Thanks to the author of these words I found myself early one morning in December 1996, in Vale Cemetery in Schenectady, N.Y. There, in the low winter sunlight, I observed a Cooper’s hawk glide silently over grave stones with hardly a twitch to his wings. The temperature was 16 degrees F., and all day it never topped 20 degrees. For twelve hours I was in the company of serious amateur birders participating in the Audubon Society's annual Christmas Bird Count.
The passage quoted above, describing the red-shouldered hawk, was written by Frank Chapman in What Bird is That? (1920), a pioneering field guide published fourteen years before Roger Tory Peterson’s better-known Field Guide to the Birds of Eastern and Central North America. Chapman, born on this date, June 12, in 1864, in Englewood, N.J., founded the Audubon Society’s annual Christmas Bird Count on Christmas Day 1900. The previous year he began writing and publishing the bi-monthly magazine Bird-Lore. The lead article in the first issue, “In Warbler Time,” was written by John Burroughs. Chapman and the nascent Audubon movement led the campaign against the use of feathers and other bird parts in the manufacture of women’s hats. In 1886, Chapman had hiked twice from his uptown Manhattan office (he then worked in a bank) to the fashion district along 14th Street. In two walks he counted 174 birds representing forty species on hats.
Chapman had received no formal education after high school and at age twenty-four joined the staff of the American Museum of Natural History. By 1908 he was curator of birds. Thomas R. Dunlap writes in In the Field, Among the Feathered: A History of Birders & Their Guides (Oxford University Press, 2011):
“A member of the last generation who learned natural history by apprenticeship and collecting, he helped organize ornithology as a professional discipline, wrote several field guides, arranged the first meeting of the New York Audubon Society (it took place at the museum), sat on Audubon’s national board, and started the society’s annual Christmas Bird Count.”
On Sunday, I saw a red-shouldered hawk in San Marcos and consulted Chapman’s description of the bird in Handbook of Birds of Eastern North America (1895, rev. ed. 1916):
“Upper parts dark-grayish fuscous-brown, more or less edged with rufous, ochraceous-buff, and whitish; four outer primaries `notched,’ all barred with black and white; lesser wing-coverts rufous, forming a conspicuous `shoulder’ patch; tail black or fuscous, with four or five white cross-bars and a white tip; throat streaked with blackish; rest of underparts rufous or ochraceous, everywhere barred with white or whitish.”
The language may sound ornately stilted, even unscientific, to contemporary ears but the description is precise and readily recognized by those who know the bird. Seldom in nature are colors absolute, conforming to the Platonic primary and secondary categories, and they vary widely among individuals within a species and across life spans. “Rufous” is reddish-brown, like rust. “Ochraceous” is ochre-colored, a pale yellow-orange. “Fuscous” is a dusky brownish-gray. Birds have no shoulders so Chapman puts the word in quotes. You can always find good prose in a good field guide.
On Jan. 12, 1859, Thoreau devotes more than two pages to the red-shouldered hawk, which he correctly identifies as Falco lineatus. A neighbor had given him the bird’s body:
“Mr. Farmer brings me a hawk which he thinks has caught thirty or forty of his chickens since summer, for he has lost so many, and he has seen a hawk like this catch some of them. Thinks he has seen this same one sitting a long time upright on a tree, high or low, about his premises, and when at length a hen or this year’s chicken had strayed far from the rest, it skimmed along and picked her up without pausing, and bore her off, the chicken not having seen him approaching. He found this, caught by one leg and frozen to death, in a trap which he had set for mink by a spring and baited with fish.”