The Hawk

Wood's Bible Animals, 1875

There is no doubt that a considerable number of species are grouped together under the single title Netz, or Hawk, a word which is rightly enough translated. That a great number of birds should have been thus confounded together is not surprising, seeing that even in this country and at the present time, the single word Hawk may signify any one of at least twelve different species. The various falcons, the hariers, the kestrel, the sparrow-hawk, and the hobbies, are one and all called popularly by the name of Hawk, and it is therefore likely that the Hebrew word Netz would signify as many species as the English word Hawk. From them we will select one or two of the principal species.

In the first place, the word is of very rare occurrence. We only find it three times. It first occurs in Lev. xi. 16, in which it is named, together with the eagle, the ossifrage, and many other birds, as among the unclean creatures, to eat which was an abomination. It is next found in the parallel passage in Deut. xiv. 15, neither of which portions of Scripture need be quoted at length.

That the word netz was used in its collective sense is very evident from the addition which is made to it in both cases. The Hawk, "after its kind," is forbidden, showing therefore that several kinds or species of Hawk were meant. Indeed, any specific detail would be quite needless, as the collective term was quite a sufficient indication, and, having named the vultures, eagles, and larger birds of prey, the simple word netz was considered by the sacred writer as expressing the rest of the birds of prey.

We find the word once more in that part of the Bible to which we usually look for any reference to natural history. In Job xxxix. 26, we have the words, "both the hawk fly by thy wisdom, and turn [or stretch] her wings toward the south?" The precise signification of this passage is rather doubtful, but it is generally considered to refer to the migration of several of the Hawk tribe. That the bird in question was distinguished for its power of flight is evident from the fact that the sacred poet has selected that one attribute as the most characteristic of the Netz.

Taking first the typical example of the Hawks, we find that the Sparrow-Hawk (Accipiter nisus) is plentiful in Palestine, finding abundant food in the smaller birds of the country. It selects for its nest just the spots which are so plentiful in the Holy Land, i.e. the crannies of rocks, and the tops of tall trees. Sometimes it builds in deserted ruins, but its favourite spot seems to be the lofty tree-top, and, in default of that, the rock-crevice. It seldom builds a nest of its own, but takes possession of that which has been made by some other bird. Some ornithologists think that it looks out for a convenient nest, say of the crow or magpie, and then ejects the rightful owner. I am inclined to think, however, that it mostly takes possession of a nest that is already deserted, without running the risk of fighting such enemies as a pair of angry magpies. This opinion is strengthened by the fact that the bird resorts to the same nest year after year.

It is a bold and dashing bird, though of no great size, and when wild and free displays a courage which it seems to lose in captivity. As is the case with so many of the birds, the female is much larger than her mate, the former weighing about six ounces, and measuring about a foot in length, and the latter weighing above nine ounces, and measuring about fifteen inches in length.


The most plentiful of the smaller Hawks of Palestine is the Common Kestrel (Tinnunculus alaudarius). This is the same species with which we are so familiar in England under the names of Kestrel, Wind-hover, and Stannel Hawk.

It derives its name of Wind-hover from its remarkable habit of hovering, head to windward, over some spot for many minutes together. This action is always performed at a moderate dis­tance from the ground; some naturalists saying that the Hawk in question never hovers at an elevation exceeding forty feet, while others, myself included, have seen the bird hovering at a height of twice as many yards. Generally, however, it prefers a lower distance, and is able by employing this manoeuvre to survey a tolerably large space beneath. As its food consists in a very great measure of field-mice, the Kestrel is thus able by means of its telescopic eyesight to see if a mouse rises from its hole; and if it should do so, the bird drops on it and secures it in its claws.

Unlike the sparrow-hawk, the Kestrel is undoubtedly gregarious, and will build its nest in close proximity to the habitations of other birds, a number of nests being often found within a few yards of each other. Mr. Tristram remarks that he has found its nest in the recesses of the caverns occupied by the griffon vultures, and that the Kestrel also builds close to the eagles, and is the only bird which is permitted to do so. It also builds in company with the jackdaw.

Several species of Kestrel are known, and of them at least two inhabit the Holy Land, the second being a much smaller bird than the Common Kestrel, and feeding almost entirely on insects, which it catches with its claws, the common chafers forming its usual prey. Great numbers of these birds live together, and as they rather affect the society of mankind, they are fond of building their nests in convenient crannies in the mosques or churches. Independently of its smaller size, it may be distinguished from the Common Kestrel by the whiteness of its claws.

The illustration is drawn from a sketch taken from life. The bird hovered so near a house, and remained so long in one place, that the artist fixed a telescope and secured an exact sketch of the bird in the peculiar attitude which it is so fond of assuming. After a while, the Kestrel ascended to a higher elevation, and then resumed its hovering, in the attitude which is shown in the upper figure. In consequence of the great abundance of this species in Palestine, and the peculiarly conspicuous mode of balancing itself in the air while in search of prey, we may feel sure that the sacred writers had it specially in their minds when they used the collective term Netz.

The Kestrel has a very large geographical range, being plentiful not only in England and Palestine, but in Northern and Southern Europe, throughout the greater part of Asia, in Siberia, and in portions of Africa. The bird, therefore, is capable of enduring both heat and cold, and, as is often the case with those creatures that are useful to man, is a perfect cosmopolitan.

It is easily trained, and, although in the old hawking days it was considered a bird which a noble could not carry, it can be trained to chase the smaller birds as successfully as the falcons can be taught to pursue the heron. The name Tinnunculus is supposed by some to have been given to the bird in allusion to its peculiar cry, which is clear, shrill, and consists of a single note several times repeated.

On page 361 the reader may see a representation of a pair of Harier Hawks flying below the rock on which the peregrine falcon has perched, and engaged in pursuing one of the smaller birds.

They have been introduced because several species of Harier are to be found in Palestine, where they take, among the plains and lowlands, the place which is occupied by the other hawks and falcons among the rocks.

The name of Harier appears to be given to these birds on account of their habit of regularly quartering the ground over which they fly when in search of prey, just like hounds when searching for hares. This bird is essentially a haunter of flat and marshy lands, where it finds frogs, mice, lizards, on which it usually feeds. It does not, however, confine itself to such food, but will chase and kill most of the smaller birds, and occasionally will catch even the leveret, the rabbit, the partridge, and the curlew.

When it chases winged prey, it seldom seizes the bird in the air, but almost invariably keeps above it, and gradually drives it to the around. It will be seen, therefore, that its flight is mostly low, as suits the localities in which it lives, and it seldom soars to any great height, except when it amuses itself by rising and wheeling in circles together with its mate. This proceeding generally takes place before nest: building. The usual flight is it mixture of that of the kestrel and the falcon, the Harier sometimes poising itself over some particular spot, and at others shooting forwards through the air with motionless wings.

Unlike the falcons and most of the hawks, the Harier does not as a rule perch on rocks, but prefers to sit very upright on the ground, perching generally on a mole-hill, stone, or some similar elevation. Even its nest is made on the ground, and is composed of reeds, sedges, sticks, and similar matter, materials that can be procured from marshy land. The nest is always elevated a foot or so from the ground, and has occasionally been found on the top of it mound more than a yard in height. It is, however, conjectured that in such cases the mound is made by one nest being built upon the remains of another. The object of the elevated nest is probably to preserve the eggs in case of a flood.

At least five species of Hariers are known to exist in the Holy Land, two of which are among the British birds, namely, the Marsh Harier (Circus aeruginosus), sometimes called the Duck Hawk and the Moor Buzzard, and the Hen Harier (Circus cyaneus), sometimes called the White Hawk, Dove Hawk, or Blue Hawk, on account of the plumage of the male, which differs greatly according to age; and the Ring-tailed Hawk, on account of the dark bars which appear on the tail of the female. All the Hariers are remarkable for the circlet of feathers that surrounds the eyes, and which resembles in a lesser degree the bold feather-circle around the eye of the owl tribe.


Before taking leave of the Hawks, it is as well to notice the entire absence in the Scriptures of any reference to falconry. Now, seeing that the art of catching birds and animals by means of Hawks is a favourite amusement among Orientals, as has already been mentioned when treating of the gazelle (page 139), and knowing the unchanging character of the East, we cannot but think it remarkable that no reference should be made to this sport in the Scriptures.

It is true that in Palestine itself there would be but little scope for falconry, the rough hilly ground and abundance of cultivated soil rendering such an amusement almost impossible. Besides, the use of the falcon implies that of the horse, and, as we have already seen, the horse was scarcely ever used except for military purposes.

Had, therefore, the experience of the Israelites been confined to Palestine, there would have been good reason for the silence of the sacred writers on this subject. But when we remember that the surrounding country is well adapted for falconry, that the amusement is practised there at the present day, and that the Israelites passed so many years as captives in other countries, we can but wonder that the Hawks should never be mentioned as aids to bird-catching. We find that other bird-catching implements are freely mentioned and employed as familiar symbols, such as the gin, the net, the snare, the trap, and so forth; but that there is not a single passage in which the Hawks are mentioned as employed in falconry.