Bird of prey

The so-called "birds of prey" include three quite distinct groups, the American "vultures," the hawk and eagle tribe, and the fish hawks. All agree in having strong, hook-pointed beaks, in many cases with a toothlike point on the cutting edge of the upper mandible, and covered at the base by a fleshy "cere"; and in having claws of great strength termed "talons." This catlike armament, adapted to seizing and holding living prey, and tearing its flesh, indicates the predacious nature and practice of the tribe, but it is developed to its fullest extent only in the falcons and powerful eagles, since a large part of the order are carrion-feeders or catch nothing larger than grasshoppers. Among the carrion-feeders are the condor of the Andes, and his almost extinct cousin the California condor, which are the largest flying birds in the world. Near relative to them are the turkey buzzard and carrion crow of our Southern States, besides some tropical species. The vultures of the Old World are, as a rule, big birds inhabiting mountainous and desert places, and capable of overcoming almost any disabled or weak animal. A small one that in North Africa plays the rôle of town scavenger, as does our turkey buzzard, is famous under the Egyptian name of "Pharaoh's chicken." The partial nakedness of the head, often accompanied by a  great neck-ruff, is a characteristic of all these birds.

The lammergeier of the Alps and eastward to India connects in its structure and habits the vultures (Vulturidæ) with the real predatory family (Falconidæ), in which are placed the hundreds of species of buzzards, harriers, hawks, eagles and sea eagles, that subsist by killing and eating every kind of creature that it is within the power of each one to overcome. The bulk of their prey consists of small rodents; and in pursuing them they rid the land of vast numbers of little gnawers most injurious to agriculture; it should be the business of every farmer and orchardist to learn to recognize the three or four fierce little poultry-catching falcons in his locality, and refrain from killing any other sort of hawk.

It is a hopeless task to give any detailed description of the game birds, which are world-wide in their distribution and practically of the greatest importance to mankind, for in this group are found the originals of our domestic poultry (the jungle fowls of India), and the quails, partridges, grouse, pheasants, turkeys, curassows, and many more of hardly more interest to the naturalist than to the sportsman. The sportsman is willing to count the toothsome rails as "game" when he goes after them in the marshes of the middle coastal States. They are plain-colored birds that run about amid the salt grass and reeds, and are an interesting example of adaptation to this special station in life, for their bodies are notably compressed, so that a rail can slip through a narrower space than any other bird of its size; hence the proverb: "Thin as a rail." A common species in Europe is known in literature as "corn crake"; and American relatives, the gallinules of fresh-water marshes, go by the name of "mud hens." The rails belong to the crane family, which includes many large tropical birds besides our own two kinds of cranes, both becoming rare in the United States.

Good sport and delicate fare are afforded also by the great tribe of "shore birds"—plovers, yellowlegs, curlews, snipe, and the various sandpipers that feed along the seashores or frequent the inland marshes of every part of the world, nowhere more numerously than along our much embayed eastern coast. The plovers are especially interesting, and one of them, the noisy killdeer, is familiar all over the country, breeding in upland fields, where four brown and spotted eggs are laid in a little hollow of the open ground, plover fashion. Another notable species, the golden plover, is a cosmopolitan, and a remarkable migrant, journeying from its arctic breeding place to the tropics, not only overland, but across thousands of miles of ocean, as from Nova Scotia direct to Bermuda, and Alaska to Hawaii. The crested "lapwing" of Europe is another famous species. The plovers have short bills and live on insects; but the sandpipers that in greenish or brown-streaked coats flit along the shores pick up a more miscellaneous fare from the edge of the sea and on exposed tide flats. Here too, are the very longed-legged "stilts," the phalaropes with lobes along their toes like a grebe, the curlews, with their long, upcurved bills, the willets that alarm all the rest by their cries as soon as they espy a gunner, the big, gray godwits and many others. Various snipes form a group of small, swift fliers that haunt boggy land, where they probe the mud with long bills furnished with nerves of great delicacy at the tip by which they can feel the hidden worms buried in the mud that are their favorite fare; and one of them is the swamp-haunting woodcock, beloved of gourmands on both sides of the ocean. Europe and Asia have several other kinds of birds in this class not known here, such as the coursers, and the Egyptian "ziczac" that now and then picks the crocodile's teeth, and is almost the same as the historic lapwing, so familiar in Scotland.