The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
British Falcons and Hawks: A Talk to Children in South Kensington Museum

by E. C. Allen.
Volume 15, 1904, pg. 301-305

The Natural History Museum is always so interesting that we must make up our minds very definitely to look only at the special things we come to see, else we might be so tempted on our way, that we should never reach them at all. On entering the Museum we turn at once to the left and go straight down the Bird Gallery, past those fascinating nests of robins and thrushes and doves, till we come to a bay on the left marked "Owls, falcons, and ospreys." Here we will try to look at specimens of birds from everywhere and I will tell you what are the particular ones we come to see to-day. We have come to study British falcons and hawks. You will say at once--"These are marked 'India' and 'Natal' and all sorts of places." So they are, but wait. Birds of prey are a great family in the bird world and they belong of course to all nations. Someone will tell us what a bird of prey means--one that feeds on other birds or is what we call flesh-eating. If I ask for examples, you will at once say "Eagles, vultures, kites."--Yes. Here they all are. Look here at the left at this golden eagle! Look at this terrible South African condor! Look at this tall beautiful falcon from Natal! Perhaps someone will ask why the case of owls is put with the eagles. What do owls eat? Mice and little birds and frogs. Then they are also birds of prey. We class the great family into two division--nocturnal and diurnal--that means day birds and night birds. So the owls are where because they are nocturnal birds, and that the whole family may be represented.

The diurnal birds of prey are divided into four groups: --

       (1) Falcons.
       (2) Vultures.
       (3) Secretary vultures.
       (4) American vultures.

No mention of hawks, someone says. They are a division of the falcon group, which is the only one we have represented in England, and we have only a very few even of them. Now we must find the characteristics of these beautiful strong fierce-looking fellows. Take the beak first. Look at its curve--see how the upper half is much longer than the lower and curves over it. The edge of the bill is sharp too, and can act like a pair of scissors. Think of a rook's bill--just the shape for digging in soft ground or darting on to fat worms or filling with thick soft grubs. Look at the feet of all these, very strong, with all the toes wide apart, and very big, much curved claws. They have to be used for holding the prey, and striking and killing and carrying, as well as just ordinary perching and walking. Look at the size and strength of their wings in comparison with their heads; think of the rook again and his big head and wings--big, certainly, but not as strong in comparison to these. Notice the little circle of bare skin round the top of the beak, that is called the cere, which is one of the characteristics of a bird of prey. In the owls it is partially covered with little stiff bristles. It varies in size and colour in eagles and vultures.

Now we will leave this bay and go on to the very end of the gallery for our British falcons.

But in the first case is not a falcon, but the splendid golden eagle. The term "falcon" includes eagles and hawks when it is applied to a whole family, so we need not be surprised. How beautiful and wonderful these two are. Think if we saw them in the sun, we should believe they deserve their name of "golden." The label tells us the same two came from Scotland. They look almost too fierce for us to believe we might see them in peaceful England. We can quite believe the story now of the boy Ganymeade being carried off by Jove's eagle.

Next we will go to the middle case, which shows the nest of the largest of the British falcons--the Peregrine. We will read the inscription first. Now look. Which is the male? At once someone says "the biggest." No! If you look carefully you will notice that the beautiful fellow with his wings outstretched is really smaller than the much quieter one that is standing by the nest. In all the falcons the male is smaller than the female. Look at the babies! They look rather like fierce white ducklings with their coat of down. Look at the parents' beautiful blue-black plumage -- at their barred thighs and broad stripe on the tail. The bills too are blue. How fierce they look for their size -- about 15 and 17 inches respectively. The peregrine feeds on small birds and on the young of grouse, partridges, pheasants, chickens, rabbits, hares, etc.; which makes him the object of the farmer's hatred and the keeper's ingenuity. But they are not altogether right, because he only carries off the weaklings, and thus helps to keep the race strong. This is the bird used so much in the olden days for hawking, because of its strength and courage and docile disposition.

In falconry the female only is called the "falcon"; the male is known as the "tierces," which is corrupted into "tarcel" or "tassel," and is spoken of in old English as the "tassli" or "tassel-gentle." Perhaps someone will remember the line from Romeo and Juliet--

       "Oh for a falconer's voice
       To lure my tassel-gentle back again."

The peregrine will attack birds much larger than itself, and was used in heron hawking. The heron was generally intercepted on its way home, and would immediately try and soar about the falcon who flew in a spiral, mounting higher and higher. Often the heron would throw out its late meal to make itself lighter in flight. If a pair were flown, one would succeed the other, swooping down and striking the heron with the claws until it was brought to the ground. A hawk strikes with this beak and chases its prey, following it into the woods, but a falcon strikes with the claws and never fights except in the open. In fact, they were generally lost if the prey got into the wood. A pair of falcons is called a "cast." The force with which a falcon will strike its prey is so great that it will kill a bird very little smaller than itself with one blow, and fly away with it in its claws almost without effort. When once in its grasp, resistance is useless, and its flight when once fairly started, is exceedingly swift.

Perhaps someone will ask the meaning of the word "peregrine." It comes from he same root as our word "peregrinations" or wandering, travellings, from the Latin Peregrinari, foreign. It is so called because the young birds migrate; and are usually seen in the autumn. But sometimes older birds are met in the spring going North. They do nest in England, building in rocky places like this one, or on sea cliffs; sometimes even in an open marsh or on a lonely tree. Those who have read that delightful book, Peter Penniless, will remember how Peter found a peregrine's nest and the traps he set for the old birds. I am afraid he would not agree with me that it was good for his breed of pheasant to sacrifice some to the peregrine. You see, number matters more than anything else to a keeper, and even if some are weak, nearly all are meant to be shot.

Now we will move on to the case on the left. What a contrast! This bird is not much bigger than a thrush and it is brown. This is the small British falcon -- the kestrel, or windhover. That one suspended in the case is in just the position you're most likely to see one. I have seen as many as seven at a time hovering like that over a cliff in Cornwall, as well as odd ones in Cheshire and a pair at Bournemouth. They are quite common over cliffs and open spaces. Look at the nice red-brown of his back. I have seen that described as "brick-red" but I think that is not quite true, although he does look very chestnut-colored in the sun. Look at the bars on his thighs and that broad black mark on his grey tail, which is tipped with white. Stoop down and notice what shape he will be as he flies overhead. How his tail spreads out like a fan. "What a small beak!" you say. Yes, this falcon is really the farmer's friend -- except for an occasional baby chicken. He lives on field-mice, beetles, frogs, worms, grubs, etc.; all things that spoil the ground for crops, as well as marauding sparrows and small birds. He likes a hole for a nest, as you see: a hollow tree sometimes, or a crack in an old building, or a crevice made by rocks like this. Do you see the reason for his name "wind-hover"? This is how he hovers in the wind over the fields, hunting; head to the wind, and bent down, eyes watching the ground, about 40 to 50 feet up. Every now and then, down he swoops; he has seen some movement, then up again, then down and following the ground for about ten yards, then pounce he goes on the beetle or shrew that has been hiding from her. His wings are hovering all the time, bit so little and so swiftly that you think he is quite still. We will read his label and again admire his beautiful colouring, and then cross the room to the opposite case--the merlin. Let us read his label. This bird is not nearly so often seen as the kestrel. Perhaps its size and grey colour make it less conspicuous. And then its prey is not "ground game." It feeds upon sparrows, finches, tits, any bird smaller than itself that it can kill. Notice its soft pretty dove-colour and and its barred tail, and that its thighs are barred lengthwise. Look too at the slim clean legs -- much longer than the kestrel's. His were short and curled up under him, but this bird perches while hunting, and therefore wants height to help him find his prey. It is only found in the hilly district -- Scotland, Yorkshire, Derbyshire, and Wales. It nests on the ground, generally on the open moors, and like those of most ground-building birds, the nests are very hard to find.

Last of all we will go to the drawers* and look at the eggs of our birds. Here are the big peregrine eggs, blotched, not speckled, and varying in color. Here are the kestrel's, only the same size as a thrush's, but much rounder. And the merlin's -- much redder than one would think from such a grey bird. Somehow I always fancy its eggs ought to be grey or white.

*The cases of eggs are in the same room. The drawers are numbered and a corresponding list is on the top of each cabinet.

And now we go to the big middle case to see the hawks. There are not very many and they are only stiffly put on stands, not nicely mounted like the falcons. But there they are. The sparrow hawk,** very big and bold, who chases the little birds up and down the hedges. His beak is much larger in comparison with his size. You see he strikes with it. Then the goshawk, which is the largest; its name is a corruption of goose-hawk, because it was used in hawking to catch wild geese. He measures from 19 to 23 inches sometimes. He nests in a tall tree. So does the sparrow-hawk, who likes an old crow's nest if he can get it. A goshawk eats hares and rabbits, and its way of killing them is called "raking"--clawing them down from the head. We see other specimens of kestrels and peregrines in this case which show us how their plumage varies, but the light is not good enough to see very well. We leave our birds with a last regretful glance at the golden eagle, and the feeling that however farmers and gamekeepers abuse them, we must love the falcons for their courage and beauty.

**They vary very much in size, and are sometimes quite small or very little bigger than a kestrel, from 15 inches upwards.

Typed by 3lilreds, Sept. 2023; Proofread by LNL, Sept. 2023