Am I Crazy? Desert Peregrines in Asia and the US

Since the eighties, the “peregrinoformes” known as Barbary falcons and their

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close eastern relatives, the Red-Naped Shahins , have been separated from the typical Peregrines and collected into one biological species known as Barbary Falcons, Falco pelegrinoides.

View the autos This seems a sensible start, at least. Unlike the “Classical” Peregrine, these are true desert birds, sparsely distributed from west to east ,from Morocco to Mongolia, nesting in barren, remote mountain ranges, where they sometimes breed sympatrically with local Peregrines but dont’ interbreed with them.

They don’t get a lot of chances. For one thing, the “Shahins” exist only in low numbers everywhere; it may be heretical to evolutionary mathematics, but it almost seems that they hacve evolved a low population as an adaptation to their harsh homeland . (Shahin has become their accepted name in English . Arab falconers often use it for all Peregrine types, to distinguish them particularly from Great falcons.)

Alright, Great falcons: Belyaev proved that there is large zone of hybridization between the Gyrfalcon and the Saker falcon in the great Altai “Four Corners” of Kazakhstan, Siberia (Tuva), Mongolia, and northern China, one that may stretch as far south as the Tian Shan, (where in September I have seen a credible Altai in what looked like adult plumage— but was it resident or migrating? )Therefore, Gyrs and Sakers are only extreme morphs of the same species, so I have chosen to revive the old falconers term of ‘Great falcon” for both. The term has a noble lineage; it was used by Frederic !!.

Shahins don’t migrate. Instead, they are “obligate dispersers”; which means that as soon as they can feed themselves, they fly 500 miles in no particular direction. In the U.S. they are often tracked to Mexico and back, which makes for problematical falconry. The late Lester Boyd of Pullman, Washington (where Jackson is now based) the great expert at breeding and flying these birds and advised not flying them in the summer, just taming them, and start flying them in October when the weather gets cold. This works, but they are charming birds with enormous aerial capacity and it is hard to forego flying them. It was the same in their ancient homes, which included the ranges for most traditional falconry. “Easy to lose”, had nothing whatsoever to do with “desirable to fly”, and the two species and two sexes of the Barb contained some mighty good niches, ones considerably more stimulating than, say, Aussie dove hawks or Fijian parrot munchers with pointy heads. Conventional Englishmen might sneer and disapprove and speak of menagerie hawks, but colonials such as Mavrogordato* and explorers like the Craigheads knew better.

These species (or THIS species), as well as others I will touch on here are extremely diverse. For instance, the common Prairie falcon; what is a Prairie falcon anyway? A lesser Great Falcon, the evolutionary relict of the group once called “desert falcons”?? A drylands- prairie based mutant of a Peregrine? A heavily derived “New Worlder” from the so-called Southern group, which includes the Aplo, the Alethe of the old French partridge hawkers. (Mine was terribly phobic about hats, and refused to come down anywhere if she could see a hat, not a good habit for a western bird). Another member of the Southern group, the Orange – breasted falcon, a bird which nests primarily on temples and which might be thought to be a Peregrine but for ridiculous sexual dichotomy, the males being a bit bigger than half the size of the females . Why?

But most useful falcons, if falcons can be insulted as useful, MANY falcons have similar ancestry; most are are probably remaining relicts of the great Peregrine diasporas— there had to be more than one–of the Ice Ages, when ancestral Peregrines were driven from their homes in rocky northern maritime estuaries, to conquer the world while their hardier bigger relatives, the Great Falcons of the Mammoth Steppes, just went round and round their transcontinental prairies, with no more nest site loyalty than they show today, to become Gyrs and Sakers.

Barbaries proper, are found mostly in north Africa. if you lump them with Red Napes, and I know of no reason but size NOT to lump them, except for their different sizes, because they are almost identical otherwise. Both have have exaggerated, heavily wing- loaded shapes, and short narrow wings (see “Chicken” below for an exaggerated example) and can’t soar much- see Mavro for more details.

The most exaggerated and extreme type in the “Shahin” group is the rare (more common domestically?) Taita falcon that inhabits about three river gorges in SE Africa, perhaps another stray of the Ica Age diaspora. Though it is by far the smallest of the group you cant mistake its physical “Shahinishness” though its hunting habits are rather different; it seems to be an utterly aerial predator whose life if it lights on the ground away from protection can be measured in minutes ; unfortunately true of many confiding small raptors. Roberto Palleroni, who flew a Harpy eagle at Fresh Pond in Cambridge, found they waited on well and closely at Cape Cod and Panama. In its native Zimbabwe I have seen it against the sky in the Zambezi gorges, a perfect isolated Peregrine’s micro habitat. It doesn’t soar well, strikes hard, is predator – naive, and is only found in three or four river gorges, with its Peregrine plumage and hard stoops and its habits of eating on the wing and being eaten by anything in the country, can probably only thrive in a relatively predator – free environment like ( I am laughing but I saw more things chase my birds than ever in Zim!!) They are the smallest of he true Peregrine types.  They have the strong bill of the PF’s, which they use to kill their prey while carrying it. They are little bruisers, the widest shouldered of all these falcons, almost comically short and heavy, shaped just like beer cans, and if they stay on the ground more than ten minutes they are eaten.

Paul Domski flies a Barb I believe she is a 20 0r 21 ounce bird—on big ducks , and takes Canvasbacks regularly..I had “Cheetah” (or Chicken as we-preferred to call her, tending to think hawking has enough inherent romance; besides, she was a silly little fat thing, not at all elegant like a Cheetah), I could ever quite figure out a role for her here. We had no waterfowl, and such things as curlew only flew by briefly on migration . She was fast but not agile, so no “Accipitrine” quarry for her, like my beloved Gyr x Merlin, a tiny bird who would essay DUCKS at the Field Ranch— foully murdered by a murder of murdering ravens, a trio, no less, and, oh can ravens fly..

A Taita male and a female Merlin in a Colorado p;ark,, from Annyushka Price

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So when Bodie Littlejohn , between birds, proposed that he borrow her to fly her on the golf urse pond next door to his house in Coralles , with all of the fine fine military formality he was capable of; almost . as though he were asking fo my daughter’s hand in marriage rater than @mere;y@ borrowing a bird; I said @why not? I knew that he would do m well by her, AND come up with a good story.

Over the next two weeks she took eight big mallards , more drakes than ducks, all but a couple by binding to them , wrestling them, and breaking their ecks rather than by striking them dead in the air. But we were all happy. She ended up taking down every one she hit. The little bird had acquired a newpurpose,. And nd Bodie and his new wife could sleep in.

And fhen one morning on a sitil warm unseaonable humid day with no moving air, she tired of working so hard and lit on an electric utility pole, the raptor’s bane. Her foot or more likely her antenna came in momentary contact with it and she flared up like a torch and fell blackened to the ground . Standing over her burnt body a with his cell phone, at 6:54 M, Bodie called me and calmly stated “Stephen, I just killed your falcon.”

The biggest and rarest of these bird is the great (in both size and repuation ) eastern

Red Naped called the Lashyn, as seen at Shunkar, a Shahin fully the size of a blg Saker or even a Gyr and with the absolutely distinctive color and markings of a “babylonicus” (which itself — local big here means Altai Saker, which is no longer a legend to me because I have seen it, wild and tame) are the least known in the west.,

Barb- Tata female “Chicken”. Note her narow wings

Thew males are another matter. Though they are incredible flyrers— i hacked one I named Burton (his intended mate, Bella, a Barb- anatum cross, ended up flying SAGE GROUSE in the Deseret ranches of Northertn Utah — she ended up too big and fierce for Burton. We feared she would eat him. we flew hm in summer and did not lose him – once he chased a pack of curlews out of sight into a rainy monsoon sky in the high grass desert and came back to menace the homerre, which he chased under the truck.

I The pigeon was twice as big as he was. They really are too small for American game, though they say the Tunisisns fly them at migratory quail and songbirds, CUTTING THEIR TAILS SHORT to @give them courage@ They ride on the floorboards of their owners Vespas , who sit around in cafes wth their Barbs, Sparrowhawks and fancy pigeons— it t sounds like a way,o like a way of, life as long as Islamisrs, who dont likr any of these thinga, stay qway

They realy are CUTE, a . a word I dont often use. These two, a locally sourced Male Barb and an exotic female GYR, belonged to John Burchard. He is ilugky- unsentimental Arab falconers often feed the little birds to their valuable Sakers and Gyrs!

Another; bred by Bil Meeker, a tame hack in southern NM . Look at his feet! Members gf te Shahin complex are ways ‘well – armed.@

The eastern races , which have to deal with cold as well as heat, are larger, some MUCH larger; take a look a.t this this female “Lashyn” at Shunkar, the falcon breeding center at Almaty, Kazakhstan

She looks exactly like a female Barb but notice the rather frightened -looking tiercel doing his best to be anywhere other than here? That is no falconer’s parakeet. That is a Falco peregrinus calidus , a migrant from above the Russian arctic, a Sea peregrine or Shahin bahri “as big and fierce as a Peales” or a Saker. Here is another photo: of the desert girl

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One reason I think they are vey rare is that John Burchard, who knows more about eastern falconry than anyone in the west, has no search image for them. I encountered what I thought of as a clear if huge eastern Shahin in a store of his old images a couple of months ago, but he insists it is a Saker! I mean, I’ll grant the more ambiguous, browner juvenile plumage, as within a range of possibility, but what about the hard feathers, the big Peregrine “honker”, triangular body shape etc..? Great falcons have softer feathers and colors more “tubular” bodies, longer tails and legs— different!

I will grant to the Saker the greatest range of body types of all the world’s falcons, and even more if you include the Gyrs as great falcons, as I think you must. All these are races found within Kazakhstan and used in falconry, and bred or at least collected at Shunkar, but they don’t include Peregrines!

What say you all??

A BIG birdI think is a huge juvenile Lashyn— John thinks not. What do YOU think?

Some Sakers (all Kazakh races) at Shunkar, whose name means Saker, or rather ALTAI Saker. Or Gyr…genes for both are present in wild birds here.

I would consider this one to be an Altai type
Only the last pair is a type seen in western bird books!

4 thoughts on “Am I Crazy? Desert Peregrines in Asia and the US”

  1. I’m delighted you’re back and this falcon taxonomy post is fascinating. I learned much and really don’t have an informed opinion about the species of big falcon you asked your readers to guess at. But in the spirit of being a good sport and perhaps stir up some comments I’ll offer this. The head size to beak ratio and wing length look more like a peregrine while the feet (not a great view) and plumage suggest saker to me. I’ll also guess that the former is more definitive than the latter. So my wag is Lashyn.

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