Early Falconry

A topic perfectly–perhaps uniquely–suited to the particular mix of interests here: Who were the first falconers?

In a flurry of emails between us, Steve pulling in the expert testimony of his friend John Burchard and adding his own considerable insight; Reid, the ever-sober archeologist, providing lines of evidence from peer-reviewed literature and I wildly speculating as usual; together we had a grand time and came up with no firm answers.

But we established to our own satisfaction that the clock could be set well back from the 2000 BC estimate so often cited. How far back? Reid:

“All your discussion about people being capable of falconry 6000 BP or more leads me to repeat what has turned into a platitude that I repeat when people discuss archaeological cultures and ‘primitive’ societies. Always remember, the earliest H. sapiens had an IQ just as high as yours or mine. Things like the sophisticated artistic vision of 50K year old cave paintings in Europe shows that. All that sets us apart technologically is the accumulation of experience of the hundreds of generations of people messing around with stuff and occasional learning something new. So the ability and imagination to invent falconry goes WAY back.”

Consider the “Ice Man,” that Bronze Age blast from the past found mummified on the slopes of the Italian Alps. Reid’s listing of the man’s sophisticated toolkit, weaponry, well-constructed clothing and shoes led Steve and I to note that these traits could qualify any culture for the necessary know-how and industry of falconry. People with a comparably spare yet serviceable material culture practiced good falconry into modern times, some of them without the benefit of written language. Sir Richard F. Burton, Col. E. Delme-Radcliffe, John Cox, Sirdar Mohamed Osman and others have described serious hawking undertaken by traditional herding and agricultural cultures identical to those of ten thousand years ago. Steve’s friends among the eaglers of Mongolia, minus the Internet hook-ups and Mercedes Benzes, are essentially a Bronze Age people doing practical falconry.

And before that, why not? Why not go WAY back? Riffing on Reid’s note that so long as humans have been human–just as smart and generally more aware of their natural world–we might as well start sifting the fossil evidence. Matt from our email exchange:

“‘Falconry as we know it’ doesn’t begin to cover what sort of working relationships might be possible between hawks and people. You wouldn’t have to find bells and swivels in the boneyard to imagine falconry taking place. Some hawks (the small accipiters come to mind) are very much ‘hardwired’ and capable as hunters, yet for a considerable period of time (until about October of the their first year) they are extremely tame and manageable. Just about anyone–even children–with a reliable source of suitable food, could raise a small accipiter from a couple weeks of age and be essentially hunting with it in eight weeks. All the while it would be an interesting pet and rewarding on that basis alone, as any Darien rainforest native will tell you…..Something like this would be very easy for me to imagine developing anywhere small hawks, curious people and their prey coexist.”

Reid asks, “What about pre-Columbian falconry?” Steve replies:

“None known. Aztecs kept ’em, including Harpies, but in zoos. I wonder what they fed them? (Actually I don’t!) Some falconry recorded from post-Conquest in South America, and one unique Latin American bird, the Aplomado falcon, enjoyed a vogue in southern Europe until the 1700’s”

So Reid hits the Archeo-lit databases, looking to Europe, and turns up some most interesting stuff:

Of falconry, foraging and farming: thoughts on the
significance of raptor remains recovered from proto- and early Neolithic sites
in the Middle East

Keith Dobney (EAU, University of York)

ABSTRACT: The origin of falconry, both geographically and chronologically, is still hidden in darkness, and it seems doubtful whether we shall ever discover the cradle of this ancient sport.Â? (Epstein) The remarkably consistent presence of raptor remains at many proto- and early Neolithic sites in the Middle East, and the bias in favour of specific elements, have previously been noted by numerous workers. Where the presence of raptor remains at these various sites has been discussed, they have either been used to provide detailed palaeobiogeographical information, or presented as indicating the presence of complex totemic or symbolic activities. However, the raptor (and other vertebrate) data from many of these sites could also support another hypothesis which has, as yet, not been fully explored, i.e that living birds of prey were tamed, managed and perhaps trained in the first faltering steps towards falconry. “

But for my money, Reid’s own fieldwork provides some of the best evidence to date for the possibility that early people took up hawks and made allies of them. In this Querencia-exclusive image, just released, we clearly see a representation of some early falconer scaling a perilous cliff and gesturing to others below that the eagle’s eyerie is accessible….

Note From The Web-Geek

Regular readers (if such people exist) might notice “surprise posts” sometimes popping up beneath bits they’ve already read. Let me explain: Steve’s machine won’t let him post images (I’m sure that’s not personal, but Steve seems skeptical). So I post them but usually after a day’s delay. When they move from edit mode to prime-time, they appear beneath more recent material.

Two up just now, in fact!

So: Please scroll down from time to time, and enjoy!

LPK Open for Business

There’s a joke among my friends, persistent but no longer very funny after fifteen years, that I’ll eat in only one New Orleans restaurant. It’s not true—I’ll eat anywhere, especially in New Orleans. But if you know The Pizza Kitchen, the one in the Quarter between the old federal mint and the French Market, you might believe it.

Is it the food? Yes and no. The food is good: wood-oven baked, thin crust gourmet pizzas; an award-winning Caesar salad; surprising pasta dishes; all with a generous dollop of local ingredients, like andouille sausage and crawfish (and even once, briefly, nutra-rat!) The menu is wide and diverse, and most entrees slide in under $11.00 in a town where it’s possible to pay any price for a plate of food.

But for all that, LPK is a local franchise. We have one here in Baton Rouge, and there are several in New Orleans. I’ve sampled a number of locations and found them consistently good. What makes the French Quarter location special is, well, the French Quarter.

Well-settled into it’s corner spot, this one always seems wide open and inviting. Tall, shuttered windows let light and air flow on pleasant afternoons (there are many, but none in summer), and from the short line that forms after 8PM, one can see past diners to the vendors of the French Market packing up their baubles.

Despite proximity to busy tourist paths, the clientele most nights is a local mix. Families with small children feel welcome as do drag queens, musicians, service industry employees and sometimes falconers. My friend Jenn kicks her husband’s shins whenever he comments on the local color, which he always does and always with deep appreciation. Another old joke between us: We are all about equally strange.

So what prompts this note? Reid spotted this story by LA Times staff writer Thomas S. Mulligan. I knew my favorite New Orleans eatery had reopened, but I was pleased to see someone else noticed. I hope this doesn’t mean I’ll have to wait now for a table!

More On “Daddy Kills…”

This reply from Roseann Hanson of the Alpha Environmentalist sheds some more light in a dark corner:
Since Matt wrote that he hadn’t verified the comic book and the website – and, like him, I was hoping it was fake – I went to the site http://www.fishinghurts.com/ that’s listed on the cover of the comic. Lo and behold, there was the “comic book.” The site is pretty amazing and almost a parody of whacko animal-rightists, so I checked out the registry of the website and it indeed is owned by PETA, registered through their corporate HQ in Virginia.And yes, they really did distribute those comic books to little kids – targeting families out fishing together, specifically. Can you imagine what you’d do if some PETA-whacko approached you and your kids and handed them this comic book? Here’s a quote from PETA’s own site about the content of the comic:Children will read: ‘Imagine that a man dangles a piece of candy in front of you. … As you grab the candy, a huge metal hook stabs through your hand and you’re ripped off the ground. You fight to get away, but it doesn’t do any good… That would be an awful trick to play on someone, wouldn’t it?’I knew PETA was bad, but I guess I really didn’t realize how bad – I guess I’m sheltered! The sites on PETA’s own links page (Other PETA Sites) are so awful that I had a hard time believing they weren’t spoofs….sad to say they are not. Here’s the link, but it’s not worksafe unless you work at home, because you’ll be ranting and raving for sure: http://www.peta.org/other.aspIf you choose to browse any of the sites you will note with interest that each and every one, prominently displayed amidst the hysterical posturing, are DONATE TO PETA NOW! buttons.But of course. Like the Humane Society of the United States which raises millions of dollars fighting hunting worldwide, their “work” is big business (by the way, HSUS has just successfully pressured President Kibaki in Kenya to kill an extremely important bill that would have allowed local farmers to receive fair compensation for crop damage and loss of life – as in people stomped to death by elephants or hippos – mind you, interferring with democracy in another country which sorely needs it, only because the bill MIGHT have opened the door to reinstate culling in a country that actually needs it). Ultimately it’s not about animals, it’s about money and power.Don’t say I didn’t warn you!Roseann Hanson

Message from the Frontier

Every phone call from New Orleans is of interest. Andrea, first introduced in this post, surprised me yesterday with a call from the Garden District where she now lives and plans to stay for a couple years at least. It’s not the same place she remembers, says Andrea, having moved to the city just weeks before Hurricane Katrina forced her to leave it. Fortunately for New Orleans, she came back.Reid Farmer sent this story of the struggle to build a workforce in a city with plenty service outlets intact but few places to live. Most employers are still trying to make first contact with evacuated employees and to make do with whomever happens to show up. Those who do, like Andrea, represent a slightly different demographic (younger, single, mobile), people able and willing to live with less stuff in what amounts to America’s newest frontier city. For her and others like her, it must be an exciting and certainly a memorable experience.On the other side of the equation are my friends Tom and Jenn, lifelong Arabi residents (St. Bernard Parish, 10 minutes from the Quarter) who relocated this week to their new home in Pearl River, a small town about thirty minutes up I-59 from the site of their former, now ruined neighborhood. Everything about the North Shore is different. Taking a tour of the property, Tom and I walked behind a row of pines and scrubby oaks into the thin grass of an open field. There in the sandy soil grew a little pod of pitcher plants, unknown from the south side of Lake Pontchartrain and all of Tom’s childhood. We stopped and stared, seeing these slender, alien beings as symbols of great change.

Daddy Kills Animals

My friend Russ (a local attorney, falconer and father of two) sent this interesting image from PETA, Inc. …For the sake of this post, I’ll give PETA credit for the art but admit I didn’t check for independent verification.

In its continuing battle for the next generation of paid subscribers, this well-recognized (but poorly known) corporation adds a new anti-family twist to its list of pet peeves. You see, your daddy kills animals, and “your doggies and kitties…could be next!” (direct quote from reverse side)

As a daddy who both kills animals and loves his children, I am fascinated by this approach. Let’s assume for a minute that this PETA campaign is not a form of hate speech that with slight change of illustration could rival any propaganda distributed by the Ku Klux Klan. Let’s say this is a legitimate message suitable for children and supported in part by your tax dollars (the latter is true!).

Do I, as the bogeyman in this message, feel threatened by it?

A little bit, yes. I would feel equally (which is to say, rather vaguely) threatened to see an analogous image demonizing my Jewish wife or my Christian parents. It is disturbing to see one’s self so grossly and meanly misrepresented.

But do I believe that this or similar messages could turn my twin daughters away from me in fear and disgust (as PETA seems to wish)? No. They both know very well that Daddy kills and butchers animals (they’ve helped, and then eaten them!) . More to the point, even my pair of sheltered, suburbanite girls (just under five years of age) would be able to see the ridiculous misrepresentation in every element of this image.

If that is so, then what sort of kid would swallow this crap? Perhaps one who doesn’t know (or doesn’t particularly like) his father. Or one who has never seen a carcass she recognized as an animal.

Question Two: If it’s legitimate to thrust a wedge between father and child, could the mother/child bond be far from the sights of PETA cartoonists? After all, it is she who usually buys (and cooks! and SERVES!) the cruel products of the chicken farmers and the cattle growers.

Once the children are amply estranged from their parents, who shall be left to guide them?

Oh wait: I think I know the answer to that one.

Seeing Is Believing

My first impression of New Orleans, circa summer of 1986: This is a dirty city.

I was sixteen, traveling with my friend Ricky, who was half a generation my senior and my falconry mentor. He warned me about the place.

“No good looking women, either.”

We were still half an hour’s drive from our destination, a friend’s home in the outlying neighborhood of Arabi, not exactly a suburb of New Orleans, in St. Bernard Parish. Flashing past the window of Ricky’s 280ZX were chunks of Styrofoam afloat in flooded marsh. White egrets stood on one foot in the median and perched in low salt scrub along the highway. Whirling flocks of blackbirds mimicked smoke from the cooling stacks along the Industrial Canal.

What one could see then of New Orleans East was dirty, and anyone could be excused for finding other parts of the city in similar disrepair. But in fact there was nothing dirty about Arabi. It was a place merely lived in, a neighborhood like an extension of your living room, with the diner plates still on the TV tray in the morning. Here a population of working class people, roughly equal parts rural and urban stock, somehow found more in common with each other than with anyone else. That was how New Orleans looked and how it worked: one neighborhood at a time.

That New Orleans looks (and works?) different now hardly bears saying. Most of Arabi is destroyed and much of New Orleans East beyond recognition. The chief concern before rebuilding can be discussed is what to do with the wreckage. That story is told by Peter H. King of the LA Times (in You’ve Got to See It to Really Believe It):

“…Then they fell to talking casually about the scale of destruction. Sharafkhani said it looked to him like nine out of 10 houses in the flood zones would have to come down.It was, he said, unbelievable.The foreman nodded.”It’s like someone came through and dropped bombs every couple of blocks. Boom. Boom. Boom. Boom. Boom.”It’s a bulldoze job,” the hard hat concluded, “that’s for sure.””Back on the road, Sharafkhani started to work out a math problem aloud. He figured, conservatively, that 100,000 houses would have to come down in Orleans Parish. This number left out St. Bernard and other parishes in greater New Orleans, and also all the cars and boats and commercial structures that would require disposal somewhere.”Each house, he said, would produce two or three truckloads of debris, for a total of as many as 300,000 truckloads— and the major landfills he’d visited earlier were straining to accommodate 400 or so trucks daily. He did not bother to divide the number of truckloads by the number of days, or weeks, or months it would take to handle them all. He reduced the calculation to a single word: “Years.””We are talking years.”

John Carlson On Penguins

Wildlife biologist John Carlson, last seen in a tux in Antarctica (go here for reference), offers some reasons why penguins are admirable, despite the fact they are not “cute:”

…I totally agree with the young lady concerning the nasty nature of penguins, but I also feel I must defend the little buggers too. Any wild animal I have ever dealt with has objected quite violently to being handled. Probably wouldn’t survive very long if they didn’t, so you can’t be surprised or dismayed when it happens—No matter if they are cute or not.

If I can anthropomorphize a bit too: I would probably react similarly if some giant pulled me out of my living room, slapped a metal band on my arm, poured warm seawater down my throat and turned me upside down to “offload” my stomach to see what I had for breakfast, threw me in a bag and weighed me and then dropped me back in the living room (reminds me of the Larson cartoon with the male bear returning to the cave with an ear tag and a collar around his neck and trying to explain what happened to an obviously ticked off mama bear).

The young woman at the movie actually displayed as much ignorance as the Audubon folks and the audience by being surprised that the penguins reacted the way they did. She just got to live it and have her innocence taken away. I suspect that she hadn’t had much experience with animals prior to heading south. I think she should have done the lecture and told people the truth…although I can really appreciate the standup routine too.

Anyway, in defense of the penguins — they are the toughest animal I have worked with bar none. I have seen penguins with large chunks removed from their sides by leopard seals that apparently managed to survive. They beat on each other horrificly in defense of their territories and withstand some of the most brutal conditions on the surface of this earth. I am still in awe of their abilities to survive the demands that their lifestyle places on them. I suspect much of their rude behavior is a result of where they live: You don’t mess with things that work in that environment. It is pretty unforgiving.

The Adelie penguin photo I have below pretty much sums up a penguin’s life for me.


On Falconry

My introduction to Steve’s writing was from the falconry side of it, a popular article in Smithsonian, sometime in the mid-80s. I was surprised to know anyone wrote so well about the sport, then surprised again to discover he writes well about a lot of things. I’m sure various pigeon fanciers, gourmands, world travellers, writers, naturalists and fine-gun collectors have been equally surprised to see their favorite correspondent publishing on the weirdness of training hawks.

Steve doesn’t need any more hobbies, but I bet he has them.

Sparking this post was Reid’s comment in a recent email exchange, “You really have blogged very little on falconry, some on dogs, and not at all (that I recall) on coursing or pigeons or firearms. These are all subjects obviously where you have a tremendous fund of knowledge that you take for granted….Those are subjects that are the bread and butter of your books, the things that attracted readers like me and Matt.”

Steve sent back, “Well, I just got one up on guns! Actually there will be more on hawks and dogs. I have been sort of saving this stuff for fall.”

In fact the hawking and coursing time of year is not quite on us yet. When the hawks are up to molt (between late spring and early fall) we give them their due (food and care, etc.) but also take advantage of the extra time for other projects. In Steve’s case, I gather that’s quite a lot.

Steve then offered Reid another possible reason for the lack of falconry: “Matt and I are very odd falconers—we do weird things. So do many who we like, like the ‘boyos’ in Albuquerque. We are extremely naturalist-oriented as some but not all falconers are. None of us are mainstream, though Matt is very modern in some ways, and I very primitive.”

To carry Steve’s point a bit further, practicing “odd” falconry has some bearing on how and what you can write about it. It may be interesting to us, but also complicated when you consider the public forum: To non-falconers, we are ALL falconers. Some of the sub-distinctions we find significant are pretty arcane on the “outside.” Few of us are comfortable presenting ourselves as general examples.

And then there are our peers. As Steve notes in A Rage for Falcons, falconry is “a great stirrer-up of passions.” You need only to attend a gathering of hawkers, or to browse the Internet a bit to find ample proof. It is difficult to say enough to be meaningful without saying enough to be controversial.

Before I quit, the monikers “modern” and “primitive” falconry may need a bit more explaining: Steve flies a domestic-bred, hybrid falcon, which is hardly primitive. And I hunt small birds with various small hawks, something falconers have been doing forever. But Steve likes to fly his falcons at game directly off the fist (an ancient, eastern form of the sport) and at hares and rabbits (a heresy to Westerners, but traditional practice elsewhere). I tend to hunt non-traditional (read: low-rent) quarry like rails, starlings and sparrows. I fly a Harris’ hawk (“the un-goshawk!”) off a PVC pipe carry-pole and ply my trade mostly in undeveloped suburban plots. Thus, modern.

Left: “Primitive” Hybrid gyr ‘Tuuli’ on traditional screen perch, and Right: “Modern” Harris hawk ‘Charlie’ on PVC pipe carry-pole

Stranger in a Strange Land

Reading Wendell Berry’s collected stories, That Distant Land, is like viewing a geologic record of American culture—or maybe its medical record from birth to an early death. Berry writes the history of fictional farming town Port William, Kentucky, from the 1880s forward. Whether his period representations are accurate, I don’t have the credentials to know, but as a reader I am utterly enveloped and convinced. Berry’s people share purpose and understanding with their animals; they share fate and responsibility and allegiance to their land. That these bonds break apart sometime after World War II and the subsequent marriage of corporations to politicians is Berry’s signature theme. Reading him in a suburb, circa 2005, is an exquisitely sad experience.

My view of Berry’s message is that we live among the broken pieces of a gift. In its original form, the gift was beautiful and complicated, unquestionably handmade from natural materials. Today it’s merely the sum of its parts, some of which were lost in the breaking. My two girls break their toys as a matter of course; some of them I can fix and some aren’t worth the effort. Berry’s world, which is ours if we want it, is one immanently worth fixing.

A young woman from Steve Bodio country moved this summer to New Orleans. She is twenty-three and works nights selling cigarettes and alcohol for a national distributor. Business is good, and she plans to spend the money on medical school, enrolling this Fall at Tulane. I met her yesterday at my house, pursuing another of her interests, falconry.

Back home in New Mexico, her friends all flew hawks and ran sighthounds—Steve’s kind of people, and mine. She grew to like that life and wants to stay with it, though the hunting here is so different as to be another sport entirely. We looked at books and pictures and trimmed my hawk’s beak while she held him in her lap. Taking a small gamble, I made half a hawk trap (useless, as is) with the understanding that she bring it back to me complete.

How this young woman, so new here and to her future, wants to be a falconer is an interesting and maybe a hopeful thing. While I’m reading Berry again, it is impossible not to see the pieces and imagine how some might be joined.


New Mexican Lurchermen and Falconers
Steve writes: “I am sending a photo of her friends with a lurcher pup I bred that you might add: modern folks looking to old traditions (well, one of them at least was actually raised in them, a 3rd generation lurcherman). They look dangerous, but the big guy on the right is a biologist and the one with the shades has a psychology degree, a security business, and is going to be a Border Patrol agent. They are not just ‘my kind of people,’ they’re my friends.”

(Note: The “PETA” t-shirt pictured actually says, “People for the Eating of Tasty Animals.”