Sluggish Birds, Lazy IdeasBy
John James Audubon and John Cassin meet for the first time, at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia.
The meeting appears not to have been an altogether happy one, and they parted none too amicably after a warm dispute as to who [had] discovered Falco harrisii.
Audubon had done it again. Eight years before the meeting with Cassin, he had received the skin of a female hawk from Louisiana unlike anything he had seen before. He gave it the English name “Louisiana Hawk,” and in its scientific name commemorated his generous patron, sometime traveling companion, and constant
friend Edward Harris, Esq., a gentleman who, independently of the aid which he has on many occasions afforded me, in prosecuting my examination of our birds, merits this compliment as an enthusiastic Ornithologist.
Harris, the sesquicentennial of whose early death we commemorate this year, was in the room that afternoon in Philadelphia, and it must have been uncomfortable for him when Cassin pointed out that “his” hawk had never been Audubon’s to name: Temminck had already published the species a dozen years earlier, based on an immature specimen from Brazil collected by the great explorer and botanist Auguste de St-Hilaire and donated to the Museum of Natural History in Paris.
Temminck called the bird Falco unicinctus, the “hawk with a single band,” not a bad name and not a bad description. In addition to a very full description of the species’ plumage, he noted, for the first time, that in its structure this raptor falls somehow “in between” what we now know as the buteos and the accipiters:
In its general aspect it rather resembles a buzzard or even a harrier. Its wings, though pointed, are not as long as those of the buzzards; the way in which the flight feathers are arranged is precisely the same as in the European bird hawks, but it creates a profile that is more elongated and pointed. The curved edges of the bill place it nearer our bird-hawks than our buzzards. This species serves to remind us of the numerous subtly intermediate features that link our European raptor groups.
Audubon must have known Temminck’s description and the accompanying plate (Cassin most certainly did). But to give the American Woodsman the benefit of a slight doubt, he probably assumed that a species found “au Brésil” could hardly be expected to occur in the swamps lying “between Bayou Sara and Natchez.”
Audubon’s proclamation of his sp. nov. in the Ornithological Biography is as terse as Temminck’s was detailed.
A label attached to one of its legs authorizes me to say that it was a female; but I have received no information respecting its habits; nor can I at present give you the name of the donor….
The only real “ornithological” information he can provide is an assignment
to the group of what may be called indolent or heavy-flying hawks.
Anyone who has spent any time around Harris’s Hawks will be surprised by Audubon’s terminology here. The birds are often tame, hanging out in desert backyards and perching on urban lampposts, but they are “impressive sprinters as well, accelerating quickly at the first sign of prey.”
It turns out that Audubon’s class of “heavy-flying hawks” is a category nearly congruent with the modern birder’s notion of the “buteo.” In addition to the Harris’s (since 1874 in the genus Parabuteo), Audubon’s group includes the Golden Eagle (in the great eagle genus Aquila), the Red-tailed Hawk, the Harlan’s Hawk, the Broad-winged Hawk, the Red-shouldered Hawk, the Common Buzzard, and the Rough-legged Hawk. This is a “natural” grouping based on wing shape and flight habit: all these birds
can, indeed, soar to a very great height, but this [they] accomplish by a circling or gyratory flight,
precisely the behavior that birders today use to narrow the possibilities when they see a large raptor.
But Audubon also had a moral judgment in mind. He calls the flight of these birds “slovenly,” and all of them, he says, are to be considered
more or less indolent; one might say that they are destitute of the power of distinguishing themselves in any remarkable manner, and none of them shew a propensity to remove any great distance from the place of their birth, unless, indeed, when very hard pressed either by want of food or by very intense cold.
A positivist reader might find here a description ex negativo of Audubon’s own career and accomplishments, which echo in his description a few pages on of the “True Falcons“:
they appear to delight in following the myriads of the feathered tribes from which they have derived their subsistence.
Absent any more information about the Harris’s Hawk‘s lifestyle, Audubon’s use of the word “indolent” to describe this species created a veritable topos in nineteenth-century American ornithology.
Henry Eeles Dresser, in Texas in 1865, described the present species as “heavy” and “sluggish”; that latter adjective would become the species’ signature in Elliott Coues’s great Key, first published in 1872 and running through five editions before 1903. James C. Merrill, working in Texas a dozen years after Dresser, compared the birds’ behavior unfavorably to that of Crested Caracaras, calling them ”not so active” as even those leisurely scavengers. Even Charles Bendire, whose extensive ornithologizing in Arizona should have taught him dramatically otherwise, found this species ”a lazy sluggish bird, their flight slow, and not graceful.”
Ironically, it was John Cassin himself who in 1858 added another layer to the Audubonian cliché of the “indolent” raptor. In the ornithological volume summarizing the results of the 1853-56 Pacific Railroad surveys, Cassin and Baird moved Temminck’s Falco unicinctus into John Gould’s (“gratingly” and “inelegantly” named) genus Craxirex, which the British ornithologist had erected in 1841 to accommodate a new hawk discovered during the Beagle‘s explorations of the Galapagos.
In fact, Cassin and his co-authors went so far as to suggest that Temminck’s (and Audubon’s) hawk might even be conspecific with Gould’s, which he had described as
a most interesting link in the chain of affinities, by which the true buzzards pass into the great American sub-family of carrion-feeding hawks,
a characterization closely recalling Temminck’s mention of the “nombreuses nuances intermédiaires.” And unlike Temminck and Audubon, Gould was also able to communicate something of the Galapagos hawk’s habits:
These birds will eat all kinds of offal thrown from the houses.
That was all it took. On no other basis, it seems, than Gould’s description of a bird that might or might not be the same as the one found in the US, Baird and Cassin simply transfered the account of the Galapagos bird’s prandial preferences onto the Harris’s Hawk, which, they write, is not only “dull and heavy,” but “subsists for the greater part on dead animals.” Audubons’ picture of indolence was complete, and the notion of the lazy scavenger was entrenched. In the first edition of the Key, Coues said that the Harris’s Hawk “approached” the caracaras in its habits, an observation expanded on explicitly in the final, posthumous edition of the work, where it is described as “a sluggish, carrion-feeding bird” — and where the genus Parabuteo is called “Carrion Buzzards.”
The notion that the Harris’s Hawk was identical to Gould’s Galapagos bird would be definitively rejected by Robert Ridgway in 1874, but the damage was done. Dresser described the birds he encountered in Texas as “heavy” and “sluggish… subsisting, so far as I could see, entirely on carrion… regaling themselves on some offensive carrion.” Charles C. Nutting reported from Costa Rica in 1882 that this “abundant” species
“associates with the Carrion Crow [=Black Vulture], and eats offal.” A.K. Fisher, the patron saint of economic ornithology, reassured the American farmer in 1893 that this species “does very little damage to poultry or beneficial birds,” as its food “consists largely of offal, the smaller reptiles and mammals, and occasionally birds.” (Refreshingly, Fisher also defended the Harris’s Hawk against the usual charge of lethargy, noting that many observers had mistaken its habitual fearlessness for stolidity.) Even Salvin and Godman‘s Biologia centrali-americana, published at the very turn of the twentieth century, still reported that it was “frequently described as sluggish… eating offal.”
The only early dissenting voice seems to have been George Sennett‘s, who in the late 1870s found the crops of the birds he shot in the Rio Grande Valley full of such speedy little prey items as mice, lizards, birds, and ground squirrels, ”proving them active hunters, and not the sluggish birds they appeared.” But it was not until the twentieth century that our swashbuckling Harris’s Hawk finally shook off its reputation for indolence. Bent, writing in 1937, acknowledges the traditional view of this species as “sluggish, heavy… slow of flight and not graceful,” but objects rightly that “no very slow or sluggish hawk could catch the lively creatures recorded in its food,” and quotes Allan Brooks on his experience of “this bird in action”:
a flutter of wings as a flock of teal rise in confusion with a dark shape striking right and left among them with all the dash of a goshawk…. the next attack may be on a group of small herons, one of which may be singled out and followed until killed.
Such noble prey is as unlike “offal” as can be, and “indolent” is the last word one would apply to “the dash of a goshawk.” Honest observation was finally, a hundred years later, casting off the weight of Audubonian authority.
Nowadays, we think of this species as able to “accelerate like lightning, turn on a dime, and anticipate a rabbit’s movements.” We admire the species’ extremely complex social structures, and few are the hearts that don’t quicken when we’re lucky enough to see a “pack” of these hawks on the hunt.
These and many other appealing aspects of the Harris’s Hawk’s biology and behavior went “essentially unrecognized” until the 1970s. It wasn’t that the birds were rare or elusive, but that we had already been told what they were like: lazy, sluggish, indolent, and dull, with an immoderate fondness for decaying flesh. Audubon, Cassin, and Baird had told us all we thought we needed to know.
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