Sugarloaf Cliff-Dwellers?

Peripherals are sweet little morsels that, during historical research, arise like wandering spirits searching for their lost shadows. A case in point occurred Monday at the former downtown fire station of my South Deerfield childhood.

Now the creative upstairs home of New York transplants Ken Schoen and Jane Trigere — with Schoen Books filling the street-side bays where fire trucks once sat parked under cover — I was visiting Jane to pore through the Betty Hollingsworth Papers under the scholarly couple’s temporary care. Hollingsworth, a spitfire, died in December at the age of 87. Trigere is a member of the Deerfield Historical Commission, a town board on which the late Hollingsworth was a mainstay.

My first memories of Hollingsworth are as the principal’s secretary at Frontier Regional School, from which I graduated in 1971. A South Deerfeld native who was born Elizabeth Harris, she was my late dad’s classmate, a committed local-historian and packrat of historical information. Curious as to what hidden gems the Hollingsworth collection would reveal, friend Peter Thomas and I were going through papers and photos while engaged in a running conversation with Jane and Ken, he in and out, focused primarily on his online book-dealing chores.

Myself, I was searching for photos of the old dance pavilion at the base of Mount Sugarloaf; that and photos of the downtown Red Men’s Hall that was demolished in June 1978 and replaced by today’s Deerfield Spirit Shoppe building. Back in the days of the Frontier Men’s Softball League, we referred to that downtown package store as the “Spook House” because of the ghosts displayed on the uniforms of the modified-pitch team it sponsored. Fun hometown memories.

Anyway, enough stage setting. On to the matter at hand.

Among the Hollingsworth jewels packaged mostly in loose-leaf binders and envelopes was a typed sheet of paper with the centered, bold-faced, underlined title, “Mount Sugarloaf” (interestingly, not South Sugarloaf as some insist on calling it these days). Below the title were two, flush-left, bold, underlined subtitles: “Wildlife” and “History.” I skipped over the short “Wildlife” entry at the top and went right to “History,” which chronicled important events, constructions and even a little folklore pertaining to the Pioneer Valley landmark’s evolution as a tourist attraction. I’ll get to that stuff in “Native Insight,” my Saturday history column. For now, though, let’s focus on the “Wildlife” entry that’s more appropriate here.

Described in the little note is a cliff-dwelling raptor that was, back in the day, a resident of the now fenced-off Sugarloaf cliffs facing the Connecticut River. I read the description and immediately thought I knew the bird of prey, though not by the name given or residing in the Sugarloaf cliffs. Who knows? Maybe this bird still nests there, but not that I know of.

Probably written after 1950, the cited paragraph reads:

“For many years, the more inaccessible ledges of Mount Sugarloaf have served as nesting places for the Duck Hawk. This is a falcon, like those trained for falconry in medieval Europe. Unfortunately, this daring flyer is a natural predator on many attractive and useful birds. The remains of prey found in its nests include: bluejays, kingbirds, nuthatches, chickens, grosbeaks, doves, and warblers. Summit House photographs include one of a three-day-old and another of a two-year-old Duck Hawk.”

Hmmmmmm? Please bear with me, permitting me to don my royal pedantic robe and query as to why the author of the above snippet capitalizes Duck Hawk and lower-cases all the other birds listed? Are Duck Hawks from a higher ornithological order? Just wondering. A little something to think about, maybe. Then again, maybe not. Depends how you’re wired. Myself, I can’t imagine a logical justification. But that’s neither here nor there. Back to the capitalized Duck Hawk.

“That bird must be the peregrine falcon,” I speculated aloud to Thomas, sitting to my right for our little Monday-afternoon project. He nodded in distracted agreement, focused on the material he was skimming through.

These days, you read about peregrine falcons residing in city skyscrapers and feeding on pigeons and sparrows and other feathered city dwellers. Never before have I heard of them referred to as Duck Hawks. Where did that come from? Aha! An ideal Google project.

During a free moment at work later that night, I Googled duck hawk and, sure enough, up pops a pageful of information on, you guessed it: peregrine falcons. Isn’t Google great? Instant gratification at your fingertips. These days you can even ask the question orally. Oh my! No wonder the founder is sitting on gazillions. Information’s a valuable commodity.

Viewing a few entries, I discovered that the origin of duck hawk dates to the first decade of the 19th century, which means it was probably in 18th century vernacular usage here in New England. Always a fascinating bird to observe, today you can watch them videotaped 24/7 in Springfield nests, maybe even on UMass high-rises, if my memory serves me, and also in Boston, New York and many other eastern cities.

I do find interesting the pejorative description of these falcons for preying on birds enjoyed by human beings. OK. So, let me try to get my head around this way of thinking. Because a wild creature eats game hunted by humans or birds humans feed or watch and/or hunt, this predator is a nuisance, a varmint, a blood-thirsty undesirable worthy of bounties and horrid poison? It’s the same kind of selfish logic that went into the annihilation of wolves and coyotes and cougars and grizzly bears and other large predators competing with humans for deer and moose and rabbits and turkeys and you name it, while also creating mortality problems for livestock and poultry farmers.

Well, that’s wrongheaded thinking that paddles against nature’s current. Fact is that prey under the constant watch of predators is healthier, stronger, smarter, warier and more apt to survive difficult times than members of identical species living in protected places where humans have eliminated predators to suit there personal desires.

If you don’t buy that argument, do a little research. You’ll find much written on the subject from the past 50 years. It’s not difficult to find, and it’s not rocket-science, either — just nature-based common sense, which really ought to be placed on the endangered list nowadays.

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