Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Tilly Hawk

I drive past open pastures ringed with oak woodlands as I come and go to work each day. More often than not I see one or two sparrow-hawks perched on a wire just north of our home. Each sighting brightens my journey and calls to mind memories of other times in my life.

As a child in Idaho I learned to watch for sparrow-hawks perched on roadside powerlines where cultivated fields and pastures fingered into open rangelands awash in big sagebrush. I often saw them hovering over a stubble field watching for mice and other small prey. Once, long ago in my childhood in the early 1960's, I accompanied my father into a large hangar-like building at Gowen Field in Boise [commercial airport and military base, where burrowing owls once also dwelled]. We found a dead sparrow-hawk lying on the floor inside. It had followed a prey animal, a sparrow or finch perhaps, into the building through an open skylight window, and had become fatally trapped. The occasion gave me a chance to examine the bird very closely (the first bird I'd ever held in my hand) and marvel with my father at the rich cinnamon and dark greenish blue hues of its plumage and the nearly black streaks below the eyes, which I soon came to recognize as marks to identify them in the field. I've loved that bird's brethren ever since.

Sparrow-hawks, or Tilly Hawks, as they are locally known here in north central Florida, are not as common as they once were. I am glad there are a few pairs living close to home. Last year the Clog-wife and I observed a pair of persistent sparrow-hawks drive away a red-tailed hawk that had perched too close to their nest tree.

The sparrow-hawk, or American Kestrel, is known by many folk-names besides Tilly Hawk, including: bastard hawk, bullet-hawk, chicken-hawk, cleek-cleek, cliff-hawk, desert sparrow-hawk, house-hawk, killy-killy, little brown hawk, mouse-hawk, rusty-crowned falcon, short-winged hawk, tilly, windhover, wood bird.

In 1910, Winthrop Packard published an interesting volume entitled Florida Trails, as Seen from Jacksonville to Key West, and from November to April Inclusive. In chapter 17 he had this to say about Tilly Hawks:
"Another great insect destroyer is the little sparrow hawk which winters in the savannas in countless numbers. If one would see sparrow-hawks he should go to a fire. The birds do not flock at ordinary times but may be seen singly, watching for game much as the butcher bird does. But let a wisp of smoke appear in the air and you find them sailing in on swift wings from all directions. As the fire gathers headway in the dry grass and young pine growth they sail about like bats, whirling down into dense smoke and darting back again to a perch not far from the fire, always with a fat, flying grasshopper or other insect driven to flight by the fire. These they seize in their talons in true hawk fashion and devour when perched."

"How such small birds -- the sparrow-hawk is only ten inches long, no bigger than a robin -- manage to include as many fat grasshoppers as I have seen one pick as brands from the burning, it is hard to tell. He who shoots a sparrow-hawk shoots a bird whose main record as a destroyer of insects outweighs his sparrow killing a thousand to one. But the sparrow-hawk is hardly a morning singer, though he does sometimes pipe up "killy-killy-killy-killy," whence the name in some sections, "killy hawk."
The endless conversion of agricultural land and prairie into sprawling suburban developments destroys piecemeal the preferred habitat of this beautiful and fearless little falcon. It would be a sad day were no more Tilly Hawks to be seen perched on a roadside powerline or hovering over an open field. We all would all be the poorer for it.

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