Books, culture, fishing, and other games

August 08, 2003

"Birds Of Prey Know They're Cool"

"It's raining, the sky is dark, and it's cold. Who wants to be out in this?" she seems to glare. Alan Colussy, an anthropology major at Georgia State, is having trouble with his Harris hawk, Merriweather. It's Saturday noon and we are walking along a trail in a wooded area north of Piedmont Park. It is indeed raining, gray and cold, but we humans have a disability that forces us into these situations: we think we are in control. The hawk is supposed to be following us in the trees, moving from limb to limb alongside or overhead, instead she is sulking. When Alan calls her name and whistles, holding up his gauntletted left arm, she shuffles on the trunk fallen across the trail, raises her wings slightly, then subsides. At first I don't realize the low, soft whistling that seems a background to Alan's calls are coming from her beak. The sound seems anachronous. I think of hawks making only those piercing shrieks. It is the first of a long series of things I thought I knew that will be exploded.

This all started millenia ago, probably around 1000 B.C. in the area of what is now Pakistan. In the 13th century, when Marco Polo returned from the orient to his native Venice, "he was more interested in the birds than in gunpowder and all those things that go boom," Alan claimed. These birds, falcons, hawks, and eagles, but owls and others too, were trained to launch from an arm to capture game for their masters. The exact origin of falconry, the training and use of birds of prey as instruments for hunting, probably cannot be pinned down, but the earliest texts were written in what is now Pakistan. Peshwar, a modern Pakistani city, remains the world center and holds the largest market for the birds and accoutrements of falconry. Many of the gauntlets, hoods, jesses, and other tools are only handmade, often of handtooled leather. Alan has visited Pakistan and brought back tales of hunting with the local masters of the sport, who often go out in large groups on horseback with dozens of birds, and accompanied by packs of dogs. They hunt not only the smaller animals we associate with the sport, rabbits, squirrels, and small birds, but deer. The falcons and hawks slow the deer so the dogs can catch it, then the master of the hunt dismounts, walks over to where the deer lies held by the hounds, unsheathes his knife and cuts its throat. "How cruel!" you probably wince. Perhaps. But more so than nature?

As we come across a rise in the trail, a place where the ground falls away up ahead, there is a rustling in a tree and a squirrel scrabbles quickly upward and around the bole of an old oak. Alan shouts, "Get it, Merriweather!" and swings his arm slightly forward, and the hawk launches with a buffeting of wings and curls off and around the tree. My eyes struggle to follow the path of the squirrel, but lose it. Merriweather drops onto a perch on a limb about forty feet away. "Did you see where the squirrel went?" Alan asks. All I can offer is, "Somewhere over towards where Merriweather is."

The Harris hawk is a native of the Southwestern North American deserts and of an area in Brazil, but the two races of hawks are a bit different. The desert version hunts in groups called "casts"; the Brazilian hawks hunt solo. The desert birds are so gregarious that the young don't immediately leave when sexually mature, they hang around and help their parents raise a family or two of their younger siblings. Merriweather is from the race of desert birds, but she results from several generations bred in captivity. She is an unusually large Harris hawk, and she does not like, at all, other birds of prey, including her own kin. Alan aquired her when a friend who had gotten her with her brother, decided she had to go as she was constantly trying to kill him. Among birds of prey the female is the larger. She had a considerable size advantage.

Another bird flies towards us. At first I think it's a mourning dove, and wonder if Merriweather will go for it; then I see it's a hawk. "Oh no!" I hear Alan moan. There's a flurry of wings, the other hawk wheels and flies off. "That was a Coop! A Cooper's hawk. I was afraid we'd have a fight. Merriweather must not have seen it." Or she was too wet to care about fighting, I can't help adding mentally.

The squirrel we saw has vanished, but Merriweather (whose name is becoming more and more ironic) doesn't seem to care one way or the other. She sulks a while on her limb, then is enticed back to Alan's glove by a bit of raw chicken. Her talons knead the thick leather of the gauntlet and Alan exclaims, "Ow! Stop it." The nails are long black curved daggers and the toes, though slim for hawks, are strongly muscled.

We decide enough is enough and head back to the car.

Alan visited England this past summer and hunted with the lady who is possibly the world authority on the sport, Jemima Parry Jones. They had some discussions about Merriweather and theorized that her odd attitude towards other birds of prey may reflect the real genetic predilections of the species. The Brazilian version of the bird may be the more "normal" one, a solo hunter. The desert birds may result from adaptation to local conditions. It may be that dominant genes are reasserting themselves through Merriweather's inbreeding.

Falconry may be the first "official" sport which in which both sexes could participate together. There have been women involved in the sport for many centuries. Mary Queen of Scots is another notable recent example. One of the early texts in english on the sport was written by Dame Juliana Barnes. Some other notables who were great lovers of the sport include Kubla Khan, who once lost a battle from which he was absent because he was off trapping birds, Akbar, the first mogul ruler of Hindustan who wrote a treatise on the subject which included a statement claiming that the sport was "more exquisite than the enjoyment of women." and Louis XIII of France, who wrote a ballet about falcons.

The sport probably arrived in England on the arm of the returning crusaders. In 1486 the Society of St. Albans text was published; this dilineated who could have what sort of bird based upon their rank: an emporer could own a golden eagle, a king a gyrfalcon, a prince a female perrigrine, a duke a rock falcon, and so on. The death penalty could be exacted from those who rose above their proper station. And yet the sport was looked upon with such respect that princes were required to help falconers from their horses.

Besides reinforcing the class structure of the English society of the day, however, the St. Albans text also displays some of the early environmental concerns of falconers. It dictates how many chicks may be taken from a nest, which ones must be taken, and assigns responsibility to the falconer who takes a chick to protect the nest and the remaining brood. Today falconers remain in the front of the ecological movement. Many of the birds of prey are threatened or endangered and the falconers are not only well aware of this, they work actively to reverse the trends. The release projects of birds of prey into the wild have always been spearheaded by practitioners of the sport. Alan himself has participated in a project involving perrigrine falcons, which adapt well to the cliff-sided modern building, here in Atlanta.

Over a cup of tea in Alan's kitchen, trying to warm up from the damp chill, I had to ask, "So, how did you get into this sport? You aren't a city boy, are you?" He laughed. "I am. But when I was twelve or thirteen I saw a movie, My Side of the Mountain. The main character runs away to Canada and becomes a falconer."
He fell in love, but with a sport. He discovered that in the United States one must be 14 to get a permit. When he turned 14 he took the test, got his permits and became the youngest falconer in the U.S.A. That was six years ago. Since then he has owned ten or eleven birds including red-tailed hawks, the most common of the North American hawks, screech owls, and his current Harris hawk, Merriweather.

From Alan's hunting backpack a laminated white card dangles. When I look more closely, I see it's a United States official document. When I ask, he tells me, "falconry is the most regulated sport in American. I have to have both Federal and state permits, and a hunting license, to practice the sport."

He brought out, with a stack of catalog an magazines on the sport, a sheaf of paper about an inch thick. The sheaf represented all his legal paperwork, permits, forms for transfer, capture, and release of birds, and other "red-tape." The aspiring falconer must find a Master and serve two years apprenticeship before becoming a General falconer. The regulations dictate that the first bird, and an apprentice is allowed to keep a single bird, must be a red-tail or a red-shouldered hawk, or a kestral, none of which are threatened species. From the General, which can keep two birds, one can move up to Master status, which entitles one to possession of three birds, and permits one to take on apprentices. There are severe penalties for not following the rules. One can receive up to five years in prison for possession of even a single feather of a bird of prey without the proper permits. (Falconers often require feathers to repair the flight and tailfeathers of their birds.)

He told me tales of his constant skirmishes with local law authorities who know nothing of the sport. "You can't do that," is the gist of the typical opening sally. "Yes I can, and you are interfering with a Federally regulated and sanctioned action," is the general sense of the reply. He enjoys telling of his encounters with the law.

"I was trapping birds up in North Carolina. We take a trap, a cage with a gerbil or mouse in it and covered with snares, and drop it out the window of a car when we spot a bird alongside the road. In this case I'd dropped off the trap and was watching it through binoculars when a local officer pulled over and said, 'I don't know about down in Georgia, but here in North Carolina we call that littering.' I had to point out that poeple who litter don't generally sit around in their cars and watch their litter through binoculars, and if he'd like we could walk down there and he could examine the 'litter' more closely and see that it could only be my intent to retreive that 'litter' once its job was done, especially since that dot way up there in the sky was a hawk I'd been trying to trap until he came along and interfered..."

Georgia has reciprocal licensing agreements with its neighboring states, so Alan's papers were in order, but the local authorities wouldn't generally know whether they were or not. The Federal document that dangles from his pack impresses upon them that he does know, however.

Alan normally hunts with his birds down in the area of Lake Jackson, though he will hunt in the city's wooded areas, especially if the weather is such that pet-owners aren't out walking their pets. Birds of prey don't particularly understand about "pets," though they themselves easily adapt to the state. There's a Gary Larson cartoon that explains the situation better than I can, though he may not have known what truth it was he drew. A sign across one side of a park, separated from the other side by a line of trees, proclaims "12th Annual Tea Cup Poodle Fanciers' Picnic." On the other side are several falconers with birds on their arms, preparing to lauch them. The cartoon is captioned, "Trouble Brewing."

That isn't, however, the Larson cartoon I first thought of when I had the opportunity to write this piece. The one that lept to my mind was this: a drawing of assorted hawks sitting around in trees wearing shades, and captioned, "Birds of Prey Know They're Cool."

I last saw Merriweather, perched on a bare branch in her mew, feathers slightly ruffed up, glaring through jet eyes at the wet world outside. I like to think I know how she felt. Some days the shades just aren't enough.

Posted by dan at August 8, 2003 10:54 PM
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