An Anti-Falconry Rant … from the Right-Wing?

Over on “Men’s News Daily”, the “Nobody’s Opinion” column goes on and on interminably about how falconry is practiced by the rich and “environmental nut” control freaks. It takes a while to find what has set off this guy, but eventually he gets around to it:

Bobby Kennedy I was reading today…absolutely loves this sport. Bobby, who was taught by his father, partakes in this historical “field sport” so much, even teaching it to his children, that Bobby would think nothing of saying, “Do you want to see if we can bump some bunnies before sunset?”

Ah, yes, there’s a motivator: the visceral hate of various right-wing commentators for anything related to the Kennedys. I’m sure that “driving” itself would also come in for its share of abuse if only a minority of Americans, and Teddy Kennedy, practiced it.

Rich falconers… pretty rare in my experience. I certainly don’t qualify on that score. Fly anywhere to hunt? You’ve gotta be kidding. Most of the vehicles seen at falconry meets bespeak very limited budgets and frugality. I know exactly one falconer who flies her own Cessna various places, and even she isn’t more than “comfortably well off” in my opinion.

Control freaks? Some are, some aren’t. I haven’t noticed a disproportionate number of those taking to falconry. Diane and I don’t even hunt our birds from the glove. When we are in the field, Rusty and Shelby are interacting with the dogs in their own way and at their own pace. If you want as much control as possible when hunting, you don’t do falconry, you get a shotgun. Especially since control freaks tend not to understand operant conditioning and using only positive reinforcement; those who don’t tend to be watching their birds fly off, never to be seen by them again.

Environmental nuts? I think it best if we don’t wreck the environment, sure, but pretty much any falconry meet I’ve been to has its share of vehicles sporting Bush/Cheney bumper stickers, too.

Eating prey items? We’ve eaten various upland birds that Rusty has caught, and a couple of rabbits, but most of what Rusty catches goes in the freezer for Rusty to eat over the molt. The word for this blog, “austringer”, comes from the distinction of class made between noble “falconers” who flew longwing birds, and common “austringers” who were only permitted to fly shortwing hawks, especially the goshawk, in order to take meat for the table. The goshawk’s appellation was “the cook’s bird” during the middle ages.

Bumping bunnies before sunset? Dusk and dawn are the times when rabbits generally get active and hawks can see them, so that at least makes some sense, if one is speaking within the limits of the established rabbit hunting season. Also, “hunting” is not “catching”; most of the flights Rusty or Shelby make to game end up with the prey item getting away. Also, we didn’t “train” either Rusty or Shelby to kill prey. They learned all they needed to know on that score from their parents in the wild.

But here’s a fact: The environmentalist Bobby tells us that 80% of raptors die during their first year trying to master the art of killing game, but that doesn’t stop him from trying to train the other 20%.

Add innumeracy and/or simple ignorance to the ranter’s other traits. Falconers in the USA are prohibited from taking haggard birds, that is, birds in their adult plumage who are on the far side of that first-year mortality bump. The trapping season for passage birds precedes that big bump in first-year mortality, so the odds are that about 4 out of 5 passage falconry birds would not have survived, and the odds that anyone has one that might have been part of “the other 20%” are themselves 1 in 5 if we assume a uniform trapping distribution. One could argue that trapping itself is skewed toward catching birds that early on are having some difficulties, which would make it even less likely that a falconer is taking part of the population that would do fine anyway. This is why apprentices thus far trap passage birds: if something goes wrong, there is a smaller likelihood that they have had an impact on the wild population. An apprentice bird typically gets a good diet and veterinary care to eliminate parasites, so if they return to the wild later, they actually may be in better shape than if they had spent their whole time trying to get through that first winter on their own.

The ranter finishes up with,

So, what do you think?

I think that if you want to say Bobby Kennedy is somebody that you don’t like and that you wouldn’t want to do the things he does, say that. Falconry isn’t an exclusionary club that we control who does it. For those of us who aren’t rich, control freaks, or absolutely “nutty” on environmental issues, but who still like to give our birds the opportunity to fly at some bunnies before bedtime, I think that you owe us an apology.

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Wesley R. Elsberry

Falconer. Interdisciplinary researcher: biology and computer science. Photographer. Husband. Christian. Activist.