A farmer in the Valley called me to tell me of an experience he had just had with a falcon. Apparently, he had been moving cattle up the top end of the Valley close to the bush when he was startled by a falcon swooping down, just a couple of metres in front of him, to pick up a mouse.
It was typical behavior of Kararea, the New Zealand falcon, utterly fearless and disdainful of man. The ornithologist W.R.B. Oliver noted that the falcon’s “utter fearlessness has been its undoing in open and settled districts as it pursues its prey regardless of all else, even man”. He noted that its bold predatory excursions generally resulting in it being shot for it was apt to create great havoc in farmyards among the ducks, fowls, pigeons and turkeys, and has even been recorded as entering houses in pursuit of its prey.
Buller records a bush hawk, as he called the falcon, attacking a hen in a stockyard and not relinquishing its hold until killed with a stick. On another occasion he saw a bird attack kittens and reported that another was seen to carry off and drop a stoat.
I first became aware that there were falcons in the Valley some years ago while walking late one evening along a track near the bush line when suddenly, black against the dying sunlight, a bird appeared, swooped suddenly and low over the hill in front of me, ominous and somehow threatening before it veered off. Its silence utterly unnerved me. Over the years, I rarely saw them but would hazard that their presence was the reason why I never saw skylarks in my neck of the woods. I also think they decimated the quail around here as I would often come across a neat circle of their scattered feathers.
But it is Guthrie–Smith in his book, Birds of Water, Wood and Waste, and Neville Peat in his book, The Falcon and the Lark, who most lovingly describe this bird, both of them obviously having spent very many hours observing them and their young.
“The falcon”, Guthrie–Smith says, “brooks no rival in its own domain and will chase the harrier out of his sky, hunt the shepherd’s collies back to their master’s heels and attack even man himself.”
The tiercel, the male of the species, the smaller bird, usually about a two thirds the size of the female, is the more swift, the fiercer and the more silent. His joy, Guthrie–Smith says, is to pursue and attack the harrier who when pressed turns over in the air to present its own terrible talons. However, this fierce and fearless predator does not always get his own way for it has been reported as fleeing before mobs of Tuis and Australian magpies.
With eyesight said to be six times more powerful than humans, flying at speeds up to 230 kmh and uttering a short terrifying scream, the falcon will fall upon some hapless bird in mid flight. The manoeuvre is called a stoop, a trademark of the attacking falcon. From there the falcon will take its victim to some killing place to deliver the final stroke, the dislocation of the bird’s neck. The severing is done with the aid of a specially notched tooth common to all falcons. Finches are fair game, and so are starlings, blackbirds, thrushes and skylarks.
The falcon will then rest for a moment, gripping its kill with one foot, standing with her wings spread over the kill, an action called mantling. The falcon will pluck the feathers and then eat the entire bird, later ridding itself of the castings. It will then rub its beak to clean it, a process called feaking. A body shake, a rouse, follows — because of the art of falconry, they have been given a language all of their own to describe their activities.
Through the winter pairs of falcon live apart but stay more or less within a known territory. Come spring, no rivals will be tolerated within the territory while the ground within a few hundred metres radius of the nest will be defended if necessary to the death. No wilder creature exists than a falcon in its home range at nesting time.
When the tiercel comes courting he will approach the hen while she is perched and fake an attack. Later he might repeat the mock attack when she is airbourne and invite her to chase him. Smaller and lighter, he sets the pace. His ultimate act is to fly past carrying food in one talon, the bait of courtship. The subsequent chase, which often ends at or near the future nest site, is a pageant, as described by Peat, of flying finesse, a sky dance to signal the end of winter.
The nest may be a simple scrape on a sheltered cliff ledge or high in a tree in a clump of Astelia. The female does most of the brooding while the male hunts for her. She also feeds the chicks until they are about two weeks of age and then she joins in hunting.
Guthrie–Smith writing early in the century, did not think many nests were taken and that not many broods would be destroyed because the eyries were often so inaccessible and the parent birds too fierce and devoted to allow the approach of vermin, rats or stoats. How wrong he was. The juveniles especially, looking for an easy meal, are still being shot, sadly enough, by bird fanciers. There are now perhaps no more than 400 pairs alive in the North Island.
Waiotahe Valley, eastern Bay of Plenty, 1998
Other common names: —
Sparrow hawk, quail hawk, bush falcon, bush hawk.
Male: 43 cm, 300 g., female: 47 cm., 500g., black above, buff barred and streaked below, ½ size of a harrier, rapid, piercing Kek-Kek-Kek call, rapd flight pattern.
Where to find: —
Found throughout much of New Zealand, especially on the eastern side of the Southern Alps, but rare.
Ka tangi te karewarewa ki waenga o te rangi pai, ka ua apopo;
ka tangi ki waenga o te rangi ua, ka paki apopo.
If the sparrow hawk screams on a fine day, it will rain on the morrow; if it screams on a rainy day, it will be fine on the morrow.
Credit for the photograph: —
Illustration description: —
Buller, Walter Lawry, Birds of New Zealand, 1873.
Guthrie-Smith, H., Birds of Water, Wood & Waste, 1927.
Peat, Neville, The Falcon and the Lark, 1947.
Oliver, W.R.B., New Zealand Birds, 1955.
Page date & version: —
Saturday, 9 October, 2010; ver2009v1