As a small child Iwas haunted by recurring nightmares in which a bunch of monsters would chase me endlessly. Fortunately, every time they caught up with me, I was able to sprout a pair of wings and fly away just at the critical moment.
My recent question “what creature of the night would you like to be” prompted one reader to mention hawks – and as they are also one of my favourites, here are a few facts about hawks in particular and birds of prey in general.
Collectively they are known as raptors. That’s a term many people became more familiar with, when Spielberg’s Jurassic Park was released in 1993, since raptors of a different kind feature rather prominently in the film. There are no raptors or birds of prey in Willow the Vampire and the Sacred Grove, but future books in the series are likely to have these wonderful animals in them.
Bram Stoker’s vampire Dracula (published 1897) might have turned himself into a blood-sucking bat to harass Lucy, Mina & Co, but raptors are creatures “who seize and carry away” (the Latin word raptor means just that). They don’t generally hang around outside our windows, waiting for the perfect opportunity to nip us in the neck!
Hawks, like all raptors, have hooked bills, so they can tear their prey’s flesh from the bone. They also have powerful feet with talons to grab their prey and hold on to it. Their large eyes are perfect for spotting prey in daylight and at dawn. Raptors are also famous for their spectacular aeronautical skills; they are superb acrobats of the skies.
Each hawk family seems to have different ways of hunting. Sparrow hawks and goshawks like hunting by stealth: sitting high up on their perch – a branch in a tall oak for example – they will watch their victim for a while, before seemingly appearing out of nowhere to carry out their ambush. Harris hawks like to hunt in pairs or even as a small group. A female Harris hawk with a nest with chicks to feed with often team up with a group of male hawks to go hunting at dawn.
While some of the group flush out the prey – rabbits, rats or other rodents – the other hawks will cut off the victim’s escape route and intercept them. The team will share the spoils afterwards, so everybody gets fed.
Hawks kill their prey with their exceptionally strong grip, squeezing the life out of them. The African harrier-hawk has incredibly flexible legs for example that can bend at extreme angles, allowing the bird to grope around inside tree hollows for small mammals or nesting birds hiding inside.
In popular fiction hawks and eagles often appear as magical beings, which side with either good or bad. In J. R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings hawks are spying for the evil antagonist Sauron, while eagles ally themselves with the good hobbits and wizard Gandalf.
In the film version of comic book hero Flash Gordon’s adventures (Flash Gordon, 1980, directed by Mike Hodges), cruel Ming the Merciless is eventually overcome by Flash Gordon receiving help from Prince Vultan (Brian Blessed) and his Hawkmen. These Hawkmen are not entirely reliable and trustworthy though. Prince Vultan initially betrays Flash Gordon, but later comes to his aid, when the Hawkmen’s kingdom on Sky City is destroyed by Ming the Merciless.
It seems to me our relationship with hawks is ambivalent. Throughout the centuries mankind has trained hawks and other raptors for hunting. Pampered and prized from before the Middle Ages to our present day, such hunting birds live a life of captivity, while their cousins in the wild delight us with their amazing aerial displays. Perhaps we have always been too envious of their ability to master the skies to allow them their unfettered freedom?
I’m still in two minds what type of raptor will feature in Willow the Vampire and the Würzburg Ghosts; having already assigned a certain task to owls, I find there should be a bird antagonist, too.
If you had to write a short story containing a raptor, what species would it be?