In the summer of 1832, John James Audubon and his family are traveling through Dennysville, Maine. Audubon’s interest in birds and drawings of birds sparks a friendship with Theodore Lincoln. Also, Lincoln’s father was at Yorktown when Lord Cornwallis surrendered to the Americans in 1781. At sea to block the British from entering the Chesapeake Bay to assist Cornwallis was a French fleet under the command of François Joseph Paul de Grasse. Serving under de Grasse was John James Audubon’s father, Jean.
Among Lincoln’s nine children is a boy named Thomas. His marksmanship and knowledge of birds places Thomas as a key contributor to the success of Audubon’s Birds of America. One of the more startling observations that Thomas Lincoln recounts to Audubon is the attack of an American kestrel on the nest of a Cliff Swallow. For as long as the Cliff swallow is determined to defend its nest and its eggs, the kestrel repeatedly flies at and strikes at the nest with its talons. The bird’s persistence pays off as soon as the nest is frayed enough for the kestrel to reach into the nest and snatch the beleaguered Cliff swallow to turn the bird into its next meal.
When hunting birds, the American kestrel’s more typical target is a sparrow, thus Audubon giving the bird the title of an American Sparrow hawk in Birds of America. During the fall and winter along the Mississippi River, Audubon writes that the Swamp sparrow is the bird that the American kestrel targets most. “Although these birds do not congregate in flocks, their numbers are immense.”
It may or may not be a Swamp sparrow that an American kestrel (the top bird in Audubon’s drawing) has pinned in a Butternut tree in Birds of America. Oftentimes sparrows are lumped into a bland group of Little Brown Jobs (LBJ’s). Whether existing as a sparrow or LBJ, they must ever live in dread of the American kestrel. “The Hawk has marked it, and, anxious to secure its prize, sweeps after it; the chase is soon ended, for the poor affrighted and panting bird becomes the prey of the ruthless pursuer, who, unconscious of wrong, carries it off to some elevated branch of a tall tree, plucks it neatly, tears the flesh asunder, and having eaten all that it can pick, allows the skeleton and wings to fall to the ground, where they may apprise the traveller that a murder has been committed.”
Just as troublesome to sparrows and other birds is the Northern goshawk. As the bird’s name would suggest, the Northern goshawk normally stays far to the north. Even for Audubon, the bird was a “rare occurrence.” Most surprisingly, he notes seeing “a few” in Louisiana. Whereas on Cornell’s e-Bird database system, the Northern goshawk has yet to appear in the state. While In Maine, Audubon marveled at the bird’s bold hunting tactics. The bird is “so daring as to come to the very door of the farmer’s house, and carry off chickens and ducks with such rapidity as generally to elude all attempts to shoot them.”
More profound is Audubon spotting a Northern goshawk during one of his many excursions along the Ohio River. The bird alters its course “to give chase to a large flock of Crow Blackbirds (Quiscalus versicolor) [Common grackle] then crossing the river. The Hawk approached them with the swiftness of an arrow, when the Blackbirds rushed together so closely that the flock looked like a dusky ball passing through the air. On reaching the mass, he, with the greatest ease, seized first one, then another, and another, giving each a squeeze with his talons, and suffering it to drop upon the water. In this manner, he had procured four or five before the poor birds reached the woods, into which they instantly plunged, when he gave up the chase, swept over the water in graceful curves, and picked up the fruits of his industry, carrying each bird singly to shore. Reader, is this instinct or reason?”