We didn’t watch or listen to or — heaven help us — attend any football games yesterday. No surprise there, but it seems that we did miss out on one of the most inspired bird misidentifications of the year.
I’m told that the mascot of one of the teams involved is the “Seahawk,” a bird I’d always assumed was the Osprey. But apparently the television graphics showed not that familiar fish-eating kite but an entirely different bird, an Augur Buzzard from Africa.
And that got me thinking. Somewhere in the back of my mind lingered the notion that this species had its name from some association, real or fancied, with the Roman practice of augury. But as so often, a moment’s reflection puts paid to that easy connection: why would the ancient auspices have looked so far afield?
In his original description of the species he named Falco (Buteo) Augur, Eduard Rüppell explains:
The principal food of this hawk is small birds and mice; it pursues the latter especially when the animals are chased out of their hiding places by the burning of dry grass or the noise of a large troop of people passing by, such that these birds often sail ahead of armies or merchant caravans. That may well be the reason that the Abyssinians credit this bird with a special gift for prognostication….
Years earlier, Henry Salt — not an ornithologist — appears to have witnessed the same behavior, but he told a slightly more complicated story of the locals’ “singular superstition respecting this bird”:
When they set out on a journey and meet with one of them, they watch it very carefully, and draw good or bad omens from its motions. If it sit still, with its breast towards them until they have passed, it is a peculiarly good sign, and every thing is expected to go on well during the course of the journey. If its back be turned towards them, it is considered an unpropitious sign, but not sufficiently so, as to create alarm. But if it should fly away hastily on their approach, some of the most superstitious among them will immediately return back to their homes.
I don’t know who won yesterday. But if I’d had the sense to watch the seahawk before the game, I bet I could have told you before it even started.