftly passed and turning slightly to the left flew toward a tall lightning-stricken pine standing at the edge of the rice field. " Tilly-tilly-tilly-tilly!" he cried as he swept along. Over and over he repeated his call, until, slacking his speed with quivering wings, he settled on the lifeless pine.
Not all birds have mates. There are many single females and many wifeless males. There are widows and widowers, and often many little orphans are left in the world. But old Dick was none of these, for down in the pines was the prettiest, dearest little sweetheart for which a sparrow hawk ever sighed. True, she was slightly heavier than he, and her wings were broader and her waist was fully as large, but these things only added to her attractiveness, and besides, she was his mate, and he loved her as only a blue-winged, striped-cheeked sparrow hawk can love.
A bird has three main purposes in life. First, to secure food for its existence; second, to avoid its enemies; and third, to rear its offspring. In studying the history of any bird one learns the details of these three phases of its life. With many birds this is difficult to do. Some are very timid, and conceal themselves in the grass and shrubbery. The homes of a few are in almost inaccessible swamps. Still others live far away on the rolling ocean, and are seen only by mariners and travelers.
Not so with the sparrow hawks. In almost any locality in the United States they may be found, although their numbers are greater as one travels southward. Nor do they hide from sight. Their perch is usually some tall stake or tree; their food is caught in the open; their pathways of travel are in full view through the bound-less sky.
Scarcely a day passed that I did not see Dick. He came repeatedly to his perch on the dead pine and called, until one day his mate joined him. At once he launched into the air, and for her pleasure began a series of elaborate circles and evolutions. The open space of the field was his parade ground, the top of the blasted pine was her grand stand.
At times he flew slowly, and again with high speed, now skimming low, now soaring high above the earth. Far out over the rice field and grove he went, then turning, came hurrying back through the air, flying to his mate, calling to the love of his youth, his blood leaping high with the ecstacy of spring time. How he strove to please her by flashing his pretty feathers in the sunlight! How delighted he was if she deigned to accept any article of food which he had to offer!
Two hundred yards in the woods stood an old blackened and broken pine with its head reaching forty feet from the ground. At some distant date, now far out of mind, a flicker had chiseled a hole near its top for her nest. The owner used it probably only for a single year. Since then it had become the habitation of the Arredondo sparrow hawk and his mate.
One day I saw Dick fly up to the nest with a lizard in his mouth. He entered, and from its dimly lighted depths issued a strange, low sound,— at that time a new call to me, and one which I have seldom heard since, save in the neighborhood of the nest. A moment later his head appeared at the opening, and the strange love call was repeated. Evidently it was an invitation for her to come and see what a nice home was that hollow in the tree, and incidentally, to have something good to eat.
On the tenth of April the nest held four beautiful eggs, blotched and spotted with varying shades of brown and chocolate. A boy promptly climbed the pine and took the eggs. On the twenty-ninth of April five more were added to the boys collection. Undismayed the parents still clung to their old home and nineteen days later there was still another set of four eggs in the nest. But the Arredondo sparrow hawk was destined to rear no young that year, for the third time the tree was climbed and the nest rifled. After this the birds gave up the attempt and no more eggs were laid that spring.
The next year they were more fortunate. The boy who had had a mania for robbing nests had learned bet-ter. Four young sparrow hawks were reared with much care and great labor. In the autumn the young males went through the maneuvers of love making. They circled about the sky, clamoring in a noisy manner ; one of them even went so far as to cling to the side of a tree and look into an old woodpecker's nest and try his voice on the low love call. This was just playing at love making, however— a harmless sort of flirtation before the summer season was quite gone. Swallows and others have been seen to engage in similar diversions.
It some times occurred that a large hawk would come to the farm near by and take a chicken. As a preventive against such raids the farmer planted near his chicken yard some tall poles. On cross pieces near the top of these he tied a number of gourds, in each of which a round entrance hole had been cut. This was a standing invitation to purple martins, who read by the sign that here were rooms to let. So it happened that each season several pairs made these gourds their homes.
Martins keep a sharp outlook for hawks. I often noticed, however, that the sparrow hawk or his mate discovered the presence of the chicken killer before the martins, and by their loud cries and bold attacks quickly drove it from the neighborhood.
One cloudy summer afternoon a great horned owl came out of the big woods and alighted on a pine near the farm. Now, most birds dislike the larger hawks because they sometimes catch small birds ; they have little relish for the crow, for he has been known to steal eggs; but they hate, literally hate and dread an owl. His dark deeds are done under cover of the midnight shadows when all are asleep. Like a thief in the night, he descends upon the unconscious victim. Where is the feathered creature that loves an owl?
A red-headed woodpecker was the first to discover this big horned fellow, and his wrathful notes told at once of danger. Other birds were attracted by the noise, and came quickly to join their voices in a chorus of protests. Such a bedlam of sounds they made, as flying about the tree or hopping among the branches they heaped upon the unfortunate owl all the vile epithets they could command ! There were a pair of mocking birds, a shrike and several blue jays; and a dozen martins added their cackling notes to the uproar.
High above all flew the Arredondo sparrow hawk. Suddenly he descended straight as an arrow at the head of the hated owl. The old rogue dodged the blow and soon 'turned his wing-beats toward the depths of the forest. Above him in the air hung the pair of sparrow hawks, who continued their pursuit, taking turns at striking down at him, for fully half a mile of his flight.
The food of the sparrow hawks consisted largely of grasshoppers, together with a sprinkling of beetles and crickets. I have seen them capture the little striped lizards common along the paths and highways of Florida. But first and last their fare is grasshoppers. Where they find them when cold weather comes would be hard to tell, but find them they do, and in great numbers as well. Woe to the luckless grasshopper that lives in a field over which a sparrow hawk keeps watch !
The hard indigestible parts of the insects are disgorged in balls the size of small marbles, and may be found about their roosting places. Like an owl, the spar-row hawk eats its prey, and afterward at leisure picks out and discards the objectionable parts.
Unlike many others birds Dick and his mate associated together throughout the year. They roosted under the eaves of a public school building standing within the border of their domain. The male was ever distrustful of a man and knew to a nicety the range of a gun, for he always left his perch before an effective shooting distance was reached.
The female was very trustful. Would that she had known better the heart of man ! One day a boy stealthily approached to within a few yards of where she sat and suddenly throwing a heavy stick, struck her to the ground. He quickly beat her into unconsciousness and after a look at her feathers threw her body down beside the path. And there old Dick's mate lay in the sunshine until the ants, which soon swarmed over her, had consumed her flesh, and the feathers went dancing before the wind across the stubble of the rice field.
It has sometimes been claimed that eagles mate for life, and that if one of a pair is killed the surviving member will never mate again. The same has been said of swans and some other birds. I do not know if these things be true, but I do know that the Arredondo sparrow hawk, bereft of his companion, did not mate again during the three subsequent years in which I knew him.
He did not appear to miss his mate until the warm days of January came. Then the swelling buds and the soft winds from the Gulf began to sing weird, sweet strains in his ears. Out of the woods he came bounding one bright morning, and circled on strong wings about the orange grove. He called and signaled as he cleaved the air above the rice field in his graceful flight. But there was none to answer him,no bright eye to follow his movements on his aerial parade ground, for no fond spectator sat on the top of the dead pine tree.
Day after day he came in vain to their trysting place. Day after day his yearning heart was unstilled, and his eager eyes sought through sky and field and forest his lost companion. One day with food in his beak he flew up to the old nesting place, and in deep quiet tones gave the low love call so dear to his mate in other days.
For more than a fortnight the faithful bird sought his own, and then, yielding to despair, ceased to call, and the long, cheerless silence of a mateless life closed in upon him.