Tale of the Marsh Hawk’s Tail

Northern harrier or marsh hawk. Tale of the Marsh Hawk's Tail

Throughout much of this winter, Sam — a park ranger friend — had been out and about retreating into the solitude of nature by exploring the national seashores and wildlife refuges of coastal North Carolina. Throughout her excursions, there is one animal, a bird, that is a constant no matter where she roams.

“Over the lumpy dune fields, salt marshes and open fields, this hawk is a reliable companion,” explains Sam. “Easy to spot, this slender bird can be seen flying low over open areas ready to pounce on unsuspecting rodents, reptiles, birds, and even insects. It appears to be in no hurry, a lazy flight with a flutter and a wobble here and there, almost like a butterfly at times. It’s most identifiable field marking is a distinctive, quite visible, white rump patch that makes me think of chipmunks and chuckle with laughter.”

“A white rump on a hawk makes you think of chipmunks?” I ask. “I don’t get it.”

Sam explained that the native Athabaskan people of interior Alaska created a folk story of how the northern harrier — commonly known as marsh hawk — acquired its distinctive white rump. She says she likes to tell the story to visitors who come to her parks, and they always seem to enjoy it — especially the children. I’ll share it with you:

Northern harrier, also marsh hawk. Tale of the Marsh Hawk's Tail

The story goes that a marsh hawk was sitting in a tree above a colony of chipmunks and called out, “Hey, do you chipmunks have fat little bellies?” A chipmunk replied, “yes, what is it to you?” The marsh hawk thought to himself, “because I want to eat your fat little bellies,” and then swooped down toward the chipmunks. The chipmunks were fast and scurried to the safety of their burrow. Reaching into the burrow with its wings, beak and talons, the marsh hawk was unable to capture a chipmunk as the tunnel was long and deep.

Marsh hawk flew back into the tree and asked again to see the fat little bellies of the chipmunks. The chipmunks refused to come out and ran to safety. Tricked, the marsh hawk flew off and returned later with a new plan. He decided to sing to them to distract them, and then grab the whole bunch. While he sang, march hawk swooped down with the outstretched talons, but again, the chipmunks were too fast and retreated into their burrow.

Marsh hawk then landed in front of the burrow and put his rump over the entrance. He decided not to move until the chipmunks gave up. One by one, the chipmunks ran up to the entrance and each one pulled out a feather while singing a victory song. The marsh hawk soon got cold because his rump was now bare and he flew off. He found an old white patch of rabbit fur and put it over his naked rump. The next time he saw the chipmunks he told them that their bellies weren’t fat enough and that they probably didn’t taste good anyway.

Marsh hawk's white rump. Tale of the marsh hawk's tail.

Marsh hawks are found all over North America. So the next time you see one, make sure you tell the silly story of how they got their white rump.

 

See also:
Legend of the Woolly Bear Caterpillar
American Indian Myths and Legends

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