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

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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.

Silent Killer

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