Sparrowhawk

Sparrow-Hawk  (Accipiter nisus )

Female—Length, 14 to 16 inches; wing, 8½ to 9½; tail, 7½ to 7¾; tarsus, 2.4. Male—Length, 11½ to 12½ inches; wing, 7½ to 8¼; tail, 6 to 6½; tarsus, 2.1.

The sparrow-hawk is remarkable for its very long and slender legs and middle toe, and its small head. Young females have the beak and upper plumage sepia brown, each feather edged with rufous brown; the nape varied with white or rufous white. The wing feathers are dark brown, with five bars of still darker brown on the outer primaries. The tail rather lighter brown, with five dark brown bars. The under plumage is dull white, more or less tinged with rufous, spotted with irregular patches, streaks, or bars of greyish brown. In the adult the brown of the upper plumage assumes a slatey grey hue, and the edgings of lighter colour vanish. The breast and under parts are barred with transverse markings of mixed fulvous and brown, and develop a rusty red colouring on the abdomen and inner thighs. The legs and feet become more distinctly yellow or gold colour, and the eye deepens in colour to light and ultimately to dark orange. Males in the immature plumage differ from females only in having a somewhat more rufous hue on the lighter part. But after the moult this rufous colouring becomes still more conspicuous, and spreads to the flanks and under surface of the wings, as well as to the upper throat. In both sexes the bars on the breast and thighs become narrower and of a fainter grey as the birds grow older; and the eyes deepen in colour.

Female sparrow-hawks—very much bigger and stronger than their brothers—may be flown at any bird of the size of a partridge, or smaller, which is not very swift or quick in shifting. In the wild state they undoubtedly kill a certain number of wood-pigeons, taking them at some disadvantage, as, for instance, when they pass under a tree in which the hawk is at perch. Probably the wild sparrow-hawk also picks up an occasional peewit, snipe, or woodcock. She is fond of young pheasants, which she will pick up from the ground when insufficiently guarded by the mother or foster-mother. Young chickens sometimes undergo the same fate under similar circumstances. The uses of the trained sparrow-hawk, both male and female, are described in the chapter devoted to this hawk.

The Sparrow-Hawk

There is so little difference between the training of the goshawk and that of the sparrow-hawk, that it is unnecessary to give any special directions for the latter. But, just as the merlin is a more delicate feeder and a more delicate subject than the peregrine, so it must be remembered that the diet and treatment of the smaller short-winged hawk must be more recherché than that of the larger. This is more especially true of the musket, or male sparrow-hawk, which is very much smaller than his sister, and is in many respects a kind of miniature hawk. Nothing in the shape of hard or tough meat must ever be given to him. No long fasts, no hardships. He must be always something of a spoilt child. And after he has once been manned, the more he is petted and pampered the better in most cases he will become. As far as my experience goes, he has a better temper, and is more easily reclaimed than his bigger sisters; but I have heard other falconers express a contrary opinion. Both the ladies and gentlemen, however, excluding exceptional cases, are, for a time at least, about as troublesome creatures as ever wore a good pair of wings. For the first few days after they are captured, or taken up from hack, it seems quite impossible to make anything of them. The beginner, unless he is of a most sanguine temperament, may be excused for despairing of the prospect of ever reducing them to obedience, and far more of ever using them profitably in the field. And, to tell the truth, if he has had no previous experience with a more docile kind of hawk, he seldom does succeed.

Yet an old hand will tell you that, when taken properly in hand, the sparrow-hawk becomes as trusty and hard-working a servant as man can well wish to have. She will combine the tameness of a parrot with the courage, and even ferocity, of a tiger, and will learn to treat her master to the amiable side of her character, and the quarry to the other. She will go on flying almost as long as you like to fly her, and start at one sort of bird almost as readily as another. She will work in any kind of country to which you introduce her; and if she does not make a good bag it will not be for want of will on her part, or for not doing her best. It seems almost that in proportion as the difficulties of training are great, so is the result the more gratifying when they have once been overcome. Mr. Riley, who has flown both goshawks and sparrow-hawks with the greatest ardour and success, is of opinion that from the point of view of mere sport, the latter are even superior to the former.

In the good old days partridges seem to have been taken pretty commonly with the female sparrow-hawk. But when I say taken, I do not mean that many old birds were actually caught in the air by the hawks. This would imply that the old-fashioned sparrow-hawk was faster and stronger, as well as better trained, than those of our own time. What often occurred was no doubt that the partridge was pursued by the hawk, and taken by the men or dogs. For the sight of this hawk, when she really means business, is quite enough to take all the courage out of even a bold partridge, and induce him to lie close in the hedge or thicket into which he has been put, when he can be grabbed by a spaniel or retriever, or even sometimes picked up by hand. I make no question that the old-fashioned falconers, by the aid of their drugs and nostrums, kept their hawks of all kinds—and especially hobbies—in better condition than we do. But even then it would probably have been considered quite a feat to take old partridges on the wing with a sparrow-hawk. And now, when the stubbles can only be called covert by courtesy, and to get within fifteen yards of a bird is a rare thing, it is certainly more difficult for us than it was for them to get a fair start at one. But a time often comes in a day's shooting when the birds, having been shot at a good deal, and scattered like sheep without a shepherd, lie very close in a patch of clover or thin roots. This would be the time for one of the guns, who had brought out his falconer with a sparrow-hawk in reserve, to call the latter forward. The rest of the guns—or some of them at least—would probably be glad enough to see so unusual a sight as a flight with a sparrow-hawk at a partridge. Anyhow, the interruption to the business of the day, while the little hawk was flown, would be very slight. Of course a sparrow-hawk which is intended to fly partridges should be kept, as Turbervile recommends, as much as possible to “big fowls.” And there would always be more or less a risk, unless the hawk was in first-rate condition,—in what is called “screaming yarak,”—that she would refuse at the critical moment the carefully marked bird, and put her owner to an everlasting shame. A falconer who is afraid of this, however, is not the sort of man who will ever do much good with any kind of hawk nowadays.

The quarry par excellence  of the sparrow-hawk is a blackbird. Every female which is sound in wind and limb, and also most males, ought to be able to take blackbirds, whereas it must be an exceptionally strong and bold female which will be good enough for the much more difficult flight at partridges. The hawk referred to in the Merry Wives of Windsor  seems to have been an eyess musket. Unless, therefore, the falconer is particularly ambitious and confident in himself and his hawks, he had better lay himself out for blackbirds as the pièce de résistance, with the chance of a few thrushes, starlings, water-hens, and small birds to make up the bag. Peter Gibbs the falconer told me that he had taken thirteen head of quarry, varying in size from a partridge to a wren, in one day with a female sparrow-hawk.

One advantage of the flight at blackbirds is that the quarry is easy to find. Few enclosed countries in England are without a good supply of them; and it is seldom that their haunts are so secure that they cannot be dislodged so as to afford a flight. Only a man must not go out blackbird-hawking all alone. He should rather get as many people to join in the business as he can. There is nothing unsociable or exclusive about a blackbird-hawking expedition. The gardener, and the gardener's men, as well as the keepers, the boys home for the holidays, and in short everyone who is available, should all be encouraged to volunteer as beaters, and help in the campaign against the plunderers of the raspberry bushes. Formerly this sort of hedge-hunting was a very popular amusement. Although in the fantastic apportionment of hawks to different ranks and degrees, the sparrow-hawk and musket were appropriated to ecclesiastics, it was a common thing for yeomen and small landowners to keep and fly this familiar and serviceable little creature. When Mr. Page says that he has a “fine hawk for the bush” (Merry Wives of Windsor, Act iii. scene 3), he means that he has a sparrow-hawk which will afford sport for a whole company of country-folk; and when he and his friends go out the next morning after breakfast “birding,” they may safely be supposed to get a morning's sport very much of the sort that is now to be described.

Ruby looks very murderous as she sits with her thin yellow fingers gripping the arch of yew which forms her bow-perch on the lawn. The warm autumnal sun lights up her feathers in their true colours of slatey brown on the back, and barred white on the breast. Very keen and pitiless is her yellow eye as it turns quickly towards each spot where the slightest unusual movement attracts her notice. Presently, however, all her attention is concentrated on one object, as her master steps across the lawn. In a moment she is on to the outstretched fist, where a well-known reward is almost always found. The leash is untied; we are beckoned to come on, and we start at once, accompanied by the terrier Sandy, with a knowing look on his shrewd face. It is a warm still day, and we go straight to the big meadow, where in the bottom hedge we put out a thrush. Ruby is off the fist like lightning, and gains fast on the quarry. Just as he turns to get into the hedge the hawk makes a dash, which very nearly succeeds, but the thrush has just managed to swerve out of the way, and, running along and through the hedge, escapes on the other side, while Ruby betakes herself to a tree hard by. Before she is called down a blackbird is sighted near the same tree, and we form a line so as to drive him towards the hawk. This, however, does not accord with the views of our black friend in the bush, who resists our well-meant endeavours, and tries to work his way past us away from the tree. Fortunately there are enough of us to frustrate his efforts, and prevent him from shirking along the hedge. He is obliged to take a line across the field, and as soon as he is well away from the fence Ruby is up to him. In shifting from the stoop he dashes himself against the ground, and even by this violent effort does not wholly escape, as the hawk hits him hard as she passes overhead. He picks himself up at once and makes for the hedge, but is just too late, as Ruby grabs him just as he is entering.

Passing on to another long hedge we soon get a flight at another blackbird, which puts in before the hawk gets up. Ruby will not wait, but goes on to an oak at the end of the hedge. We beat on, with a view to drive him towards the hawk, and find that there is more than one blackbird in front of us. One of these is driven out, and Ruby makes a fine stoop at him out of the tree, but fails to hit him, and he puts in. After several tries he is persuaded to fly out into the open, and make for some bushes that are not far off, but as he goes the hawk knocks him over with a severe cut, and though he gets up again and staggers on, she has him well before he can reach the bush. With the next blackbird we have no end of excitement under and round a tree in the fence, the fugitive several times baffling us as we are driving him along towards a bare place in the hedge, and compelling us to hark back and begin driving him up again. Once he comes out a yard, and whips back again instantly. The hawk goes again up into an oak-tree near the gate. Now we drive on furiously, hoping that at the gate, anyhow, he will take wing. Some time before we get there he loses patience and ventures a flight across the field. Ruby gets a poor start, but the blackbird makes a bad use of his chance, allowing the hawk to recover lost ground rapidly, and makes such a weak attempt to get inside a brake that he is taken on the top—perhaps dazed with all the noise and hustling in the fence.

The next is a very plucky young cock, found in a short piece of hedge by a wire fence. In and out of the wire fence he shifts very cleverly, and only just saves himself in a holly bush. Here he establishes himself in a nearly impregnable fortress, made up of an earth-bank, with some tangled roots, and an infinity of quickset, wild rose, and bramble. The yapping of Sandy, the shouts of the beaters, and the howls of an under-gardener, who in the ardour of pursuit has torn his cheek open with a briar—all are unavailing to storm the citadel until someone with a well-directed thrust nearly pins him by the tail. Then at last he is off in real earnest towards a thick brake. Before he can get there Ruby compels him with a knock on the back to drop down on the ground, and though he gets up and shuffles into the brake, he is evidently the worse for wear. It takes ten minutes' hard work to dislodge him again, and even when dislodged he dodges back after going a few yards. At last, as it is getting dark, he happens to go out just under the spot where the hawk is sitting, and she collars him above the ditch, dropping into it with him. A flight of half an hour, “including stoppages,” and hard work all the time—for the men!

Another day we are out with Lady Macbeth, a young eyess with broad shoulders, large feet, and a very small head. The luck is against us at first. We are foiled by a blackbird and outflown by a thrush, and have failed to find any water-hens. At length a blackbird is marked down in a field of swedes in the open, and we adjourn there, full of hopes. The tactics adopted by this blackrobed gentleman are simple, but ingenious and effective. They consist of flopping down, as the hawk gets quite near, into a thick bunch of turnip leaves, and, when once on the ground, doubling round the stalks so as to elude the hawk, which, of course, dives into the damp covert at the same place where the quarry disappeared. Then when the hawk's head is safe behind the leafy screen of verdure, the chance comes of jumping up and slipping off unseen. Twice does Lady Macbeth detect him in the act of thus slinking off; but she is thrown out again by the same stratagem, and on the third occasion the fugitive gets off unseen by his persecutor, though in full sight of us, and also of Sandy, who yelps demoniacally, either from pure vexation, or perhaps in the hope of attracting the attention of his friend and ally. Well, of course, we lose that fellow, who goes off joyously over the hedge and the next field, glorying, like Ulysses, in the success of his wiles. More valuable to magpie and blackbird than the rather limited allowance of wing-power with which Nature has provided them, is the considerable supply of brains by which the balance is made up.

At last, however, we get a bit of luck, which indeed makes it rather a red-letter day for Lady Macbeth, for as we beat along one of the least likely-looking hedge-rows, more for the sake of doing the proper thing than with a hope of finding anything, there is a huge flurry and bustle almost under the feet of our falconer, and up gets a single partridge, beating the air noisily with broad, round wings as he gets clear of the overgrown ditch. When he is once fairly on the wing he will soon put on a pace nearly, if not quite, equal to any that our hawk can attain to. That is, he “would” rather than he “will,” for we have not been idle all this time. On the contrary, Lady Macbeth, somewhat startled at first, spreads her wings, and at once shoots upwards, as if with a view to see what is the matter. Then, pulling herself together as she takes in the situation, she makes a sort of half-turn in the air, comes down in a slanting course, half stooping and half flying, and before the partridge has gone forty yards, strikes him full on the back with both feet. One, at least, of the eight sharp claws hold, and down they come with a whack on the brown earth of the ploughed field, where they seem almost to roll over one another in the excitement of the fray which has still to be fought out. For a real set-to it is, of the rough-and-tumble order. The hawk's claws, long and sharp as they are, do not penetrate to any vital part of the partridge as they do when a sparrow is the victim. Nor do her long spindle-like legs look as if they could do much service in a wrestling bout, when opposed to the short, stout, and very muscular understandings of the other. But Lady Macbeth makes play with her wings and tail as well as her feet and legs, otherwise she could be upset and shaken off in no time. Half a dozen long feathers pressed down into the ground on each side prevent her from being thrown to right or left; a dozen almost equally long and elastic feathers behind steady her still further, and act as a sort of drag if the struggling partridge tries to rush forward and so free itself. So, though the encounter is fierce, as the two feathered bodies sway about spasmodically over the rough surface of the furrow, the assailant keeps the upper hand; and soon the allied forces come up in support. The trainer, joyous at the tardy success which has crowned his afternoon, gets hold of one of the partridge's wings and holds it down, so that the kicks and scratchings to which he now resorts are wasted on the insensible clods beneath. The hawk now shifts one foot from the shoulder to the head; two claws imbed themselves in the face and neck. A third, sad to say, pierces the falconer's unguarded thumb; but though he moans with the pain, he does not withdraw his hand till he has cleared it from the hooked claw. Then, with sharp knife, he severs the partridge's jugular vein, and, opening the skull, allows the hawk to pick out the brain. Lady Macbeth will now be fed up; she has had some work and some encouragement, and we shall next time try to find her another short start at a partridge.

One of the merits of “birding” with a sparrow-hawk is that everyone out is always busily engaged. Everyone thinks that he has marked the exact spot where the fugitive put in, and can lay his hand at once on the place where his cunning head is hiding under the ferns or leaves. And yet when the hedge is reached these boastings are all falsified, and the hiding-places seem all to be bare. “He never stopped in the hedge at all,” says one. “Yes he did. He doubled down to the right.” "He climbed up into the middle." “Hark, there! I heard him flutter.” "You make such a confounded row with your argumentation; no one can hear anything." “There he goes!” "No; that's Sandy." “I see him now.” "To the left!" “Keep him back.” "Cut him off." And so the chase goes on. Lady Macbeth, or Ruby, sits quietest of all on the commanding bough, though her yellow eyes glitter with excitement, and her legs and wings are ready for a start the moment that a black feather shows itself. It is equally hard to grab an old cock blackbird in the hedge, or to drive him out of it far enough to give the hawk a chance of a fair shot. As for the thrushes, they seem to puzzle a sparrow-hawk more even than the wiliest of their black cousins. They have more wing-power, too, and are apt to distance her in fair flight. A starling is, I believe, not an easy bird to take if he has anything of a start. Wood-pigeons, when taken by wild sparrow-hawks, must probably be caught unawares.

A small wiry-haired dog which is not afraid of thorns will often be useful. Sandy is not without his honours in the hawking-field. Many a blackbird has he snapped up in his mouth within a yard of his formidable ally, in whose presence the quarry thinks that almost anything is preferable to a flight across the open. Then the victim is, of course, taken from him—often unhurt—for Sandy is too well bred and too well trained to injure it if he can help doing so; and with the orthodox cry of “Ware, hawk! ware!” is thrown out to the hawk. Water-hens are a rather favourite quarry for the female sparrow-hawk, as well as for the goshawk, when she is not a very distinguished performer. A water-spaniel which knows how to work with a hawk is in each case very useful. Landrails would afford a capital flight if they were plentiful enough, and could be induced to give themselves a fair start, instead of waiting to be kicked up when the hawk is close upon them.

But perhaps the best flight of all, next to partridges, is at the quail, and it is one in which the musket can be employed as well as his sister. The Italian authorities, upon whom Turbervile draws for the chief part of his treatise on falconry, speak of the quail as the special quarry of the sparrow-hawk, and give minute directions for this flight, which could, of course, be had in perfection in the Egyptian paddy-fields, and in other parts of the East. It is said that some of the tribes tributary to the Grand Turk, who had to pay their tribute in quails, used to provide themselves by means of sparrow-hawks alone with the necessary number of birds. The African falconers, when in pursuit of quails, take the sparrow-hawk round the body in their right hand, and as the quarry rises throw her at them like a round-hand bowler, thereby giving her an initial impetus, of which she seems fully to understand the advantage. In some places they surround the neck of the hawk with a halschband, or linen collar, which serves to steady the flight. The Besra sparrow-hawk, as has already been said, is used as well as the common species.

A quotation from the last-named author will here, perhaps, be found to the point. “Set your sparrow-hawke,” he says, “every morning abroade in the sunne two houres, or neare thereabouts, and set her to the water twice in a weeke at the least, and especially nyasses, for they covet the water more than the rest. Soar sparrow-hawks should not be flown withal too soone in a morning, for they soare willingly. Take your sparrow-hawke from the pearche alwayes with somewhat in your hand, to make her love you, and be fond of you, for that is a thing of no small importance and consideration. And also to make your sparrow-hawke foot great fowles, to the end that she may not learn nor be accustomed to carrion. And as touching mewing of a sparrow-hawke, some use to put her in the mew as soon as they leave fleeing with her, cutting off both her bewits, lines, and the knots of her jesses, and leave her in the mew until she be cleane mewed. But if you will have her to flee at partridge, quail, or the feazent poult, then you must draw her in the beginning of April, and have her on the fist till she be cleane and thoroughly enseamed. And they which delight in haggarts must take great heede that they offend them not, but rather coy them as much as they can, with all devices of favour and cherishing. For they will remember favor or injurie much better than any kind of hawke. And he which hath a haggart sparrow-hawke must above all thinges take paines in weyning her from that vile fault of carrying: and that shall he do by serving her often with greate pullets and other great traines, the which she cannot carry, and thereby she will learne to abide upon the quarry.”

Sparrow-Hawk and Partridge.

Mr. Riley has given me some extracts from his hawking diary, in which the following scores are recorded:—

Blanche (eyess female), 1885-86—44 blackbirds, 13 thrushes, 1 partridge, 2 small birds.

Lady Mabel (eyess female), 1887-88—56 blackbirds, 5 thrushes, 4 water-hens, 3 partridges, 1 pheasant, 2 small birds.

Faerie (eyess female), 1889-90—64 blackbirds, 3 thrushes, 4 water-hens, 1 partridge, 4 small birds.

Ruby (eyess female), 1894-95—106 blackbirds, 1 partridge, 1 starling, 1 small bird.

Princess (wild-caught female), 1895-96 (Nov. 11 to March 24)—39 blackbirds, 1 thrush.

Of these the wild-caught Princess, though injured in the leg by a trap, was very superior in her style. Ruby at the end of the season flew very like a wild hawk. This Ruby was wonderfully fast and clever, and an excellent footer. The number of blackbirds she killed stone dead by stoops out of trees was astonishing. In size she did not exceed the average. Speaking from an experience of a great many years, and with an authority which everyone must acknowledge, Mr. Riley declares that “no sport with a female goshawk can touch that to be got with a good female sparrow-hawk.”