So last night, for reasons that seemed good to me at the time, I decided to watch the pilot of the new Kurtzman/Orci show Sleepy Hollow (Mondays, 9/8 Central on Fox.) It wasn’t bad, if you like your horror with a wink and some eye-candy and a heaping dollop of good old-fashioned American cheese (and not so much with logic or historical accuracy.)
The reason that this is relevant here is that, among the creepy glowing red eyes, vengeful burned witches, convenient underground tunnels, and vague warnings from a book constantly referred to a Revelations even when the characters actually have a Bible in front of them, is of course the portentous bird. A handsome Harris’s Hawk (dubbed, as always, with the voice of a Red-tail) is the good witch Katerina’s emissary from the netherworld to her time-travelling husband, Ichabod Crane. Yeah, it’s a pretty loose interpretation of the source material. And they never do explain why a Harris’s Hawk in the Hudson Valley doesn’t bring a horde of birdwatchers flooding in to further complicate the supernatural shenanigans (although if they dismissed it as a falconry bird based on its behavior, they were quite right.)
After watching the show I went and read my good friend Genevieve Valentine’s recap of it over at io9.com. (Warning: spoilers, sarcasm.) Genevieve is awesome, but she is not a birder, and she guesses that the bird on her screen might be a young Golden Eagle. And, being at nerd central, we couldn’t have a correction to that until multiple people offer extremely confident and wrong answers, with perhaps the most ignoble being the suggestion that it is a magpie.
My point being, raptors throw people into great confusion. And that confusion, as often as not, results in someone calling something an eagle when it is not an eagle. There are probably several reasons for this. People have heard of eagles. in the US, they even know species names: definitely Bald Eagle and probably Golden Eagle too because Golden Eagle is not that hard. They know that eagles are like hawks but bigger, and then they see hawks in a situation that is not ‘soaring against an open sky’ and they are like Holy cow, that is big, must be an eagle. Also, saying you saw an eagle sounds exciting and is a worthwhile conversational gambit even among people who look at you funny if you tell them you saw a Gray Catbird or a Rock Wren or, god forbid, a Woodcock.
Hence, people are all the time telling me they saw eagles.
For a while, being a nerd myself, I tried to help. I coined a little phrase, even, easy to remember and apply: “If you are wondering what kind of eagle that is, you are looking at a hawk.” There, problem solved and I could get back to squinting at fall warblers and scanning the pines for crossbills.
Unfortunately, my friend Molly recently took a trip to Lake George. Molly, who invented the pigeon-owl-duck theory of bird classification, had taken my admonition about eagles very much to heart. So she sent me a photo and asked for help figuring out what kind of hawk that was.
Here is the photo.
I was very embarrassed. Lesson learned: don’t be an overconfident nerd.