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The Carletonian

Arb Notes: Colloquial Names

Flip through an older bird guide and you might find yourself at a loss, even if you are well-versed in birding. “A Pigeon Hawk? What is that?” You would know that it’s probably a bird of prey — a bird of prey  that might even specialize in catching pigeons — but something tells you that it’s not going to be a hawk in the familiar sense (i.e., of family Accipitridae). Indeed, it is not.

The Merlin (Falco columbarius) was historically known as the Pigeon Hawk, and it bears that name in “Birds of North America,” John James Audubon’s famous 19th-century work. According to All About Birds, the name “Pigeon Hawk” refers to the bird’s  resemblance to a pigeon in flight, rather than to a diet of pigeons. Medieval falconers once called the Merlin “lady hawk”: Noblewomen at that time trained Merlins to hunt skylarks for sport. Merlins have been observed in the Arb, so keep an eye (and ear) out for those small falcons.

The Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus) was known as the Duck Hawk, this time for its alleged preference for ducks. This is, in fact, not the case: The Peregrine Falcon preys on a wide range of birds and bats. Interestingly, however, the colloquial name for female Peregrine Falcons in Chinese can also be translated as “duck hawk”, while, for males, it is “pigeon hawk”. This distinction is presumed to stem from the body size difference, females being larger than males.

Continuing the straightforward nomenclature, the American Kestrel (Falco sparverius) was called the American Sparrow Hawk in Audubon’s work. This is not to be confused with the Eurasian Sparrowhawk, which belongs to the genus Accipiter. As the smallest raptor in North America, the American Kestrel certainly preys on sparrow-sized birds. There are kestrel nest boxes in the Arb and multiple sightings of the birds themselves.

For more ID information and audio, visit All About Birds:

For Audubon’s work, visit The Audubon Society:

Kestrel Liu ’23, for the Cole Student Naturalists

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