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home : columns : ron kuecker
January 24, 2020

11/21/2019 10:18:00 AM
Hawk migration nearly as fun as waterfowl

I'm a "waterfowler", I hunt them in the fall and watch them in the spring. One of the most interesting parts of that is the many and different species. Getting to know them, identifying them and observing their differences is a big part of the enjoyment.
The same can be said for hawks.
Their migration has been going on since late August and winding down now. A couple days ago I spotted a small hawk sitting on a power line. Without going through a checklist and even at a distance it was easy to know it was a kestrel.
Growing up in Northwest Iowa and Southwest Minnesota, then spending my adult life in Windom, knowing the hawks was easy because there were only three. They were the little sparrow hawk, the mid-sized pigeon hawk and the chicken hawk.
They are now known correctly as the kestrel, the merlin and the red-tailed hawk.
I started thinking after seeing that kestrel, the number of hawks migrating through this fall is down. Only the goodly number of red-tails seems to be steady. Conclusion: the weather does affect nearly all of our winged wildlife.
One of our most common migratory hawks is the northern harrier and, to me, they are down considerably. They are so named because one of its primary prey is the prairie hare or jackrabbit as we more commonly know it.
Remember, hares as a group change colors in the fall and spring - brown in the summer and pure white in the winter, except for the black-tipped ears. Cottontails are not considered a hare although I'm sure they would be considered fair game by a harrier hawk.
Northern harriers are best known for flying low over field or prairie looking for voles, mice or "rabbits." They can literally glide for minutes without flapping their wings. They get lift from even a gentle wind by a very minor adjustment of their wing feathers and similarly downward by lifting those same back of the wing feathers.
I've seen a few of them dive after hovering above their prey for a few seconds then tucking their wings for the dive. Sometimes they stay down on their targets while killing it. Other times, if it's small, they'll simply pick it up.
If you look closely at those hawks you will notice a considerable size and color difference between the sexes. Females are larger and more brown colored; males, about one quarter smaller, are quite gray colored.
The chicken hawk
As I mentioned previously, red-tailed hawks were generally called chicken hawks. And, they did indeed go after free-range chickens on the small farms of the era when I was young.
But one day, I spent nearly a half day going through data at the Yellow Medicine County Historical Society. There, in a large book in small print, I read where early white settlers picked up the term. They had learned it from the Sioux of the area when they first arrived there and times were more friendly.
The Sioux already called them chicken hawks in their language and were so referred to because they preyed on the large number of prairie chickens that lived there.
As a little side thought, those Indians had formerly lived in northern Minnesota near Lake Superior and were called the Northern Sioux. The Southern Sioux lived in South Dakota and were known as Dakota or Lakota.
Both were once called Anishinaabe. They were driven out of northern Minnesota by the Ojibwe (Chippewa) who had acquired firearms from French traders. The final battle in the war was fought at . . . Battle Lake near Fergus Falls.

Two young jackrabbits
I was talking with Willis Larson recently over coffee. He grew up on a farm near Wilder and continues to observe wildlife in the area.
About a week ago while chisel plowing some land, about five miles west of Windom on the south side of Highway 62, he saw quite a sight.
Moving out of the way of his big farm equipment were two very young jackrabbits. It sounded like they were maybe only three to four weeks old and momma was not in sight.
You have to question whether they can survive this coming winter or the hawks still passing through.
This tall, thick prairie grass we have been planting for the last 30 years surely hasn't helped our jackrabbits who love short prairie grasses.

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