Rigor Vitae: Life Unyielding

Monday, September 11, 2006


Idaho is about the last place in America you'd expect a confrontation with an animal rights activist, but there he was, an earnest young man identifying himself as “Tim,” and greeting us with a pamphlet and a smile as we entered a sporting goods store. My friend Bob Diamond and I were just picking up a couple of last-minute items before putting in to the Snake River, but we stopped for a moment to interact with him. I have serious philosophical differences with the animal rights movement, but I understand them. My own goddaughter is a member of PETA, and I think that's a fine place for a 13-year-old girl to be on her moral trajectory—I only hope she continues that trajectory until she's Ingrid Newkirk's age. Likewise, I couldn't help but take a liking to Tim. Too few of us have the rectitude to volunteer our time to a cause we believe in, not to mention the kind of chutzpah that stands between a hunter and his arrows. As much as I liked the guy, though, I cringed more than a bit when he said that we're the only species that hunts for sport. I guess it's human nature to look for qualities that set us apart from the rest. If elephants talked, they'd bore us with braggadocio of prehensile noses, and when people aren't boasting about their brains, they, like the Idaho activist, exalt the rest of nature by pointing to imagined human peculiarities. They admire animals like a starlet's stalker, enamored from afar, with an object they've never known. When we talk of the genus Homo's singularity, it's usually in exaggerated and delusional terms. In essence, Tim and his hunter target audience are both motivated by the same animal drive: an innate love and fascination with other animals, that thing that Edward O. Wilson called biophilia, a trait that's strongest in the predators: the sated leopard that watches each gazelle with keen interest, the wolves that slaughter the silly contents of a sheep corral and leave them for the magpies, and the well-fed suburbanite, an SUV hauling his camo-clad ass up the mountainside.

My river trip with Bob was enjoyable but uneventful. We jumped the gun and beat most of the migrating water birds, seeing concentrations of only nighthawks and kingfishers. Just slightly disappointed when we reached the take-out, we eventually met up with our friend Craig, who was passing through with his young tiercel Taita Falcon (Falco fasciinucha). The Taita Falcon is a little-known species from East and Southern Africa. Like the New World Aplomado Falcon (F. femoralis) pictured above, it is a mostly tropical bird with largely rufous underparts. But where the Aplomado is built for an accipiter-like lifestyle, with a long tail and legs, the Taita is built like a Peregrine (F. peregrinus), only more so. Her wings are long and narrow. When folded, they nearly reach the end of her short tail. Her wing-loading is among the heaviest of the falcons, the most heavily-laden raptor genus. Taita Falcons nest on cliffs near rivers, and prey upon fast-flying shorebirds, swallows, and even swifts. They appear to be uncommon, although there is a good population on the Zambezi River (which may be declining). I believe I saw one on the Sanaga River in Cameroon, but the species has never been recorded that far west. I've been close to falcon Taitas in the Peregrine Fund's breeding chambers, and was eager for my first experience with a tiercel. The sexual size dimorphism of this species is surprising. Craig's bird was tiny--the size of a female Merlin. He was very tame and affectionate, his manners were impeccable, and his appearance exquisite. Bob and I were quickly charmed.

We drove around for a short time, looking for a good spot to fly him. With just a couple of weeks of flying under his belt, the young tiercel had yet to kill any wild quarry. We selected a field with lots of sparrows, in the hope that one might be flushed while the Taita was in position. Craig cast him off, and he immediately rang up to a height of about 300 feet. A big female Merlin (F. columbarius) came in, tipped a wing at him, and exited. A minute later, we were a little horrified to see a tiercel Prairie (F. mexicanus) flying straight for the inexperienced African bird. The Prairie's flight wasn't the kind of power-pursuit employed when a falcon has killing on its mind, and we expected little more than the sort of bluff received from the Merlin. The naïve little Taita took no evasive maneuvers, though, and the wild falcon seized him. We heard his terrified chattering for only a few a seconds as the Prairie set his wings and sailed off, eventually settling beyond a rise. The three of us ran as fast as three middle-aged slackers could. By the time we approached the birds, they had been on the ground for well over a minute, and we closed in with visions of the Prairie standing in a heap of lovely black and rufous feathers, chomping out chunks of sternum keel with his notched beak. He didn't flush until we were 50 feet away, and when he did, the Taita got up, looked around, ran a few feet, then took off into the air again. Fortunately, the Prairie didn't pursue him further, and he soon calmed down, and was retreived, apparently no worse for the experience. We approached the wild bird as close as he'd allow, but couldn't determine if he was adult or juvenile, or had a full crop, and we drove back to Blackfoot, our minds swarming with unanswered questions. It's hard to imagine what went on during the minute and a half that those birds were together on the valley floor. The Prairie surely wasn't winded--taking the Taita was a cinch, but he hadn't so much as plucked a feather. I can only guess he was cropped up, and merely indulging his predatory biophilia, as Bob, Craig and I were doing in our own way, and pamphleteer Tim in his. I imagine the Prairie tiercel holding and admiring this peculiar, incautious bird, the likes of which he'd never seen, before three hysterically screaming humans interrupted his reverie and the inevitable, brutal denouement.
upper: SMOKE-JUMPER--APLOMADO FALCON-detail (1994) acrylic 19" x 30"
ENTRADA--PEREGRINE FALCON (2005) acrylic 6" x 12"


Blogger tai haku said...

lucky save! I'm surprised the talons did no real damage - it'd be a real shame to lose an unexperienced bird like that. its not something I'd even considered as a risk for falconers as most here in the UK fly soemthing as big as if not bigger than most native raptors.

4:01 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Elegantly put.

1:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well written piece Carel, but what "Tim" should have said is that "we're the only species that KNOWS we kill for sport". A lion slowly crushing the throat of a hyena or the Prairie Falcon attacking your friend's bird are not understanding it as even a simple behavioral "choice". We alone PLAN to kill for sport and have the reflective choice of not doing it.

And I really am coming back.

4:23 PM  
Blogger Carel Brest van Kempen said...

Tai: I imagine he had a little puncture wound or two, but he didn't appear to be hurt at all. The Prairie clearly took it easy on him. In the western US, there are plenty of birds that are dangerous to raptors. Lot's of falcons are killed by Golden Eagles. Ten years ago I watched a pair of them fly down and kill an experienced and well-conditioned falcon Gyr/Peregrine hybrid. Two years ago, a friend lost his Peregrine to a Ferruginous Hawk! Great Horned Owls and Goshawks also take their toll.
Laura: Me thank you.
Carl: After a lifetime of assisting birds of prey in their hunting, I'm convinced that the similarities between their drives and our own far outweigh the differences. Looking forward to your next post!

11:24 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Amazing story, Carel.

9:39 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Taitas have a rep for being "naive" about other birds of prey when flown in falconry-- I know of others that have been lost.

Is Craig's bird from Weaver?

8:24 AM  
Blogger Carel Brest van Kempen said...

Mike: Thanks,Mike.
Steve: That's interesting. I hadn't heard of that reputation...and yes, the bird came from Weaver's project.

8:57 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

PETA is a domestic terrorist organization. I would hope that you wouldn't allow any family member to be a member of such a group. There are plenty of non-violent animal rights groups out there that she could be a member of, but come on PETA!

They CURRENTLY actively employ felons that have fire bombed buildings and give semanars on how to correctly build fire bombs.

Is that the kind of organization you want a family member to be a part of? I am not against animal rights, I am just against any organization that uses fire bombing to further their political agenda. And before some Anti gets on here and says I'm lying or being sensational I urge you all to do a little searching on the name Rodney Coronado and PETA but in case you don't want to here are some links:


OR see this


12:08 PM  
Blogger Carel Brest van Kempen said...

Thanks for the information. I'll look it over and share it with my goddaughter, and we can both decide for ourselves what it means to us. It's certainly possible that I don't have all the information I need to make the best decision. At the same time, I grow increasingly reluctant to jump when someone shouts, "Terrorist! Terrorist!"

12:23 PM  
Blogger Carel Brest van Kempen said...

...or vice versa! When I was about 16, I went to my backyard to check on a weathering hen goshawk. Her crop was full, and her ring perch surrounded with the feathers of a young kestrel.

11:04 AM  
Blogger Patrick B. said...

Great story! I'm glad for the happy ending. Also, "Arrrr!" - a few days late.

7:15 AM  
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11:08 PM  

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