Toby Bradshaw's favorite falconry-related quotes and readings
From ‘A man’s
leisure time’ in A Sand County Almanac with essays on conservation from
Round River by Aldo Leopold, Oxford University Press 1966
The most glamorous hobby
I know of today is the revival of falconry.
It has a few addicts in America and perhaps a dozen in England – a minority
indeed. For two and a half cents
one can buy and shoot a cartridge that will kill the heron whose capture by
hawking required months or years of laborious training of both the hawk and
the hawker. The cartridge, as a
lethal agent, is a perfect product of industrial chemistry. One can write a formula for its lethal reaction.
The hawk, as a lethal agent, is the perfect flower of that still utterly
mysterious alchemy – evolution. No
living man can, or possibly ever will, understand the instinct of predation
that we share with our raptorial servant.
No man-made machine can, or ever will, synthesize that perfect coordination
of eye, muscle, and pinion as he stoops to his kill.
The heron, if bagged, is inedible and hence useless (although the old
falconers seem to have eaten him, just as a Boy Scout smokes and eats a flea-bitten
summer cottontail that has fallen victim to his sling, club, or bow). Moreover the hawk, at the slightest error in technique of handling,
may either ‘go tame’ like Homo sapiens or fly away into the blue.
All in all, falconry is the perfect hobby.
From ‘The bird and the
machine’ in The Immense Journey by Loren Eiseley, Vintage Books 1957
[Background: Eiseley is on
an archaeological expedition and is asked to collect some wildlife specimens
for the museum. He finds a hole
in the roof of an abandoned cabin on the prairie and plans to collect the birds
that have been using the hole.]
I padded across the floor,
got the ladder up and the light ready, and slithered up the ladder till my head
and arms were over the shelf. Everything
was dark as pitch except for the starlight at the little place back of the shelf
near the eaves. With the light
to blind them, they’d never make it. I
had them. I reached my arm carefully
over in order to be ready to seize whatever was there and I put the flash on
the edge of the shelf where it would stand by itself when I turned it on.
That way I’d be able to use both hands.
Everything worked perfectly
except for one detail – I didn’t know what kind of birds were there.
I never thought about it at all, and it wouldn’t have mattered if I had.
My orders were to get something interesting.
I snapped on the flash and sure enough there was a great beating and
feathers flying, but instead of my having them, they, or rather he, had me.
He had my hand, that is, and for a small hawk not much bigger than my
fist he was doing all right. I
heard him give one short metallic cry when the light went on and my hand descended
on the bird beside him; after that he was busy with his claws and his beak was
sunk in my thumb. In the struggle
I knocked the lamp over on the shelf, and his mate got her sight back and whisked
neatly through the hole in the roof and off among the stars outside.
It all happened in fifteen seconds and you might think I would have fallen
down the ladder, but no, I had a professional assassin’s reputation to keep
up, and the bird, of course, made the mistake of thinking the hand was the enemy
and not the eyes behind it. He
chewed my thumb up pretty effectively and lacerated my hand with his claws,
but in the end I got him, having two hands to work with.
He was a sparrow hawk and
a fine young male in the prime of life.
I was sorry not to catch the pair of them, but as I dripped blood and
folded his wings carefully, holding him by the back so that he couldn’t strike
again, I had to admit the two of them might have been more than I could have
handled under the circumstances. The
little fellow had saved his mate by diverting me, and that was that.
He was born to it, and made no outcry now, resting in my hand hopelessly,
but peering toward me in the shadows behind the lamp with a fierce, almost indifferent
glance. He neither gave nor expected
mercy and something out of the high air passed from him to me, stirring a faint
I quit looking into that
eye and managed to get my huge carcass with its fist full of prey back down
the ladder. I put the bird in a
box too small to allow him to injure himself by struggle and walked out to welcome
the arriving trucks. It had been
a long day, and camp still to make in the darkness.
In the morning that bird would be just another episode.
He would go back with the bones in the truck to a small cage in the city
where he would spend the rest of his life.
And a good thing, too. I
sucked my aching thumb and spat out some blood.
An assassin has to get used to these things.
I had a professional reputation to keep up.
In the morning, with the
change that comes on suddenly in that high country, the mist that had hovered
below us in the valley was gone. The
sky was a deep blue, and one could see for miles over the high outcroppings
of stone. I was up early and brought
the box in which the little hawk was imprisoned out onto the grass where I was
building a cage. A wind as cool
as a mountain spring ran over the grass and stirred my hair.
It was a fine day to be alive.
I looked up and all around and at the hole in the cabin roof out of which
the other little hawk had fled. There
was no sign of her anywhere that I could see.
“Probably in the next county
by now,” I thought cynically, but before beginning work I decided I’d have a
look at my last night’s capture.
Secretively, I looked again
all around the camp and up and down and opened the box.
I got him right out in my hand with his wings folded properly and I was
careful not to startle him. He
lay limp in my grasp and I could feel his heart pound under the feathers but
he only looked beyond me and up.
I saw him look that last
look away beyond me into a sky so full of light that I could not follow his
gaze. The little breeze flowed
over me again, and nearby a mountain aspen shook all its tiny leaves.
I suppose I must have had an idea then of what I was going to do, but
I never let it come up into consciousness.
I just reached over and laid the hawk on the grass.
He lay there a long minute without hope, unmoving, his eyes still fixed on that blue vault above him. It must have been that he was already so far away in heart that he never felt the release from my hand. He never even stood. He just lay with his breast against the grass.
In the next second after
that long minute he was gone. Like
a flicker of light, he had vanished with my eyes full on him, but without
actually seeing even a premonitory wing beat.
He was gone straight into that towering emptiness of light and crystal
that my eyes could scarcely bear to penetrate.
For another long moment there was silence. I could not see him. The
light was too intense. Then from
far up a cry came ringing down.
I was young then and had
seen little of the world, but when I heard that cry my heart turned over.
It was not the cry of the hawk I had captured; for, by shifting my position
against the sun, I was now seeing further up.
Straight out of the sun’s eye, where she must have been soaring restlessly
for untold hours, hurtled his mate. And
from far up, ringing from peak to peak of the summits over us, came a cry of
such unutterable and ecstatic joy that it sounds down along the years and tingles
among the cups on my quiet breakfast table.
I saw them both now.
He was rising fast to meet her. They
met in a great soaring gyre that turned to a whirling circle and a dance of
wings. Once more, just once, their
two voices, joined in a harsh wild medley of question and response, struck and
echoed against the pinnacles of the valley.
Then they were gone forever somewhere in those upper regions beyond the
eyes of men.
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Last revised: 15-Jul-2004