Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Vultures are People too!

I know I have not posted in over four months. I have been on a self-imposed hiatus for the usual reasons; busy. However, the recent onslaught of articles on my Facebook newsfeed about Vultures dying all over the world has compelled me to come out of hiding. If any of you follow my blog or know me, gather I am a “just the scientific facts ma’am” kind of writer but this blog is more emotional with a twist of pleading for global change.

In India, Pakistan and Nepal, by 2006 the vulture population had declined 99%, (yep, you read that correctly). Nearly all the vultures had disappeared due to a veterinary drug called diclofenac. Because of the cultural importance of cattle in this region, aging cattle were given this anti-inflammatory drug to relieve pain. When these cattle died, the carcasses were contaminated with the drug. Vultures began to disappear rapidly. It took almost two decades for researchers to discover that the contaminated carcasses vultures were feeding were killing them by kidney failure; a slow, agonizing death. In 2006, the governments of India, Pakistan and Nepal banned the use of diclofenac. The recovery of vultures is now in full intensity and showing signs of recovery (Balmford 2013). Please see, http://www.peregrinefund.org/projects/asian-vulture-crisis and http://www.save-vultures.org/, to see what is being done for Asian Vultures.

So all is good? Nope, in March 2013, the Spanish government made diclofenac available on the European market. Please see this website to support the ban in Europe and keep updated on the fight, http://www.4vultures.org/our-work/campaigning-to-ban-diclofenac-in-europe/

Diclofenac is not the only threat facing vultures. In Africa, vultures are declining for the same reasons, such as the rhino and elephant, medicinal purposes. Poachers are poisoning, indiscriminately, carcasses in order to collect the dead vultures to sell on the black market. Vulture brains and skulls are believed to provide psychic powers and intelligence (Dimitrova June 24, 2014; Pfeiffer et al. Spring 2014). Africa’s vultures are at risk of suffering the same fate as their Asian counterparts. Go to, http://news.mongabay.com/2014/0624-dimitrova-vulture-bird-market.html, to read the full article.

Vultures are charismatic and intelligent birds as well as play an important role in ecosystems and cultures globally. These birds are often deemed disgusting and do suffer from an image problem (Ravindran 2013); however, vultures are really cool birds! I have known a few vultures in my life and these characters have charmed the average visitor as well as the royalty of Great Britain. So, my plea is wherever you are in the world, do your part to help vultures! Give your time and money to organizations that are fighting for vultures or learn what you can do, as an individual, not to add to the decline of these wonderful birds.

"Delectable" entertains herself at the International Centre for Birds of Prey (www.icbp.org) by handing her feathers to visitors in order to trick them to put their fingers through the wire of her aviary. 

Literature Cited

Thursday, February 20, 2014


The Raptor Protection Movement and the Return of Falconry
            With the demise of the Passenger Pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) and Carolina Parakeet (Conuropsis carolinensis), between the four short years of 1914 and 1918, ornithologists and devout birdwatchers began a movement of their own; to protect avian predators. In addition, by 1920 five thousand Bald Eagles in just the State of Alaska were dead due to a bounty of fifty cents a head. It was ignorantly believed the eagles interfered with the salmon fisheries as well as accused of killing young deer and livestock.24 Eventually, the Bald Eagle gained protection in 1940 with the Bald Eagle Protection Act; however, other raptors remained unprotected at that time. Additionally, the Bald Eagle was still not protected in Alaska until 1959. 25 Although by 1966, law protected all raptors, the fight for the genuine protection and conservation of raptors continues today.

Craighead brothers with Golden Eagle
     In 1920, fourteen-year old twins, Frank and John Craighead, read Louis Agassiz Fuertes’ article “Falconry, The Sport of Kings: Once the Means of Supplying Man’s Necessities, It Has Survived the Centuries as One of the Most Romantic Pastimes of History” in The National Geographic Magazine. This would spark a life-long fascination with raptors that ultimately changed public’s opinion and the image of the avian predator. Although the Craighead twins spent several months hawking with Indian princes, training their falcons, actual hunting with their birds was never realized; they kept them merely as pets. The Craighead twins facilitated a more ‘pet’ type distinction and sweet perspective of their falcon to the general public. The Craigheads’ approach enabled the falcons to be seen in a different light, in fact, they were revealed as intelligent and gentle, and not the ruthless killers as believed.26
Peregrine Falcon eating prey
      Falconry was increasing in popularity between the 1940s and 1960s. In 1961, Harold Webster and Frank Beebe founded the North American Falconers Association (NAFA). NAFA was not only an association for falconers but it set out to educate the public on the benefits of raptors in the wild, such as keeping the rodent population in check; however, some states still considered the predatory birds vermin. Most falconers used the traditional falconry bird, Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus) but during this time, a World War II Veteran was using a Golden Eagle in Idaho. Also, Tom Cade (future founder of the Peregrine Fund) was finishing his graduate studies and hawking in California.27 Falconry and raptors seemed poised for a true revival and regain their former status but all was not well. 
From the Brink of Extinction
         While falconry was making a comeback in the United States and Europe; falcons, Bald Eagles and Ospreys were disappearing nearly without detection. It was not until Derek Ratcliffe, a British ornithologist, reported his study published by the Nature Conservancy, that Peregrine Falcon nests were failing. Passenger pigeon enthusiasts originally initiated this study because they believed there were too many falcons.28 Ratcliffe suspected pesticides. In 1962, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring has been hailed as the marking point in raptor conservation and saving many raptor species from the almost certain extinction. Silent Spring brought pesticides, such as DDT and DDE, to the foreground in the battle to save these species.

         The first international conference on the Peregrine was in 1965, at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. The conference delegates, mostly falconers, learned the devastating truth that the Peregrines; they were declining fast in Europe and North America. Ratcliffe reported a thinning of their eggshells caused by the residual pesticides in the falcons’ prey (mostly other birds) thus resulting in nest failure. 29 By the mid-1970’s, there were only 20-30 known nesting pairs of Peregrines in the United States. 30 The mid-1960s and 1970s marked the unprecedented coming together of falconers and biologists to save the Peregrine, Bald Eagle and other raptors from extinction. 
24. Louis Agassiz Fuertes. “Falconry, The Sport of Kings: Once the Means of Supplying Man’s Necessities, It Has Survived the Centuries as One of the Most Romantic Pastimes of History.” The National Geographic Magazine. Washington: National Geographic Society 38, no. 6, (December, 1920): 466.
25. M. V. Barrow Jr,. “Science, Sentiment, and the Specter of Extinction: Reconsidering Birds of Prey during America's Interwar Years.” Environmental History (2002): 77, 78, & 88.
 26. Helen Macdonald. Falcon. London: Reaktion, (2006): 95.
27. Keith L. Bildstein, David R. Barber and Andrea Zimmerman. Neotropical Raptors. PA: Hawk Mountain Sanctuary (2007).
28. MacDonald. Falcon, 117-118.
29. Ibid., 120.
               30. Clait E. Braun, James H. Enderson, Charles J. Henny, Heinz Meng, and Alva G. Nye. “Falconry: Effects on Raptor Populations and Management in North America.” The Wilson Bulletin 89, no. 2 (June 1977): 362

Take a peek at these websites:

Monday, February 3, 2014

Falconry and Raptor Conservation Con't...

European Falconry
English Falconer

     Although falconry had been introduced to Europe by the 4th Century, it was not until the 12th Century that falconry grew to an obsession among nobility. It was Frederick II of Hohenstaufen (1194-1250), the Holy Roman Emperor, King of Sicily and Jerusalem that placed falconry on the historical map for Europe. Frederick II was so passionate about falconry he wrote a book series called The 'De Arte Venandi cum Avibus'. A historically important work that was written during the Dark Ages:

The 'De Arte Venandi cum Avibus' was the culmination of thirty years' preparation. It is known from a two-book edition in both printed and written state, and from a six-book edition that exists only in (multiple) manuscript form. Books II to VI are devoted entirely to falconry, treated in great detail. Modern falconers will find that much of it represents current practices today. There appears to be little in the art as it was exercised in Frederick's time that he has not carefully described and systematized.12

In fact, Frederick’s books were written so scientifically complex and detailed in the tradition of falconry that Charles Haskins recommended, in his 1921 review of the works that they must be read by a zoologist and a falconer.13

By the 14th Century, falconry had ascended to the sport of medieval European aristocrats, the sport for Kings. Only nobility were allowed to keep hawks. Falconers and the hawks had grown to be one of the most revered citizens in all of Europe. Some Kings would hire hundreds of falconers, paying them handsomely, to care for their hawks. In Wales, the King’s falconers were the fourth officer and were not allowed more than three drams of beer for fear of intoxication would lead him unable to care for the hawks.14

Nobility were known to be so obsessed with their birds; they would bring them to Church. Gyrfalcons (Falco rusticolus) were the most prized of the falcons and generally only held by Kings. These falcons were often given as gifts to other countries’ nobility during peace agreements and diplomacy.15 In addition, a law was created that made it a crime to steal a bird or eggs from a falconer.16 By 1536, King Henry VIII issued proclamation protecting the poultry fed to the falconry birds which were nearing extinction.17 Eventually, this protection extended to the game fowl such as herons, pheasants and partridge. This proclamation protecting avian game is an early example of natural resource management.

Sadly, as the 18th Century approached, falconry had become a dying practice. The Monarchy kept a small stable of hawks in their mews and falconers to care for them but in customs and pageantry position only. Without the exception of an eccentric English falconer, Colonel Thornton, who lead falconry parties in the Scottish Highlands in the early 19th Century as well as the aboriginal inhabitants in the remote districts of the Highlands of Scotland, the sport of English falconry would have been lost into mystery.17

Early American Falconry 
Hunting in Virginia by early Settlers

         The first record of falconry in North America was in 1585. Thomas Harriot, one of Sir Richard Grenville’s colonists of Roanoke Island wrote in reference to falconry. Again in 1610, William Strachey wrote about the five different hawk species in Virginia, in which some were exported back to England.18 Because North America lacked the socioeconomical or cultural necessity for the practice of falconry, the sport remained limited to a few number of groups throughout the 19th and 20th Centuries. However, as the 1960’s rolled around, falconry in the United States played an enormous role in raptor conservation. 
Modern Falconry
The Fall from Grace
How deep the national passion had been stirred by the noble pastime may be estimated by those memories. For the two hundred years after the last tinkle of bells had ceased in the land, no living sport exercised from day-to-day, had such a hold on the popular imagination. The falcon and the falconer had become heroic. – Charles Q. Turner 1898

     For thousands of years, the falconer and raptor reined with high social status and magnificent accessory but, within a span of only two hundred-fifty years, the disappearance of this status and reverence has become one of the largest historical mysteries.19 In early 19th Century, as the bells grew silent, the gunshots grew loud. Game hunting using guns had replaced falconry and the raptors, the once prized obsessions of nobility, had become vermin. This period marked the disturbing practice of mass raptor extermination throughout Europe and the United States. Killing raptors had become a condition of employment for English gamekeepers. The corpses of the killed were hanged from trees or sent to taxidermists for displaying. “The bird of kings reduced to a pile of bones hanging from a tree.”20
     This era represented a disappointing time in our history of humanity and respect for the natural world. As humans, we disregarded traditional culture and ignored the value of nature for selfish and monetary gains. Not to mention a complete disregard for the raptors’ intrinsic right to exist in its own right in the world unmolested. Instead of admiration for the falcon as a skilled-flighted hunter, it had become a worthy opponent to prove that human skills can kill the most skilled hunter. Stuffed falcons were placed on display to celebrate these accomplishments. 
    The fall from grace was not unique to Western cultures. In Central Asia, the berkutchi was a person of high social and spiritual status but that has been lost over the past several hundred years as well. The region was marked by social and ecological poverty, in part because of Muscovy and later the USSR, carried profound impacts. The unique culture of falconry and the local traditions were believed to be outdated and practicing either was discouraged with persecution. The destruction of the natural environment, contamination of soils and sources of water reached a pivotal point; it affected the spiritual sphere and genotype of the indigenous people of Asia. 21 The once prized culture of falconry became a distant memory.  
However, in the Middle East, falconry continued to be practiced. During the 19th and early 20th Centuries, Western writers would refer to the non-Western cultures as cultures living outside of historical progress. Falconry did spread to British India, continuing the practice along with its social hierarchy and reverence that was reminiscent of earlier nobility in Europe. 22

The Anti-predator Movement
     During the 19th and early 20th Centuries a movement was growing, in which, became the anti-predator movement. Mammalian and avian predators were considered a major threat to game, livestock and songbirds. This was a time when the traditional ecological knowledge was changing and a new paradigm emerged. Proponents of the predator control movement found it to be a rational solution to protect the vulnerable animals that fall prey to the predators as well as an avenue for humans to control the dangerous and unruly wilderness. Nature lovers and humanitarians concerned with minimizing the suffering of the animals killed by predators further romanticized this movement. The Bureau of the Biological Survey initiated an anti-predator campaign in 1915. Thankfully, just two years later the Migratory Bird Treaty Act came into law. 23

Stay tuned...the birth of raptor conservation is next!

12. J. T. Zimmer. Review: A Medieval Ornithological Treatise. The Auk 61, no. (1944): 483.

13. Charles H. Haskins. 'De Arte Venandi cum Avibus' of the Emperor Frederick II.” The English Historical Review. London: Longmens, Green and Co. (1921): 334.

14. Helen Macdonald. Falcon. London: Reaktion, (2006): 16.

15. William Wood. “Falconry.” The American Naturalist 4, no. 2 (April 1870): 74-76.

16. Ibid, 77.

17. Charles Q. Turner. “The Revival of Falconry.” Outing: An Illustrated Monthly Magazine of Sport, Travel and Recreation. Volume XXXI. London: Outing Pub. Co., (1898): 478-480.

18. Ibid., 473.

19. Ibid., 473.

20. Helen Macdonald. Falcon: 109.

21. Anon. Golden Eagle

22. Helen Macdonald. Falcon, 95.
23. M. V. Barrow Jr,. “Science, Sentiment, and the Specter of Extinction: Reconsidering Birds of Prey during America's Interwar Years.” Environmental History (2002): 70.

Monday, January 20, 2014


Asian and Arabic Falconry
         Although the true beginning of falconry remains unclear, the traditional time period is about four thousand years ago in Central Asia.  According to Asian tradition, the King of Persia was the first falconer.6 This king’s fascination with raptors developed no differently than the falconers that would follow the king. J. E. Harting describes this fascination in his essay Hawks and Hawking:
During one of his excursions, he became deeply interested in the unobserved actions of a wild hawk. He saw it perched upon a bough “with the air of a sovereign upon his throne,” where he watched for an opportunity to seize a passing bird. He was struck with admiration at its majestic appearance, its wonderful patience, and its power over other birds, which it seemed to take by sovereignty of nature, and was, seized with a desire to posses it. He learned many of its (hawk) good qualities – so much so, it changed him from a violent to better and wiser sovereign.7
In this story, the King of Persia was likely talking about a falcon but the Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) has made its place in history and culture in Central Asia. This living tradition continues as the falconer in Central Asia rides horseback with a Golden Eagle trained to take down quarry as large as a wolf. This falconer, a berkutchi, is of noble birth and perceived as not just a hunter but as a spiritual symbol as well.8
The high social status of the berkutchi developed because of the local cold climate and the demand for warm, strong and durable clothing for the people during the winter seasons. From ancient times, berkutchi-falconers had the role of preserving and stocking furs and held the secrets of curing hides and pelts. The most valuable were the pelts of wolves and foxes so, the use of Golden Eagles to obtain them is a continued tradition today.9
Golden Eagle taking a fox
The traditions of the berkutchi-falconer as well as other Golden Eagle falconers were passed down through stories and experiences. One such story by ‘Ctesias the Cnydian’ a court doctor to the Persian King Artexeises II (Mnemnon) in the early fifth century BC provides details of how these Golden Eagles were trained to catch such large quarry:
They catch young eagles and bring them up and train them for hunting. The procedure is as follows. They hang meat on a tame hare or a tamed fox and let it run; then they send the birds after them and permit them to take hold of the meat. The birds try this with all their might, and when they have caught up with the one or the other, they may take the meat as a prize and this for them is a great lure. When they have been brought to precision in this type of hunting, the Indians let them loose on mountain hares and wild foxes. In hope of the usual meal, they chase after the prey which appears, and catch it very quickly.10
Thousands of years later, the fundamental concepts of these techniques are still used today to train a raptor for falconry.
In Middle Eastern (Arab) falconry tradition, the falcon plays a vital role in culture. The traditional falconry bird used in the Middle East has been the larger desert-type falcons, the Saker Falcon (Falco cherrug) and hybridized with the largest falcon the Gyrfalcon (Falco rusticolus), mostly because of the topography and quarry hunted. For hundreds of years, Arabic falconers have trained these falcons to catch quarry such as hares and Houbara which has been a major food resource for Arabic locals due to the high number of these birds that migrate from Central Asia each winter.11 Arabic falconers release their falcons from gloved fists after targeted quarry resulting in a tail pursuit. 

      6. J. E. Harting. “Hawks and Hawking.” Essays on sport and natural history. London: Horace Cox, (1883), 69.
         7. Ibid.
         8. Anon. Golden Eagle. http://proeco.visti.net/naturalist/falconry/geagl.htm.
         9. Ibid.
         10. Anon. Ancient Falconry. http://www.firstscience.com/home/index2.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=1381&Itemid=75&pop=1.
         11. Tom Bailey, Jaime H. Samour, and Theresa C. Bailey. “Hunted by Falcons, Protected by Falconry: Can the Houbara Bustard (Chlamydotis undulata macqueenii) Fly into the 21st Century?.” Journal of Avian Medicine and Surgery 12, no. 3 (September 1998): 190-201.  

Silent Killer

An increasing number of raptors are exposed and dying from rodenticides, commonly called “rat poison”. Unsuspecting people that wish to con...