Peregrine week!

August 23, 2010 • 6:49 am

The Peregrine, by John A. Baker, may not be the best nature book I’ve ever read, but I can’t think of a better one. And it’s certainly the most beautiful.   The book is not very well known—I came across it in an online review (another is here)—and the author is nearly completely obscure.  We’re not even sure when he died (one report gives 1987), although he was born in 1926.  The book, a short 190 pages, recounts a six-month period, from October to early April, when Baker tramped the fields of Essex near his home, searching for the peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus).  At the time, the species was severely endangered, for the use of DDT, working its way through the food chain, was damaging the bird’s reproduction.

The book, in its beauty, has the air of an elegy, not just for the falcon, but for humanity in general and perhaps for the author himself:  some say that he went on his falcon quest soon after being diagnosed with a fatal illness.  And the book is hypnotic: day after day Baker goes searching for falcons, usually finding them.  They become sufficiently accustomed to his presence that he can often approach quite closely, and they even follow him on his peregrinations—the bird and the verb have the same Latin root, meaning “to journey”—hoping he’ll flush some prey.

And that’s the plot: man goes out, man watches falcon and other birds, man goes home. You’d think that this narrative, continued over nearly 200 pages, would be boring. It’s not, for it’s sustained by the gorgeous prose and Baker’s unique way of seeing.  If you buy this book, though—and I STRONGLY recommend that you do—don’t read it in one gulp.  That would be like eating five desserts in a row.  I allotted myself twenty pages per night.

Every day this week I’ll be featuring a video of the peregrine and an excerpt from the book. Today’s video uses a tiny camera mounted on the falcon to show its amazing speed and agility, which serve it well as an aerial predator specializing on birds on the wing.  A bonus is a clip of a goshawk threading its way at high speed through a woodland:

The jays were silent.  One flew heavily up, carrying an acorn in its wide-open bill.  Leaving the cover of the trees, it rose high above the meadows, making for the hillside wood four hundred yards away.  I could see the big acorn bulging its mandibles apart, like a lemon stuffed in the mouth of a boar’s head.  There was a sibilant purring sound, like the distant drumming of a snipe.  Something blurred and hissed behind the jay, which seemed suddenly to trip and stumble on the air.  The acorn spurted out of its bill, like the cork out of a bottle.  The jay fell all lopsidedly and threshing, as though it were having a fit.  The ground killed it.  The peregrine swooped, and carried the dead bird to an oak.  There he plucked and ate it, gulping the flesh hastily down, till only the wings, breast-bone, and tail were left.

Gluttonous, hoarding jay; he should have hedge-hopped and lurched from tree to tree in his usual furtive manner. He should never have bared the white flashes of his wings and rump to the watching sky. He was too vivid a mark, as he dazzled slowly across the green water-meadows.

22 thoughts on “Peregrine week!

  1. That BBC-video is absolutely AMAZING! Whoohooo. Reminds me of a trailride a few years back, where the horses plodded along silently though the trees and we were joined by an owl, gliding noiselessly through, over and under branches. Effortlessly and majestically at the same time. Birds are trule beautiful in flight.

    1. Yes, beautiful. During the then required military service some of us was at one time obliged to do regular observations of wildlife in a small national park besides the regular work.

      It was of course a time of enjoyment, not least for the naps it provided. But also the close contact with wildlife. Among them I was entertained by a close hunt of a (probably) male sparrowhawk after a tit around a spruce.

      The not much larger bird matched its prey well in its agile antics, until that last dive when the ground was too close for the uptake. It survived the crash if dazed, only to notice me watching its mishap. Not a good day for him, poor thing.

  2. I saw the Disney adaptation of My Side of the Mountain back in the 1960’s… All my life I’ve wanted to have a Peregrine falcon. But I can’t shake the feeling that would be irresponsible.

    I’m not putting down those who do. I’m happy for them. I would just suffer too much guilt to take one from the wild and imprison it.

    1. Falcons are high-maintenance pets that require some training for the owner. Feed them too much, and they won’t fly (no incentive). Feed them too little, and they drop dead without much warning. Basically you have to weigh them every day and adjust their diet accordingly.

      I’ve flown friends’ falcons, and they are magnificient. But I don’t think I’d be up for keeping one myself.

      Peregrines, true to their name, are prone to heading off after a pigeon and not coming home. Most owners keep a radio tracking band on them, but retrieving them takes time and effort.

      I see them around both city and countryside occasionally. They are just amazing animals.

  3. UIC brought in Peregrins over a decade ago to control the local pidgeon population. They live atop University Hall, which is where the spousal unit works. She gets a good look at them when they occasionally sit outside her window, and catches flashes of them in their power dives. She says when they hit their prey, it’s like it explodes. Fascinating birds.

    1. Sorry. I meant pigeon, the bird. Not Walter Pidgeon, the actor. To my knowledge, UIC has not brought in predators to control its theatrical population.

  4. Wow. 10G turns, think what that says about their muscles and skeleton! And those incredible reaction times, think what that says about their neural signal processing! Just incredible.

    I didn’t really appreciate it looking from the ground, but that bird’s eye camera helps to convey that they’re thinking, living beings that are very different from ourselves but still dealing with the same forces.

  5. I love watching animals of all kinds in action, but birds of prey, and the Peregrine in particular, are the pinnacle of awesome. I have never had the privilege of observing a Peregrine in real life, but in the past few months I have experienced two very cool bird of prey kills.

    Early one evening riding home on my bike (coincidentally appropriate to this post’s topic, a Hayabusa) I notice several squirrels frantically deassing the power lines and pole just ahead. At first I thought they were just chasing each other around. Then I noticed the bird flying below the power lines near the squirrels, looked like a dove, and I thought “why would the squirrels be scared of a dove?” Suddenly a larger bird moving much faster entered my field of view and hit the dove hard. It was a hawk. The speed and agility of the hawk was just amazing, and the force of its strike was a real eye opener.

    Another day I was driving home with the kids in our truck, almost home, driving past a large field that is home to horses, ponies, donkeys and emus. Off to the left I spot a hawk fairly high up over the field. I point it out to the kids. As we watch a scene unfolds just like a nature documentary. The hawk dives down. What caught its interest we can’t see. The hawk dives down low to the ground, swoops under a large oak tree near the side of the road, and snatches a rabbit off the ground. The rabbit was within 50 feet (15 meters) of us and we did not see it until the hawk hit it, yet the hawk spotted it from hundreds of feet away from high in the air while the rabbit was under a tree. The rabbit was large enough that the hawk staggered in the air when it hit it, then continued just a couple of feet off the ground right in front of my truck, causing me to have to brake sharply for fear of hitting it. Made the kids day. Mine too.

    1. I lived in the western US most of my life. So my experiences are colored by that…

      My best guess was that it would have been a falcon or one of the accipiters. For instance, it could have been a peregrine or a merlin in falcon genus or a sharp-shinned hawk or a goshawk in the accipiter.

      In either case, it’s a cool thing to witness.

      It would not likely be a buteo (red tail hawks, buzzards, etc.) as they prey more on small mammals, or take carrion, though they will opportunistically take birds. It’s just not very common and not usually ‘in-air.’

      (Wow, it’s been a long time since I talked birds. Haven’t been bird watching for over 25 years. I’m so rusty…)

      1. Ray Moscow & MosesZD,

        Thanks for the input. I don’t have the knowledge our experience to accurately identify birds beyond the most common types. I tend to use “hawk” to describe any bird of prey smaller than an eagle. I need to do some studying.

        1. In which region do you live?

          I’ve seen praire falcons in south Texas that hunt pretty much like peregrines — living off pigeons, mostly. But peregrines are found nearly worldwide.

          The hawk that took the rabbit could have a been a buteo, like the redtailed hawk. (Its cousin here in Europe is the “buzzard”.)

          Anyway, you can look up images on the web or get a field guide to help identify them next time. Birds of prey are more common than most people realise.

          1. Thanks for the info. I am near the central / south east coast of Florida, what is commonly called the Treasure Coast area.

            Over the past couple of years I have noticed a sharp increase in birds of prey around our community. Prior to that the closest to birds of prey you were likely to find was vultures. Plenty of those, and interesting to observe. But they just don’t have the appeal of birds of prey.

  6. Should be a great week coming up!

    Jerry, I have two requests for stories on the subject.

    First would be what we can do to make raptors (obviously including Peregrines) at home in the urban jungle. There are Harris’s Hawks living on the periphery of the Phoenix metro area, and I once caught a very fleeting glimpse of what might have been one a half mile from my home. I’d love for them to become fixtures, not foreigners in their own land.

    Next would be something on Lucian of Samosota’s account of the passing of Peregrinus, which offers revealing insights into the origins of Christianity.



  7. I, too, have just read The Peregrine. It is quite extraordinary in the force and beauty of its writing, and also in the way Baker almost manages to make you think you are seeing with a hawk’s eyes and feeling like a hawk. A strange man, with not much love or liking for humanity, but a Lawrentian feeling for lives that are ‘free of our humbug’ and an uncanny ability to enter into them. It’s books like this that should be given to that adolescent niece or nephew of yours to raise and encourage an interest in nature, and not, I’m afraid, biology textbooks: those can come later.

  8. Many years ago, I was in the hallway outside my office when I heard a loud THUNK from within. A hawk had run into my window, presumably diving at a reflection. Stunned, it had a strikingly stupid expression on its face. After a few minutes it flew away; the wax(?) from its feathers left a temporary impression of the collision on the window.

    I have several bird feeders in my back yard, and I regard it as my duty to keep hawks from lurking nearby, even going so far as to fire plastic pellets from a toy gun in their general direction to let them know they’re unwelcome. My raptor-loving brothers strongly disapprove, but I feel that operating an attractive nuisance carries certain responsibilities.

    1. I, too, have a story like that. I had a young red tail hawk smack into a screen on the front of my house and hang there semi-stunned for about 5 minutes. Plenty of time to identify him. And the cats were fascinated.

      I have fed birds in our very urban Chicago 30×35 back yard for the entire 14 years we have lived here. That hawk showed up the second year; until then it didn’t occur to me that we’d have them. We give the birds plenty of opportunity for cover, and they seem to do alright. A little more vulnerable in winter, but still plenty of hiding places within 10-12 feet. They are in more danger from the neighborhood alley cats than raptors.

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