The word hawk has taken on new importance in North Dakota, but we don’t know quite yet what will be its meaning. That’s up to a consulting firm that will create a logo — and try to build a brand — for the Fighting Hawks, the new name for University of North Dakota athletic teams and an important part of the school’s identity.
“Hawk” itself is what grammarians consider a “generic term.” It doesn’t say much on its own.
In the bird world, hawk is a broad term, too. It is a diverse family of birds including some very large and some very small ones. Some are forest dwellers; some are denizens of open spaces. Some are social; some are not.
Altogether, there are 237 species in the hawk family, known in ornithology as Accipitridae. Of these, a dozen nest in North Dakota. Several others migrate through or occur as winter residents.
The hawks include harriers, falcons, accipiters, buteos and eagles. Representatives of each of these types of hawks occur here.
All hawks are diurnal raptors. That means they hunt prey in daylight.
Much in common
The various species have much in common, and many of the special characteristics of the hawks are found in their faces.
They have large beaks, usually hooked, the better to tear prey apart.
The size of the beak differs among hawks, though. The stereotypical beak is massive and strongly down curved. This is most representative of eagles, the largest members of the hawk family. Other hawks have smaller beaks. Generally, these are suited to the prey the birds prefer.
The other outstanding characteristic of the hawk face is the eye, which is large.
Hawks have a bony projection above the eye. This protects the eye, of course, but it also lends the hawk’s face a toughness many other birds don’t convey.
“Fierce” is the word most often applied.
Hawks look fierce.
This is augmented by the cere, a bare spot behind the bill and ahead of the eye. This is sometimes quite bright, and therefore lends to the impression of determination and toughness that hawk heads convey.
But it is the eye itself that is the outstanding feature of the hawk’s face — and indeed of the hawk itself.
Hawks have extraordinary vision, many times better than humans in several respects. Their eyes, working together, offer a wide angle of view, wider than humans have. More important, many biologists believe hawks have binocular vision, concentrating on distant objects and honing in on them specifically. This allows them to spot prey — even small prey — at great distance, in some cases up to a mile or more. Equally remarkable, hawks see a wider range of colors than humans do. Specifically, they detect colors much farther out on the ultraviolet spectrum. This aids them in many ways, especially by allowing them to track prey much more efficiently.
Hawks are equipped with powerful feet capable of quite remarkable power both to squeeze and to puncture an item of prey — be it grasshopper, vole, snake or rabbit.
This combination of attributes — keen eyesight to locate prey, sharp talons to catch it and heavy, hatchet-like beaks to kill and disassemble it — put hawks as the premier predators in the bird world.
Though they are fierce, hawks are not fighters.
Some species are solitary, or nearly so. This is true of peregrine falcons, for example, which often nest in pairs isolated from others of their kind by hundreds of miles or more. Such is the case with the falcon pair that has used water towers in Grand Forks as nesting sites for about a decade now.
Peregrines take isolation to extremes, migrating alone. In fact, outside breeding season, they are seldom seen to socialize.
Some hawks are quite social. Bald eagles, for example, are well-known for roosting together, sometimes in flocks of several hundred. It may be a steady supply of food that brings them together, but the eagles tolerate one another.
Red-tailed hawks often migrate together, in fairly large flocks called kettles.
The most gregarious of hawks that occur here are Swainson’s hawks. I’ve seen flocks of a thousand or more of these birds. They travel together to Argentina for the winter.
In these examples, we have differences in social behavior.
There also are differences in body type among the hawks. Eagles are large and bulky birds. Falcons are sleek. Buteos — a group that includes both Swainson’s and red-tailed hawks — are heavy in the body, though not so much as eagles and they have broad wings. Accipiters, including the Cooper’s hawks that have colonized Grand Forks, are slim, with long tails and narrow wings.
These many differences do not obscure the essential similarities among members of the family, though.
The most important of these is vision.
That’s what makes the hawk an appropriate symbol for a university.
The fighting part doesn’t fit hawks very well, but it can apply to athletic teams. And it can apply to scholars, who strive for truth with penetrating vision.
As for me, I didn’t vote for Fighting Hawks to be the new UND logo, but I’m comfortable with it.
At listening sessions sponsored by the university last week, I began to see the potential for the new name and logo. I hope this new symbol will use some of the bird world’s most magnificent members to build on UND’s brand.
And I hope we can get behind it, embrace it and move on.