Friday, 7 February 2014

What is a seahawk?

I have no interest in American football, but I happened to read recently that on 2 February the Seattle Seahawks won their first Super Bowl Championship, thrashing the Denver Broncos 43–8. Now I know what a bronco is, but what on earth is a seahawk? It is not a name used by ornithologists.

Before every home game, the Seattle Seahawks release a trained hawk to fly out of the tunnel ahead of the players. Their tame bird is an Augur Hawk (Buteo augur) named Taima (meaning “thunder”), but this African buzzard is not a seafaring bird and therefore cannot properly be called a seahawk. Its diet consists mainly of rodents, snakes, lizards, small birds, insects and road-kill — but not seafood.

Apparently the club wanted to use a trained Osprey (Pandion haliaetus), but because this is a native American species (although also found on almost every other continent), the US Fish and Wildlife Service would not allow its use for commercial purposes. So the team chose the Augur Hawk because it has vaguely similar markings. 

The name seahawk has occasionally been applied to the Osprey, but that description is inaccurate. Although its diet is mainly fish, the Osprey catches its prey in freshwater lakes, or sometimes brackish estuaries and sea lochs, rather than in the open sea. 

It has also been suggested that the term seahawk might refer to skuas rather than Ospreys. The skuas are a group of seven species of seabird that look more like gulls than hawks. Many skuas are kleptoparasites, meaning that they steal food from other birds. A skua will wait until a gull, tern or auk has caught a fish and then attack it, forcing it to drop its catch so that the skua can snatch it.

Skuas will successfully plunder the catches of birds several times their own size. In winter they obtain most of their food through such theft, but at other times of year they eat the eggs and young of other seabirds. The larger skua species also kill and eat adult seabirds.

If I played American football, I am not sure I would want to be compared to such a predatory creature.