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February 21, 2019

Hawk's keen sight is admirable

I'M WATCHING YOU: the peregrine falcon.
I'M WATCHING YOU: the peregrine falcon.

 Of all the birds that cover the flight zones of different farmers in the rural area, none is more hated than the hawk. I thought that only happens in Kenya. But when I visited Belgium with some birding enthusiasts, the farmers in this part of the world also share the same feelings as we do.

The local name of the hawk is translated in Flemish as "chicken thief". Just like here in Kenya, the hawk is not a friend to anyone rearing chicken for food or commercially. Farmers have to go an extra mile to build hawk-proof fences around the chicken houses. They are quite willing to believe the hawks are bloodthirsty creatures that kill for fun or sport.

The truth is that hawks kill only when they are hungry, never for sport. They can be trained to be as affectionate and as friendly as the man’s best friend, the dog. It is the hawks’ near human qualities of love, anger and playfulness that have made them the favourite bird of many ornithologists. A study on the stomach contents of some 2,600 hawks actually revealed that even in the farmlands, the hawks do not only eat chicken. Very few of them had preyed on chicken or other smaller birds. Majority had contents that showed they had eaten rodents-rats, mice, lizards and insects.

Ranging in size from miniatures no bigger than a day-old chick to majestic giants that can attack a baby gazelle, hawks have been endowed with skills and adaptations that makes them the most widely ranging lords of the air. To search out their prey, for example, they are equipped with eyes that rival the eagles’.

A birdwatcher reported having seen a falcon flying high over a mountain ridge, suddenly close its wings and make a long, unwavering dive for a small bird which it snatched in its knuckled talons. When the falcon first spotted the small bird, the two birds were at least two kilometres apart. If we human beings had comparable visual capability, we could read a newspaper headlines at least 500 metres away!

Much of the hawks amazing eyesight come from the size of the eyeballs, which are often as large as ours and extend far into the skull. In addition, the retina (the tissue in the back of the eye on which the pictures images are thrown) is nearly twice as thick as a human’s, and is packed with millions of minute visual cells. To shut out the glare of the sky, the eyes are coated with droplets of yellowish oil, which acts just like a camera filter.

Last week I saw a little sparrow hawk hurtling down from a cliff almost 100 metres high and neatly pluck a grasshopper that had just landed a few metres from where I was standing. Astounding as the feat was, more extraordinary still was the physical transformation that had taken place inside the bird’s eye during the dive. While the hawk was hovering above the prey, its eye lens was working like a telescope. But by the time the hawk reached the grasshopper, the eye lens was working like a microscope.

Sandwiched between the giant eyeballs, the hawk’s brain is necessarily small. With such small brain mass, one would assume that the hawks are not brilliant creatures of the sky. But it is almost unbelievable what feats the hawks accomplish in their lives. When building their nests, they reinforce the sides that face the wind, with thicker branches. That reinforcement acts as windbreaker during rainstorms.

Hawks exhibit just about every technique to be seen in the world of flight. The master flier of them all is the peregrine falcon. Many times I have seen one high above me, turn its nose downward, give a mighty flap for thrust, close its wings and plummet down towards the ground at a speed of almost 200km/h. Suddenly there is an exploding puff of feathers as the hawk strikes a surprised little bird, still in flight, with its large clawed fist. The prey is usually killed outright. But then comes the most amazing manoeuvre of all. Still in the air, the falcon darts under the falling little bird, flips over on its back and catches the dead bird in its talons, flips back up on its belly and begins eating, still in flight.

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