This species visits the greater part of the United States. Dr. RICHARDSON procured some specimens in latitude 65 degrees north, and Mr. TOWNSEND found it on the plains of the Columbia river, as well as on the extensive prairies bordering on the Missouri. I have met with it in Newfoundland and Labrador on the one hand, in Texas on the other, and in every intermediate portion of the country.
The flight of the Marsh Hawk, although light and elegant, cannot be said to be either swift or strong; but it is well sustained, and this may be accounted for on comparing the small size and weight of its body with the great extent of its wings and tail, which are proportionally larger than those of any other American Hawk. While searching for prey, it performs most of its rambles by rather irregular sailings; by which I mean that it frequently deviates from a straight course, peeping hither and thither among the tall grasses of the marshes, prairies, or meadows, or along the briary edges of our fields. It is seldom indeed seen to chase birds on wing, although I have met with a few instances; nor is it much in the habit of carrying its quarry to any distance; for generally as it observes an object suited to its appetite, it suddenly checks its speed, and almost poising itself by a few flaps of its wings, drops with astonishing quickness on its unfortunate victim, which it usually tears to pieces and devours on the spot. If disappointed, however, it rises as quickly as it dropped, and proceeds as before. Whilst engaged in feeding, it may very easily be approached, surprised, and shot, by an experienced sportsman, for it rises in a flurried manner, and generally cuts a few curious zig-zags at the outset. To obtain it, one has only to mark the spot with accuracy, keep his eye upon it, and advance with his gun in readiness, for he will probably get within a few yards before the bird rises. I have frequently seen it shot in this manner. At other times, by watching its beats over a field or meadow, one may obtain a good opportunity by concealing himself near a spot where he has seen it miss its object, as it is sure to repass there in a short time, at all events before it removes to another field. When wounded and brought to the ground, it makes off on the approach of its enemy by long leaps, and at times so swiftly that great exertion is requisite to overtake it; and when this is accomplished, it throws itself on its back, strikes furiously, and can inflict pretty severe wounds with its very sharp claws.
This species flies very high at times, and in a direct course, as if intent on proceeding to some great distance; but as I observed that this frequently occurred when the bird was satiated with food, I have thought that it preferred this method of favouring digestion, to its more usual mode of sitting on the top of a fence rail, and there remaining quiet until again roused by the feeling of hunger. I have often seen it, after sailing about in circles for a long while, half close its wings, and come towards the ground, cutting curious zig-zags, until within a few feet of it when it would resume its usual elegant and graceful mode of proceeding.
I have observed it in our western prairies in autumn moving in flocks of twenty, thirty, or even so many as forty individuals, and appearing to be migrating, as they passed along at a height of fifty or sixty yards, without paying any attention to the objects below; but on all these occasions I could never find that they were bent on any general course more than another; as some days a flock would be proceeding southward, on the next to the northward or eastward. Many times have I seen them follow the grassy margins of our great streams, such as the Ohio and Mississippi, at the approach of winter, as if bent on going southward, but have become assured that they were merely attracted by the vast multitudes of Finches or Sparrows of various sorts which are then advancing in that direction.
In winter, the notes which the Marsh Hawk emits while on wing, are sharp, and sound like the syllables pee, pee, pee, the first slightly pronounced, the last louder, much prolonged, and ending plaintively. During the love-season, its cry more resembles that of our Pigeon Hawk, especially when the males meet, they being apparently tenacious of their assumed right to a certain locality, as well as to the female of their choice.
The Marsh Hawk breeds in many parts of the United States, as well as beyond our limits to the north and south in which it finds a place suited to its habits; as is the case with the Blue-winged Teal, and several ether species, which have until now been supposed to retreat to high latitudes for the purpose. That many make choice of the more northern regions, and return southward in autumn, is quite certain; but in all probability an equal number remain within the confines of the United States to breed.
It is by no means restricted to the low lands of the sea-shores during the breeding season, for I have found its nest in the Barrens of Kentucky, and even on the cleared table-lands of the Alleghany Mountains and their spurs. In one instance, I found it in the high-covered pine-barrens of the Floridas, although I have never seen one on a tree; and the few cases of its nest having been placed on low trees or bushes, may have been caused by the presence of dangerous quadrupeds, or their having been more than once disturbed or robbed of their eggs or young, when their former nests had been placed on the ground.
Many birds of this species breed before they have obtained their full plumage. I have several times found a male bird in brown plumage paired with a female which had eggs; but such a circumstance is not singular, for the like occurs in many species of different families. I have never met with a nest in situations like those described by some European writers as those in which the Hen-Harrier breeds; but usually on level parts of the country, or flat pieces of land that are sometimes met with in hilly districts. As I am well aware, however, that birds adapt the place and even the form and materials of their nests to circumstances, I cannot admit that such a difference is by any means sufficient to prove that birds similar in all other respects, are really different from each other. If it be correct, as has been stated, that the male of the European bird deserts the female as soon as incubation commences, this indeed would form a decided difference; but as such a habit has not been observed in any other Hawk, it requires to be confirmed. Our Marsh Hawks, after being paired, invariably keep together, and labour conjointly for the support of their family, until the young are left to shift for themselves. This is equally the case with every Hawk with which I am acquainted.
Having considerable doubts as to whether any American writer who has spoken of the Marsh Hawk ever saw one of its nests, I will here describe one found on Galveston Island by my son JOHN WOODHOUSE, and carefully examined by him as well as by my friend EDWARD HARRIS and myself. As is usually the case when in a low and flat district, this was placed about a hundred yards from a pond, on the ground, upon a broom-sedge ridge, about two feet above the level of the surrounding salt marsh. It was made of dry grass, and measured between seven and eight inches in its internal diameter, with a depth of two inches and a half, while its external diameter was twelve inches. The grass was pretty regularly and compactly disposed, especially in the interior, on which much care seemed to have been bestowed. No feathers or other materials had been used in its construction, not even a twig. The eggs were four, smooth, considerably rounded, or broadly elliptical, bluish-white, an inch and three-quarters in length, an inch and a quarter in breadth. The two birds were procured, and their measurements carefully entered in my journal, as well as those of others obtained in various parts of the United States and of the British Provinces. A nest found on the Alleghanies was placed under a low bush, in an open spot of scarcely half an acre. It was constructed in the same manner as the one described above, but was more bulky, the bed being about four inches from the earth. The eggs, although of the same form and colour, were slightly sprinkled with small marks of pale reddish-brown. In general, the Marsh Hawks scoop the ground, for the purpose of fixing their nest to the spot. On returning to London, in the summer of 1837, I shewed several of the eggs of the American bird to WILLIAM YARRELL, Esq., who at once pronounced them to belong to the Hen-Harrier; and on comparing their measurements with those of the eggs described by my friend WILLIAM MACGILLIVRAY, I find that they agree perfectly.
The young are at first covered with soft yellowish-white down, but in a few weeks shew the brownish and ferruginous tints of their female parent; the young males being distinguishable from the females by their smaller size.
I have found a greater number of barren females in this species than in any other; and to this I in part attribute their predominance over the males. The food of the Marsh Hawk consists of insects of various kinds, especially crickets, of small lizards, frogs, snakes, birds, principally the smaller sorts, although it will attack Partridges, Plovers, and even Green-winged Teals, when urged by excessive hunger. The only instance in which I have seen this bird carry any prey in its talons on wing, happened on the 2nd of April, 1837, at the South-West Pass of the Mississippi, when I was in company with EDWARD HARRIS, Esq. and my son JOHN WOODHOUSE. A Marsh Hawk was seen to seize a bird on its nest, perhaps a Marsh Wren, Troglodytes palustris, and carry it off in its talons with the nest! A pair were hovering over the marsh during the whole of our stay, and probably had a nest thereabout. It is rather a cowardly bird however, for on several occasions when I was in the Floridas, where it is abundant, I saw it chase a Salt-water Marsh Hen, Rullus crepitans, which courageously sprung up, and striking at its enemy, forced it off. My friend JOHN BACHMAN has frequently observed similar occurrences in the neighbourhood of Charleston. Whenever it seizes a bird on wing, it almost at once drops to the ground with it, and if in an exposed place, hops off with its prey to the nearest concealment.
In autumn, after the young have left their parents, they hunt in packs. This I observed on several occasions when on my way back from Labrador. In Nova Scotia, on the 27th of August, we procured nearly a whole pack, by concealing ourselves, but did not see an adult male. These birds are fond of searching for prey over the same fields, removing from one plantation to another, and returning with a remarkable degree of regularity, and this apparently for a whole season, if not a longer period. My friend JOHN BACHMAN observed a beautiful old male, which had one of its primaries cut short by a shot, regularly return to the same rice-field during the whole of the autumn and winter, and believes that the same individual revisits the same spot annually. When satiated with food, the Marsh Hawk may be seen perched on a fence-stake for more than an hour, standing motionless. On horseback I have approached them on such occasions near enough to see the colour of their eyes, before they would reluctantly open their wings, and remove to another stake not far distant, where they would probably remain until digestion was accomplished.
I have never seen this species searching for food in the dusk. Indeed, in our latitudes, when the orb of day has withdrawn from our sight, the twilight is so short, and the necessity of providing a place of safety for the night so imperious in birds that are not altogether nocturnal, that I doubt whether the Marsh Hawk, which has perhaps been on wing the greater part of the day, and has had many opportunities of procuring food, would continue its flight for the sake of the scanty fare which it might perchance procure at a time when few birds are abroad, and when quadrupeds only are awakening from their daily slumber.
WILSON Must have been misinformed by some one acquainted with the arrival and departure of this species, as well as of the Rice Bird, in South Carolina, when he was induced to say that the Marsh Hawk "is particularly serviceable to the rice-fields of the Southern States, by the havoc it makes among the clouds of Rice Buntings that spread such devastation among the grain, in its early stages. As it sails low, and swiftly, over the surface of the field, it keeps the flocks in perpetual fluctuation, and greatly interrupts their depredations. The planters consider one Marsh Hawk to be equal to several Negroes for alarming the Rice Birds." Now, good reader, my friend JOHN BACHMAN, who has resided more than twenty years in South Carolina, and who is a constant student of nature, and perhaps more especially attentive to the habits of birds, informs me that the Marsh Hawk is proportionally rare in that State, and that it only makes its appearance there after the Rice Birds have left the country for the south, and retires at the approach of spring, before they have arrived.
MARSH HAWK, Falco uliginosus, Wils. Amer. Orn., vol. vi. p. 67. Young Female.
FALCO CYANEUS, Bonap. Amer. Orn., vol. ii. p. 30.
HEN-HARRIER or MARSH HAWK, Nutt. Man., vol. ii. p. 109.
MARSH HAWK, Falco cyaneus, Aud. Orn. Biog., vol. iv. p. 396.
BUTEO (CIRCUS) CYANEUS? var? AMERICANUS, American Hen-Harrier, Swains. and Rich. F. Bor. Amer., vol. ii. p. 55.
Adult male, light ash-grey; abdomen, tail-coverts, lower wing-coverts, inner webs of secondary quills and tail-feathers white, primaries black toward the end. Female, umber-brown above, head, hind neck and scapulars streaked with light red; tail-coverts white; tail banded with light red; lower parts light yellowish-red, the neck streaked with brown. Young like the female, but lighter.
Male, 19 3/4, 44. Female, 20 1/2, 46 3/4.
For more on this species, see its entry in the Birds of North America Field Guide.