Just What The Heck Is a Seahawk Anyway?

Jan 31, 2014

The first Seattle Seahawk to storm the field during home games isn’t the head coach or the quarterback — it isn’t even human. It’s Taima, a captive-bred Augur Hawk that has accompanied the team before every home game since 2007.

She is a beautiful representative of a species from the aridlands of East Africa, hardly a hawk of the sea.

So, what is a “Seahawk”?

The colors of the Seattle team’s logo aren’t helpful. It's hard to find a bird of prey with a blue body and a contrasting dark cap anywhere in the world, let alone one with glowing, green eyes.

The bill suggests an eagle, such as our own Bald Eagle, but its shape and heft are a better fit for a Steller’s Sea-Eagle from the Far East.

These are two of the eight species in the global genus Haliaeetus, Latin for “sea eagle.” Both the Bald Eagle and Steller’s Sea-Eagle take much of their food, including fish and waterfowl, from saltwater environments. Etymology and behavior both suggest we’re getting closer to finding our “sea hawk."

Steller's Sea-Eagle (left) © Tomosuke214 and Bald Eagle © Andrew Pescod
Steller's Sea-Eagle (left) © Tomosuke214 and Bald Eagle © Andrew Pescod

But the Steller’s Sea-Eagle is quite rare in North America. Only a handful that we know of have ever crossed the Bering Sea to land on Alaskan islands -- and that's still a couple thousand miles away from Seattle. Bald Eagles are fairly common across the country, including in the East, but they're already spoken for -- by Philadelphia!

While not in the “sea eagle” genus, there’s one more North American bird of prey, the Osprey, that shares nearly the same Latin in its name: Pandion haliaetus. And ... it’s in the “Hawk” family. Looks as if we've found our "seahawk!"

© Mike Wulf
© Mike Wulf

The inclusion of “sea” in its name is appropriate. There are numerous adaptations that prepare the Osprey for life near water. The bird's diet is almost entirely fish. It patrols the air over shallow water – both salt and fresh – using incredibly sharp vision to spot fish underneath the surface. Once it spots a fish, the Osprey plunges into the water – at an angle to adjust for refraction – tapering its body to a point, with its beak and talons at the tip. Those talons also sport barbed pads as well as reversible hind toes – unique among hawks – to help grip the slippery prey. As it flies away, the Osprey maneuvers the fish head first, to reduce wind resistance.

And Ospreys don’t frequently miss. Some individuals grab a fish nearly three out of every four attempts. That bodes well for the Seahawks' pass completion on the field.

On the other hand, the Osprey’s ferocity over the aquatic realm offers no solace: no NFL teams are named after fish. (And no, Dolphins don’t count.)

Either way, the Seattle Seahawks are in the elite company of only five teams named after birds, along with the Arizona Cardinals, Atlanta Falcons, Baltimore Ravens, and the Philadelphia Eagles. Another nine teams are named after animals: Carolina Panthers, Chicago Bears, Cincinnati Bengals, Denver Broncos, Detroit Lions, Indianapolis Colts, Jacksonville Jaguars, Miami Dolphins, and St. Louis Rams. Unfortunately for the Seahawks, teams named after animals account for only ten Super Bowl titles, with the Ravens, Broncos, Colts, and Dolphins putting forth the … m.m.m... lion’s share of the effort.

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