spotted hawk Most immature hawks have spotted breasts. Our candidate for the bird’s sound and appearance is the red-tailed hawk, buteo jamaicensis, which might very well have been seen over the rooftops of Brooklyn in the mid-nineteenth century, though this bird’s cry more closely resembles a red-shouldered hawk’s or an osprey’s. Red-tails, perhaps descendants of Whitman’s bird, nest in Prospect Park to this day.
gab Webster 1828: “The mouth, as in the phrase ‘the gift of the gab,’ that is, loquaciousness. But the word is so vulgar as rarely to be used.” OED dates “conversation, talk, twaddle, prattle” from 1790.
yawp The cries of the red-tailed hawk, the red-shouldered hawk, and the osprey are about equally shrill, piercing and exultant. William Dean Howells, who met Whitman when the poet was an older man, had this to say about him: “The apostle of the rough, the uncouth, is the gentlest person; his barbaric yawp, translated into the terms of social encounter, was an address of singular quiet, delivered in a voice of winning and endearing friendliness.”
[reprinted with permission of Robert Hass from Song of Myself and Other Poems by Walt Whitman, with a Lexicon of the Poem. Robert Hass and Paul Ebenkamp. Counterpoint Press, 2010.]