Toby Bradshaw, Jupiter, and a brush rabbit in CaliforniaToby 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 embarrassment.

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