hawk, name generally applied to the smaller members of the Accipitridae, a heterogeneous family of diurnal birds of prey, such as the eagle, the kite, the Old World vulture, and the secretary bird. Hawks belong to the same order as the falcon, the New World vulture, and the osprey. Hawks have keen sight, sharply hooked bills, and powerful feet with curved talons. Strong and graceful in flight, they are distinguished from falcons by their broader, rounded wings. Typical of the hunting hawks, or accipiters, is the goshawk found in northern temperate regions, which feeds on small mammals and on other birds, riding its prey to the ground. Other destructive American accipiters are the chicken, or Cooper's, hawk, Accipiter cooperi, and the small (robin-sized) sharp-shinned hawk, A. fuscus, which is known to feed on at least 50 species of harmless or beneficial birds. The males of this group are usually smaller than the females. Buteos (called buzzards by the English) are a diverse and cosmopolitan group of medium to large hawks and eagles with shorter legs and tails and larger wings than the accipiters. They include beneficial hawks such as the American red-tailed, red-shouldered, broad-winged, rough-legged, and Swainson's hawks, which feed on harmful rodents and reptiles. Except for the harriers, or marsh hawks (owl-faced birds of open land and marshes), which are ground nesters, hawks build their nests of sticks and twigs in trees. All hawks regurgitate the indigestible portions of their prey as pellets. Included in this group is the serpent eagle of Africa, which somersaults in its flight. The name hawk is applied also to many falcons and the totally unrelated nighthawk (a goatsucker), certain members of the gull and jaeger families, and the hawk swallow, a European swift. True hawks are classified in the phylum Chordata, subphylum Vertebrata, class Aves, order Falconiformes, family Accipitridae.

Small hawk (usually genus Accipiter, family Accipitridae), found in Africa, Europe, and Asia. Sparrow hawks are gray above, barred-white below, and sometimes have white tail bars. They eat insects and small birds and mammals. The American kestrel is also called sparrow hawk.

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or pigeon hawk

Merlin (Falco columbarius).

Small blue-gray falcon (Falco columbarius, family Falconidae), with a narrowly white-banded tail, found at high latitudes in Canada, the western U.S. south to Colorado, the British Isles, Scandinavia, and Iceland. Most migrate to just south of the breeding range, but some go as far as northern South America. The merlin inhabits wet, open country or conifer and birch woods. It usually lays its eggs on the ground in bushes, but may occupy an old rook or magpie nest in a tree. An aggressive hunter, it was once much used in falconry.

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Magician and wise man in Arthurian legend. In Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of England, Merlin was an adviser to King Arthur, with magical powers that recalled his Celtic origins. Later narratives made him a prophet of the grail and gave him credit for the idea of the Round Table. In Sir Thomas Malory's Morte Darthur he brought Arthur to the throne and served as his mentor throughout his reign. His downfall was linked to his infatuation for an enchantress, who imprisoned him after learning the magic arts from him.

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or sphinx moth

Any moth of the lepidopteran family Sphingidae. Found worldwide, these stout-bodied moths have long, narrow forewings and shorter hind wings, with wingspans ranging from 2 to 8 in. (5–20 cm). Many species pollinate flowers while sucking nectar; the proboscis of some species is up to 13 in. (32.5 cm) long. Some hawk moths migrate. The larvae, which are smooth and have a dorsal “horn,” are called hornworms; larvae of two North American species—the tobacco, or southern, hornworm, and the tomato, or northern, hornworm—attack tomato, tobacco, and potato crops.

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Red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis).

Any of many small to medium-sized, diurnal birds of prey, particularly those in the genus Accipiter. The term is often applied to other birds in the Accipitridae family (including buzzards, harriers, and kites) and sometimes to certain falcons. Hawks usually eat small mammals, reptiles, and insects but occasionally kill birds. There is often no difference in plumage between sexes. Hawks are found on the six major continents. Most nest in trees, but some nest on the ground or on cliffs. True hawks (accipiters) can usually be distinguished in flight by their long tails and short, rounded wings. They are exemplified by the 12-in (30-cm) sharp-shinned hawk (A. striatus), gray above with fine rusty barring below, found throughout much of the New World. Seealso goshawk, sparrow hawk.

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or fish hawk

Species (Pandion haliaetus) of long-winged hawk found along seacoasts and large interior waterways. Ospreys are about 26 in. (65 cm) long and brown above and white below, with some white on the head. An osprey flies over the water, hovers above its prey, and then plunges feet first, seizing the fish in its long, curved talons. Ospreys breed on all continents except South America, where they live only in winter. They usually nest, singly or in colonies, high in trees or on cliffs. Bioaccumulation of pesticides caused populations to dwindle in the 20th century, but they are now recovering.

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or duck hawk

Peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus).

Falcon species (Falco peregrinus) found worldwide but rare today because of bioaccumulation of pesticides. Peregrines are 13–19 in. (33–48 cm) long and gray above, with black-barred whitish underparts. They fly high and dive at tremendous speed (up to 175 mph, or 280 kph—the greatest speeds attained by any bird), striking with clenched talons and killing by impact. They usually nest in a scrape on a high cliff ledge near water, where bird prey is plentiful. Breeding programs have reintroduced the species into the wild and introduced it into urban areas, where it finds a clifflike habitat among skyscrapers and preys chiefly on the rock dove (see pigeon). Despite the programs' success, the species remains vulnerable.

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The term hawk can be used in several ways:

The common names of birds in various parts of the world often use hawk in the second sense. For example, the Osprey or "fish hawk"; or, in North America, the various Buteo species (e.g., the Red-tailed Hawk, B. jamaicensis).

In February 2005, Canadian ornithologist Louis Lefebvre announced a method of measuring avian "IQ" in terms of their innovation in feeding habits. Hawks were named among the most intelligent birds based on his scale.

Hawks are widely reputed to have visual acuity several times that of a normal human being. This is due to the many photoreceptors in the retina (up to 1,000,000 per square mm for Buteo, against 200,000 for humans), an exceptional number of nerves connecting these receptors to the brain, and an indented fovea, which magnifies the central portion of the visual field.


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