FALCONRY IN THE SUBURBS
Frank Beebe probably knows as much about keeping murderous hawks happy as any falconer who ever served a Chinese warlord or medieval king. Now, from Iris home twenty miles from Victoria, he is trying to wrench this 4,000-year-old sport into a none-too-appreciative twentieth-century North America
I WAS BEGINNING to feel a little silly. I had been chasing a man and his dog over ditches and through fields of wet, knee-high grass on Vancouver Island. They were both working for a bird—a tame falcon which was circling more than 1,000 feet above us.
I was tired, regretting the whole venture, but thankful no one could sec us. I felt like an Indian beater scaring up a tiger for some British big-game hunter on an elephant. But this. I'd been assured, was falconry. Our function was to “serve” the falcon by driving game into the open. I was there to see for myself why about 200 Canadian falconers spend so many hours training and pampering their birds.
Frank Beebe, who is forty-eight and a wildlife illustrator for the provincial museum in Victoria, had tossed the falcon into the air near his house. The bird had looped its way higher and higher as we ran below in long, exhausting zig-zag sweeps. If this was falconry, I'd take a tw'elve-gaugc shotgun.
Suddenly Beebe shouted. The dog had sent a plump teal skittering away above the grass. I
froze, held my breath, and watched — almost fearfully. Its wings tucked back and its trim body a shadowy blur against the evening light, the falcon streaked out of the sky. It hit the teal with a sharp thwack and sent the duck looping down in a flurry of feathers. The falcon spun in a tight circle and followed its dead victim into the grass. (I learned later that a peregrine falcon reaches 200 miles an hour in dives.)
"What a strike! What a strike!" Beebe hooted. 1 had to agree. I was reminded of a prison hanging I saw' once; it was over so swiftly I'd have missed the whole thing if I hadn’t concentrated on every movement. In seconds, the falcon's incredible eye had spotted the teal's first move, had dived headlong, and had killed it.
I ran with Beebe to the falcon. It was hunched over its prey, and spread its wings as we approached. It leveled an unblinking gaze at its owner and tightened its talons on the teal.
This falcon was a peregrine, a bird highly prized by West Coast falconers who frequently risk their necks taking fledglings from the nests
on the coastal clifls of the Queen Charlotte
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CARE AND TRAINING OF A KILLER (continued)
Islands. Beebe had trained it to hunt in the classic style of the true falcon—“waiting on” at heights of up to two thousand feet above its master.
Beebe's training ground is the salt marsh surrounding his home on the shores of the Strait of Georgia at Saanichton, only twenty miles from Victoria. His hunting gear is simple: a kitbag and sheath belted around his middle, and a welder’s glove to protect his left hand from the falcon’s talons while the bird rides his fist.
After the teal’s sudden death, Beebe stooped and moved slowly toward the falcon. He held a chicken’s head in his glove. The falcon stepped onto the glove for the meat and Beebe tucked the dead duck into the kitbag. “The falcon is the hunter. The man is just the carrier,” Beebe said as we walked back toward his house. “From the time the bird leaves his fist until it returns, the man is little more than a spectator.” He snipped a piece of meat from the chicken’s head with a pair of shears and fed it to the falcon.
Beebe is a wiry, intense man with an uncanny feeling for raptorial birds. With quick eyes and sharp aristocratic features, he even looks like one. In his childhood he roamed like an Indian through the woods near his family’s homestead north of Edmonton. At twelve he trained an owl to hunt from his fist. For some years he was zoo keeper at Stanley Park in Vancouver.
For a decade now Beebe has championed falconry on the West Coast. He helped found the B. C. Falconry Association so that falconers could get hunting permits. When provincial game officials were considering outlawing falconry it was Beebe who talked the attorney general into reserving judgment on the matter. He overcame the objections of both animal welfare groups and hunting clubs which wanted the sport outlawed: The former don’t like the idea of falcons kept for use against pigeons; the latter don't like the idea of game taken by hawks rather than guns.
Beebe has written an encyclopaedic book about this 4,000-year-old method of hunting
and its forty-year
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The falconer throws his killer hawk from the car, scatters the ducks — and awaits the deadly strike
history in Canada. The book is spiced with the authority of a man who understands everything wild, and lives as close to the wilderness as he can.
The road to his property drops with the temperature from the crest of a steep hill to the edge of a beach. It twists through thick bush, two heavy gates and over a groaning bridge. The Beebe house sits on land reclaimed from the sea. Logs, washed ashore, litter the ground within yards of the front lawn, the playground of Beebe’s four children, a Great Dane, a spaniel and a cat. Mrs. Beebe's budgies and canaries can be heard from the house, and in a building some distance away are Beebe’s chickens and pigeons.
There isn’t a neighbor within earshot and the fields, potholes, undergrowth and heavy bush shelter the game that provides endless sport for Beebe’s birds of prey. The day I drove up, two of them—the peregrine and a goshawk—were sitting on perches on the lawn. When I approached the peregrine screamed and the goshawk leaped from its perch and beat its wings frantically at the end of its tether.
My impression of their ferocity was false. With a little imagination and gentleness anyone can hold a bird of prey on a gloved fist without danger from the powerful beak and claws. Later, while we walked back across the fields from the scene of the teal's swift end. Beebe softly stroked the peregrine with a forefinger, talked to it and gazed at it with obvious affection.
Perhaps because we were on foot (and mine were sore) I remembered reading that English kings, from the time of Ethelbert in the ninth century to the first James in the seventeenth, had used pacing horses while hawking. Like many other modern falconers Beebe frequently uses a station wagon in which he keeps the birds hooded within reach.
When a hawker finds a marsh or flooded field spotted with game flocks, he stops the car. unhoods the falcon and throws it from the car. He waits till the
falcon has climbed, then frightens the game birds into the air. The falcon watches the flock rise, takes his pick — and dives.
All birds of prey, even owls, can be trained to perform the basic task in falconry—to come to the lure or the glove. They can’t be trained to retrieve a kill, and man can only partially control the hawk’s instinct to attack, kill and devour. Through training, he can hope to time the attack and prevent his hawk from flying off with its prey. But a falconer can never expect a hawk to feel anything more than a reserved attachment for its owner; he knows that, no matter how well trained, a hawk may always revert to its wild state and disappear. Hawks accept coolly and without interest the people, animals and objects associated with their owners. They never become pets themselves. They are never mastered.
Once trained, peregrine falcons, however. at least tend to trust humans. The accipiters, a lower-flying species which includes the common goshawk, are suspicious and shy no matter how long their association with man.
Hawks can be kept in the city. Some can even be trained in back yards or vacant lots. The only large space a falconer needs is the open sky. And the hawks learn quickly. Wild hawks know already how to let other animals hunt for them. Peregrines wait for livestock, coyotes, dogs, foxes and even eagles to flush ground birds or waterfowl, and goshawks shadow the heavy-footed animals of the forest for the same reason. Both know that fires, farm machinery, trains and cars frequently scare dinners into the open.
But the falconer’s year really begins long before the training. It starts at the moment he makes up his mind to look for a new bird. In British Columbia, novices must be members of the falconry association and must have their permits endorsed by two senior members and a recognized wildlife authority before they
may take hawks legally. (Beebe wrote the rules. )
Summer expeditions seek the high-flying peregrine on the chfTs of the Queen Charlottes, goshawks and Cooper’s hawks in forests or high mountain valleys, and prairie falcons in dry canyons or mesa cliffs of the west (mostly in lhe U. S ). I he gyrf a Icon, prized above all others, is an Arctic bird and beyond the reach of most falconers.
Captured adult hawks are called “haggards’’ and the female haggard is bigger, tougher, and more deadly than the male. A young hawk, taken on its first migration is a “passager" and a fledghng is an “cyass.” Taken young enough, a hawk never develops any fear of man.
Wild hawks are captured in traps baited with pigeons which they can’t re tch. I hen they are trussed and outfitted with "jesses’’ —short leather thongs tied to the legs— swivels and leashes. All this is traditional equipment, but the traditional w'ay of taming and training hawks has been abandoned by many falconers for a quicker method.
The old system is the product of falconry in the China of 2000 B.C.: in India. Persia. Arabia. Syria and .1 pan 500 years before Christ; and in continental Hu rope and Hngiand during and after the Crusades. It was brought to North America by returning servicemen after the First World War.
This ancient method is iong and painstaking. The hawk is hooded, kept leashed in a dark room and fed first through the hood in an unlighted room, the i through the hood in dim light, and finally by candlelight without the hood. The trainer walks on egg shells, carefully introducing voice and whistle until these sounds are associated with feeding in the bird’s mind. After three weeks it is fed for the first time without the hood, in broad daylight, on the fist.
Prefer food to freedom
Beebe prefers the modern system. He will feed a wild hawk, unhooded. on his fist within hours—sometimes minutes—of its capture. It can be a violent experience. The leash, attached to the swiveled jesses, is tied to the welder's glove and the bird is allowed to do its vicious best to break free. In a wild, wing thrashing rage, it may leap from the glove again and again. Or it may fall limply and hang upside down, or sit and scream incessantly, or just hunch there calmly from the beginning, waiting for the falconer's next move. Whatever the tactic, a good falconer soon figures out the best method of persuading the hawk to eat meat held in the glove.
The effectiveness of this system is based on a simple Beebe axiom: “The cold fact is that healthy raptores are much more interested in food than freedom."
Peregrines nearly always take an unruffled view of captivity. Many feed from their captor’s hand within live minutes. Goshawks, prairie falcons and gerfalcons fight from the second they are caught and frequently take days to settle down. Medieval hawkers considered falcons noble birds, deserving gentle handling and considerate training. The goshawk was regarded as crude and treated crudely; it usually lost its fear and resistance through sheer exhaustion. But falconers now base handling on a bird’s instinctive behavior and training starts only after the bird has become used to its owner.
Once recognition has been established, a goshawk or other accipiter gets its first lessons in returning to the fist after missing a chase. First, it comes only a single leash-length to meat in the glove. I hen the leash becomes a long cord and the bird hunts while still unreleased. Finally,
when it returns by habit to the fist after every kill, it gets its freedom.
Falcons, however, are trained first to fly to a lure—a dummy made of leather and pheasant feathers and baited with meat. (Accipiters also learn to fly to the lure and some falconers, who feel restricted by public criticism, fly their birds exclusively to lures.) The falcon is slowly trained to the point where it can hit a lure swinging on a long cord around the falconer's head. Then the lure is hidden in the kitbag and the bird learns to wait. Still later, it discovers that it does better in steep, high dives. A young pigeon is substituted for the dummy and the falcon gets a taste of blood; and finally, a fast adult pigeon provides the first lesson in pursuit.
Of the two types, falcons and accipiters, the falcons are the faster, more efficient and more dramatic killers. At top speed a falcon's blow, from open or closed talons, kills a small quarry instantly. A falcon kills a larger victim by knocking it down then gripping the neck and dislocating the vertebrae with its beak. But this hawk will not chase its prey into a forest or bushland and seldom attempts to take its victim on the ground, and, if the going gets rough, it lets fighting quarry go.
The low-flying accipiters arc more reckless; they tackle almost any bird, on the wing or on the ground. Once the gauntlet has been thrown down they hang on through the most violent struggles. They seem to enjoy drawn-out duels with victims that fight back or manage to break free now and then. Accipiters hit prey from any angle with their talons. Sometimes they kill so slowly that their prey is half-eaten before it dies.
Hunting with falcons requires open fields. With a goshawk or other accipiter, it's a more personal thing calling for silent
How Toslo w got its name
Newfoundland is noted for graphic, down-to-earth names such as Joe Batt's Arm. Come-By-Chance and Pushthrough. But some Newfoundland names are not so easily understood. One of these is immortalized in a Newfoundland ballad that refers to “my girl from Tos low”—pronounced “toss-low.” A couple of generations ago it wits Fosse lo John, which is a corruption of the French Tasse de l’Argent, the name given by a poetic Norman captain to the cup-shaped bay surrounded by cliffs that glisten like silver in the sunlight.
stalking alone with the bird beside creeks, hedges, and the edges of fields. Smaller birds are the main diet of both species, but bigger hawks kill rabbits or even larger fur-bearers, and a starving wild hawk will tackle a bird or animal that is capable of killing it.
Oddly enough, tame hawks refuse to hunt when they are very hungry. They return screaming to the falconer for food. Trained hawks must be in perfect physical condition and only a little hungry for high-spirited performances.
Even wild hawks don’t always hunt solely because they are hungry: they often hunt and kill for the joy of it. Occasionally, when prey is in a weakened condition the lust for blood possesses a hawk totally and it goes on a rampage of killing that has nothing at all to do with hunger and survival.
But bloodthirsty as they sound, success and survival do not come easily to hawks. Victory is seldom certain. Its weapons for killing are often balanced by the prey’s escape tactics. Only the strongest, smartest. fastest and luckiest survive to adulthood and, in general, the hawks’ prey has a better chance to migrate or see its first spring than the hawks themselves.
Adult falcons have been seen training young hawks to fly and hunt by deliberately missing quarry, thereby setting it up for the trailing offspring. Accipiters use their talons instinctively; falcons learn to use them by catching prey released by a parent in flight.
The young hawk, however, is soon abandoned and must compete for food on its own against experienced adults. It begins to pick on young victims. Dull-witted hawks starve. The strong and the alert of both the hawks and the victims survive longest and they grow to adulthood together in an unending and deadly battle of wits. But in the end. once they have survived into adulthood, the aggressive predators get the better of it: they live longer. Peregrines can live as long as thirty years, goshawks about twenty, and eagles sixty or more. Their lifespans arc six to eight times that of their prey.
One of nature’s most intriguing mysteries is the waterfowl’s or ground fowl's recognition of its nemesis in flight. Even waterfowl raised from eggs hatched in incubators identify high-flying hawks unerringly: they head for the water when
some hawks approach, but take to the air when they see an eagle. Domestic pigeons scuttle for cover in forest or loft as a falcon circles but make for the open skies when accipiters soar in on low-level attacks. And yet, they don’t seem to recognize their enemy when it is roosting. Beebe has seen pigeons fly down to bathe in his falcon’s bath, inches from his perched falcon and goshawk. The hawks suffer no such blindness: the pigeons were speedily slaughtered.
The tougher, small birds can sometimes brilliantly outmanoeuvre falcons. Beebe once watched a wild peregrine perform a long, fruitless series of dive-bombings at an upland plover. “The plover simply held the air in tight circles at no great height,” he says. “It made no effort to outclimb or outfly the falcon. It simply dodged each dive in a most confident way. The contest ended after half an hour with the plover still in the air, scarcely a hundred yards from where it started. The falcon gave up and flew away.”
On the other hand, paralyzing fear often freezes the hawk’s smaller, defenseless prey, and larger victims that have exhausted themselves trying to escape. Ealconers have found these shuddering creatures. Some take hours to recover. A few just die of fright. Beebe has seen this reaction in quail, pheasant, ducks, coots, and domestic chickens, hut never in pigeons.
Perhaps the noisiest yet coolest reaction is that of some larger birds—gulls, crows, ravens, cormorants and geese. They don’t panic but they take evasive action and squawk for help. If caught, they fight and keep screaming until free or dead. While such a bird is being devoured, its mates raise an unholy racket around the killer: the predator usually finds the entire experience so unnerving that it seldom attacks a bird of the same species again.
There is one exception—pheasant, the most difficult prey of all to catch and hold. But for a hawk, it’s a matter of taste: the pheasant is also the most succulent meat of all. Even before it has tasted one. a young hawk will chase the first pheasant it sees. But the pheasant is canny and courageous. It will frequently pretend to he dead, leap up at the last moment, send the hawk spinning and fly to safety. It will stand its ground and refuse to show fear before the smaller bird’s fiercely
bristling crest and spreading wings. If the pheasant turns for a second it is finished. Otherwise, unless starved, the falcon will eventually leave rather than fight.
In the hungry world of the falcons not even a brother’s food is safe. They frequently fight over a kill—a hangover from the childhood when they learned to take quarry from their parents’ talons. Falcons seldom hurt one another in these battles, but feeding falcons rightly fear the accipiters who will raid another hawk’s food with a killer’s intent. The remains of smaller raptorial birds are often found in nests of eagles, confirmed raiders. All hawks hate and fear the horned owl, the night predator. Hawks scream in terror when they see or sense it at night. They attack it repeatedly when they spot it in the daylight.
But even for a hawk life is not all killor-be-killed. Despite their harsh existence, and like lions, bears, whales and w'olves, hawks occasionally find time to play. Peregrines dance and play with feathers in the air, snatch twigs and boughs from tall treetops, and harry coyotes. Some
hawks delight in outflying and annoying larger, slow-flying birds and merlins play with crows by the hour in mock attacks. One of the strangest games in nature is the competition in aerial skills held hundreds of feet in the air between ravens and peregrines and ravens and eagles. The ravens know this whirling, tumbling sport well and seem to enjoy it even more than the hawks.
Still, these amusements and sports are also a form of practice, a means of keeping the killing edge sharp.
“Man does not do the killing,” Beebe says. “The hawk kills, which is right and natural for it. It attacks with every purpose of shedding blood and it does. 'I here’s something elemental about it, a certain roughness—yet the falconer’s emotional tie is to the falcon, not to the quarry.”
I knew what he meant. I felt closer to the falcon than to the dead teal. I felt closer to the falcon than I did to the two smart pigeons, released by Beebe, who managed to dodge its dive and escape to the bushes. I even felt close to the brute when a European starling lay crying in its grasp and Beebe had to finish off the little bird with a knife.
This feeling, I think, is admiration or respect for the falcon’s intelligence, courage and superb physical ability, and for its superiority over lower forms of predators like reptiles. And maybe it’s an appreciation of the fact that haw'ks must hunt and kill to live.
Looking at Frank Beebe. 1 realized that falconers are so closely identified with their birds that they can’t possibly have any emotional identification with the victims. Falconers are like that because they see something exciting in the hawk’s way of life, something spectacular, dramatic and necessary; and they want to share it. if