Letter To a Friend

Like catch-and-release fly fishing, there is such a thing as catch-and-release falconry. It is not so widespread a practice among falconers as it is among anglers, but its practitioners espouse many of the same arguments in support of it. For what it’s worth, I strongly disapprove.

This week I received a very cordial letter (actual words on paper!), with a collection of vintage hawking photos and copies of two articles, all by a longtime falconer from the Southwest. The letter expressed the author’s concern, or maybe just his puzzlement, about my position on catch-and-release, which I outlined a couple years ago in an essay printed in our falconers’ association newsletter.

My correspondent is no fake falconer. He has been hawking successfully since before I was born. His articles are well-written and sincere, and correctly point out the fact that some falconers have been releasing game systematically for centuries. There was once an entire branch of our sport dedicated to catching herons and other large, “uneatable” birds, ringing them for posterity with a metal band and then releasing them. Purely sporting.

My reply to this falconer follows. I reprint it here with Steve’s blessing, because I think it touches on some issues that define our sport and that frame my own defense against anti-hunting / anti-cruelty sentiment. Naturally, I don’t expect the anti-crowd to split these hares, but it’s useful to me, at least, to know where I stand.

I wrote:

“… I was, as you guessed, very interested to see your accounts of catch-and-release falconry. My opposition to releasing live game is not categorical. I have hastened to pull my hawks off “miscellaneous” animals, especially dangerous ones such as cats and raccoons that are sometimes taken by accident. My intention is foremost to save the hawk from harm and, if possible, prevent any harm to the prey animal also. These are exceptional circumstances, more frequently occurring with very young hawks and rarely after a good first season of successful hunting. Since I tend to fly the same individual birds for multiple seasons, this doesn’t happen often.

Another, perhaps related, circumstance would be one in which a prey animal manages to escape numerous attempts on its life by the hawk, yet remains “catchable” in some vulnerable refuge of last resort. These are frequent enough situations, as you know. In these cases, if I do not need food for the hawk or want it for myself, I’ll leave the animal alone, knowing it might not be so lucky next time.

That said, my goal at the onset of every hunt is to kill what I’m hunting. The pleasures of a day in the field with a hawk are manifold (of course!), but the point of the day, in my opinion, is to seek, find and catch what I’m after.

My goal is not the glory of the flight. Falconry is not primarily an aesthetic pursuit for me. I hope that doesn’t sound monstrous! I place a high value the art of falconry, but I expect it to emerge as a natural outcome of the hunting, not the reverse.

My feeling is this: My hawk is serious about his hunting. My dog is serious about hers. The prey is deadly serious about getting away from us. Who am I to take this situation so lightly as to make it into a game? You asked: “Who says falconry has to be a blood sport?” I say the animals do, and so do I.

Compassion, moderation, conservation—these are not alien concepts to me. I understand that catch-and-release falconry is often explained as a humane means of enjoying sport today while preserving it for the future.

But my approach to honoring these ideals is, instead of hunting and releasing caught game, to cultivate an appreciation of natural limits. The natural limitations of falconry include the hawk’s fitness (and mine), its skill as a hunter (and mine), the hawk’s appetite, the weather, our available land and the abundance of quarry, to name a few. My personal definition of success in hunting serves as another limitation: A hunt is successful when it ends in a kill. It is not necessarily more successful with multiple kills, but depending on one’s goal for the day (e.g., stocking the summer larder, or building drive in a young hawk), more is sometimes better. In either event, the hawk’s desire to kill motivates the hunt, and its willingness to continue—not mine—sets the limit.

When do we stop? That’s the question for which the sport’s natural limitations provide the best answer. Were I to rely on my own, sometimes insatiable, appetite for hunting to inform me when it’s time to call it quits, I might never leave the field! As Joan Osborne sings it, “How can a man let conscience be his guide, when it’s he who must keep it satisfied?”

Nothing my hawks kill is wasted. The quarry feeds the bird or both of us. The hawk eats no more than it needs from day to day, and I freeze no more than I will use before the next hunting season begins. I hunt a series of several fields in rotation, switching to the next if slips become scarce—although I have never exhausted any of my fields, as years of consistent daily bags show. My belief, based loosely on my experience studying the ecology of wild raptors (three wonderful years tracking radio-marked Cooper’s hawks, dawn to dusk) and also on the accumulated hawking experience of myself and friends, is that game populations need no special protection from falconry. Conservation is served by matching the right hawk with the right quarry (usually meaning its natural prey) in its native habitat, and by following the natural limitations of the sport.

As I get older, I appreciate these limitations all the more. I now practice a form of falconry that requires little driving and a lot of walking. It needs no gadgets or electronic aids; it is extremely low-tech hawking. My commonest quarries include small birds and rodents, which my hawk eats on the spot. A typical hunt entails a hike in a wide circle of fallow cow pasture and ends when the hawk is full. With a young family to look after, I hunt no more than four days a week, and I can manage only a single hawk.

So I see moderation and conservation as integral to my falconry, despite the fact that I do not release what we catch. But what about the “humane treatment” of our prey—is that enhanced by letting it go?

I don’t think so. My pet phrase for the reason why is that “there are no barbless hawks!” True, the largest animal that any hawk is capable of catching can sometimes be released without apparent harm. But I doubt (after cleaning thousands of animals brought to bag by hawks) that “apparent harm” is the same thing as “no harm.” If its talons are sharp, and its appetite and physical condition are good, my bird can be expected to do considerable harm to its prey in a short period of time. It is literally trying to kill the animal, and it is well equipped to do so.

I disagree that we can assume released prey runs or flies away no worse for wear. But let’s imagine, for a minute, that it invariably does so. What have we then accomplished? In my view, we have accomplished by catch-and-release the reducing of our grand, natural sport to a mere human game. We have ignored the serious intentions of our good hawks and dogs and shown such disrespect to our quarry that we would, in effect, be risking its pain and discomfort to satisfy our aesthetic needs and nothing else. We deny our prey the basic honor of escaping by virtue of superior ability on the one hand, and the gift of a swift dispatch on the other. Say: Do we think this duck is not going to die another day? Do we imagine that the wild hawk or owl that finally does it in will consider its pain while eating the bird to death?

In my view, if we intend to hunt at all, killing what we catch is the most “humane” course. While my tiercel Harris’ hawk is well equipped to catch and mortally wound a rabbit, I’m better at killing one quick. Moreover, I’m the only one of us who gives that a moment’s thought.

I hope the above rambling provides some answer to your inquiry about my feelings. Please note, there are certainly no hard feelings on my end and no serious disagreement over this topic, which must remain a matter of personal choice.

14 thoughts on “Letter To a Friend”

  1. Matt, thanks for sharing this. For me, it really helped to define part of the attraction of falconry – that it’s at its best when it allows you to take part in something like a natural event. Instead, the intention to release the predator’s natural prey species seems to turn the whole thing into something closer to an Olympic sport.

  2. Here. Here. Wild animals are athletes and must be athletes in order to survive. No one is going to win a marathon after they’ve been hit by a car. I’ve been having this argument since I was an apprentice. (Which was not so long ago in the scheme of things)

    Frederick II says in Chapter XLVIII “Of Classes of Falconers and of the Aims of a True Falconer” that there are four types of falconers – those that hunt to fill their own bellies(more true in 1250), those that hunt for purposes of achieving the ultimate flight, those that hunt for head count and those that aspire to have “fine falcons”. Frederick only admires the fourth and feels all the rest misuse their hawks. A fine hawk is given the utmost respect and allowed to be a hawk. Hawks kill things and eat them. ‘nuf said.

  3. Matt,

    A thoughtful position, well explained. And you’re in good company:

    “Death is essential because without it there is no authentic hunting: the killing of the animal is the natural end of the hunt and the goal of hunting itself, not of the hunter….One does not hunt in order to kill; on the contrary, one kills in order to have hunted.”

    The quote is from Jose Ortega y Gasset’s Meditations on Hunting.

    Here’s another, more sarcastic, and more explicitly relevant to catch-and-release:

    “The English have initiated a form of hunting in which all these conflicts of conscience are cleverly eluded: it is a matter of having the hunt end, not with the capture or death of the animal, but rather with taking the game’s picture. What a refinement! Don’t you think so? What tenderness of soul these Anglo-Saxons have! One feels ashamed that one say, at siesta time thirty years ago, one killed that overly impertinent fly! Of course the British Empire was not forged with silks and bonbons, but by employing the greatest harshness Western man has ever seen in the face of the suffering of other men.”

    I will confess to having occasionally released native sparrows “incidentally taken” by my sharpie, when their capture was easy and when they were merely wrapped up in her feet rather than penetrated by her talons…an attempt to observe the spirit if not strictly the letter of the law. (As you know, strictly observing the absolute letter of the law is not possible, as hawks have no idea what constitutes legal quarry.) Otherwise, I agree with you: if hawking is a game, it’s a game “for keeps”…and is better treated as something other than a game in the first place.

  4. Matt- given my quarry I occasionally split “hares”. I think you mean “hairs”.

    And while I am being a pedant: Rebecca– “HEAR, HEAR”!

    What fun of running a blog if you can’t be the old fart!

  5. I must admit that the idea of catch and release falconry is a new one on me.

    I wonder if the catch and release crowd in fishing and falconry have ever, respectively, kept aquaria or assisted in wildlife rehab?

    Both pursuits will quickly reveal just how physically fragile some of the beings involved can be.

    Damage the slime coat of a fish, abrade off a few scales — much less puncture any part of his body — and you will be lucky to save him with TLC and modern antibiotics, not to mention isolation from potential predators and bullies during his convalescence.

    Similarly, rabbits and birds who appear to be “just fine” after capture by a cat or dog are frequently too high on adrenaline and terror to realize that they are already dead. There can be no overt signs of trauma, the animal can be the very devil to catch, but whether cared for by an expert rehabber or left alone in a protected place, it almost invariably dies before an hour or two has passed. And that’s not even considering the role of other predators in taking stressed or wounded prey animals.

    If an amateur moggie or a “playful” puppy have this effect on cottontails and mourning doves, I can’t imagine that any hit from a hunting raptor does less.

  6. indigoglyph: Olympic catach-and-release falconry sounds a little too plausible for my liking!

    Rebecca: Thanks for the classical reference–do you have a personal copy Arte…? And also for the benefit of doubt on my bad pun. 🙂

    Mark: More good references. Steve sent me the Otega y Gasset quote right after I emailed him the letter. Great minds…

    Steve: bad pun. sorry 🙂

    Heather: I think there is at least as much anecdotal support for the notion that these animals fare poorly as there is for their skipping away unhurt. Stories from wildilfe rehab and aquaculture are instructive.

    Personally, I’ve seen go both ways. One of the hawks in our study, for example, was missing a toe from the base of the foot; another had a healed laceration that must have left the leg nearly hanging by a thread when it happened. Yet both were healed, fat and breeding.

    It’s not uncommon for prey to fight their way free from both wild and trained hawks, and I’d like to think many of those make it to fight another day. But here’s the difference, IMO: Typically in those cases, the hawk never had a good hold on the animal (which is why, unsurprisingly, it got away); just one foot on the hide, and that briefly. A big hare or strong bird in flight can roll with that.

    But by the time the falconer can intervene, the animal is necessarily under control already. Both of the hawk’s feet are firmly in place and busy at work.

    My feeling about all this, however, is less concerned with competing anecdotes and apocyphal stories than it is about the debasement of an important natural process. A trained hawk’s hunting should not be considered any less serious a thing for all parties than a wild one’s.

  7. Since I’m not a falconer, allow me to say about hunting in general that I think we begin to lose our way when we stop thinking of prey animals as food items, either for ourselves or for our animal partners. At a basic level, hunting and fishing are about gathering food. Aesthetics and Fair Chase ethics and even adventure pleasures are built on that base.

    Ethical hunting and fishing are the most meaningful ways for humans to fully interact with the natural world in the only way we can, as predators. (Except for that Timothy Treadwell fellow, who found another way).

    This is where both trophy hunting and catch & release fly fishing go wrong, although the non-hunting public might see them as opposites, where the former kills the animal and the latter merely tortures it.

  8. Okay it works 🙂

    I spent pretty much all of my entire high school years fly fishing on a small river a short bike ride away from my home. Any spare moment was spent on the river (if I wasn’t flying my birds…). I used to bring the fish home for my family but I started to notice that most of them were still there a year later and severly freezer burned! So I started realeasing them. I could still go fishing but didn’t have to worry about wasting what I caught.

    The hawks don’t waste anything so I’ve never been inclined to release anything (although I botched up a trade off on a water rail this year and “released” the dang thing!).

    I guess when I’m out hawking I don’t really consider myself the hunter. When I’m fishing, I catch the prey so if I’m not going to use it then it gets let go. That never crosses the hawks mind…

    That’s how I justify my catch and release fishing vs. my hawking anyway. 🙂

    (Of course to have a chance to “release” something you have to “catch” something first…which is proving difficult here in Japan. Still working on it Matt!)

  9. Spoken like a true austringer!
    Your point about the damage done to prey being inevitable is a good one. I regret to say that my falcons have killed more Short-eared Owls than I’ve been able rescue from them. Who knows how many of the lucky ones turned out be less lucky than they appeared?

  10. The laws of Natural Selection would appear to decree that when something is caught by a hawk, It has failed selection. For me falconry is not (all)about the kill, but it is to my birds. If I don’t want to kill something,then I don’t fly it. Barring the odd “accidental” short eared owl which I admit to having released. Catch & release would reduce falconry to mere entertainment. What would be the next step? Flying at dummy prey in an arial equivalent of greyhound racing. Or are we going to go the way of course fishing & keep all our “kills” in a kind of keep net. To be weighed in, photographed & released at the end of the day. Whilst the hawk looks on in abject bewilderment. K Hughes

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