Nick Palmer, Falconer

Hello all,

I’m going down a different route today, as you probably guessed from the title: the reason being that my Christmas present from my girlfriend was taking part in a falconry experience event, and it’s one of the best presents I’ve ever had.

I’ve been interested in birds of prey since I was very young. My Dad likes them too and on trips in the car would always point out kestrels hovering by the roadside verges and buzzards soaring above fields or perched, watchful, on top of signposts, streetlights and the like. Sometimes he would stop the car and pull out the binoculars just so we could try to get a better look at these magnificent creatures.

At primary school, there was a man who would come in to do talks about birds. We called him the bird man, and I don’t remember what his real name was. Anyway, he would come in and give talks and show slides of lots of different species of birds, and I was always taken with birds of prey, because of my Dad’s influence. I remember that the bird man would sell photos after his talks, and I bought one of a barn owl, which remains to this day my favourite owl.

Thanks to my girlfriend I got to meet one of them!

"Seems like a nice sort of chap"

and fly another:

Nice landing!

These are the birds that I got to meet.

1. Lucky & Dodi, the Barn Owls

Barn Owls (Tyto alba) are certainly my favourite type of owl, and one of my favourite of all animals. From the order Strygiformes, which contains all the owl species, barn owls are the only owl that is capable of hunting in full darkness. No owls can see in the dark, since their eyes do require some moon- or starlight to operate, but barn owls’ ears are set at different heights on their heads to allow them to triangulate positions. Their beautiful heart shaped faces are not aesthetic so much as functional like a satellite dish, collecting sound waves so that they can hear their prey. They take flight on wings that are utterly silent, due to soft feathers, so they are very hard for their prey to detect. Because of their pure white underbellies and their silent flight, they became known in the medieval period as the Ghost Owl. Indeed, many supposed ghost sightings are barn owls flying past on their silent wings, hunting in the early hours of the morning, or else in the darkness at night.

2. Bob, the Eagle Owl

I didn’t get to fly Bob, as Eagle Owls (Bubo bubo) hunt incredibly differently to Barn Owls. Eagle Owls are incredibly patient, but also incredibly lazy in a way. Their method of hunting, lacking as they do the ear positions and satellite dish face of the barn owl, is to sit in the treetops and to wait for some prey to approach. Then they drop almost silently from the branch and take the prey unawares. They’re also a lot bigger than the Barn Owl – Lucky, the barn owl that I flew, weighed a tiny 11 ounces. Bob weighs 4 pounds, which is akin to having two bags of sugar on the end of your arm.

Don't put him in your coffee though...

Despite their being chosen in Greek mythology as the bird of Athena (and Athens, by extension) and consequently a symbol for her wisdom, a role which has influenced the anthropomorphic portrayal of owls in literature and so on, owls are not useful for falconry as they are very stupid in comparison with hawks, falcons, and eagles. Owls used for the kind of display that I got to take part in are hand-reared by humans and therefore imprinted. If they were not they wouldn’t do it. The next birds, however, are all wild birds, albeit trained, and of great use to falconers.

3. Henry, the Harris Hawk

The Harris Hawk (Parabuteo unicinctus) is not native to the UK, but hails from the south western United States down to Chile and Central Argentina. They are what might be called a beginner’s falconry bird, since they are often the first bird that a falconer would train. They’re considered easy to train because of their greed, and because they are very social animals – in fact, they are unusual amongst raptors since they sometimes hunt in packs. Training a hawk as a rookie could take six months or more! Hawks are incredibly intelligent birds, and they hunt by speed, much like falcons. They have long legs, so that when they fly at speed they can punch through hedgerows and take pigeons and other small birds. They grab their prey by the head and squeeze with the enormous pressure they can muster: 200lb of pressure per square inch in each foot!

Henry, please don't squeeze!

4. Lila, the Red-Tailed Buzzard

The Red-Tailed Buzzard (Buteo jamaicensis), also known as the Red-Tailed Hawk in the USA, is the American cousin of the Common Buzzard (Buteo buteo) which is often seen soaring over fields in Britain. In fact, most eagle sightings are actually buzzards. Trust me, you’d know if you’d seen an eagle, because they’re huge. And if you’re in the UK you’d pretty much have to be in Scotland. Anyway, eagles aside, the buzzard hunts in a different style to the other hawks and falcons. Buzzards like to catch thermals, and you will often see them enjoying that love circling high above fields and then dropping suddenly into a stoop to take their prey. If it’s a Common Buzzard you will also see it waiting by the roadside until something gets run over and feeding on the carrion. Common Buzzards are lazy, and the Red-Tailed Buzzard is a far more rewarding falconry bird. I was one of the few to get to fly this amazing bird. They really are great hunters; they can take a rabbit or hare on their own with ease.

I'm not a rabbit...stop looking at me like that!

So those were the birds that I got to get close to, to hold, and in some cases to fly. It was an amazing experience and I thoroughly recommend it to anyone who’s interested in birds of prey of any kind. The birds are amazing, beautiful, and powerful creatures – but remember, if you do go on to meet one, they’re not pets, even ones kept by falconers. They fly for food and food alone, and if you try to stroke one or kiss one then you might lose something you hadn’t bargained for. There’s a well known falconry rule that those men flying birds should not relieve themselves in public whilst the hunting is going on. I think you can guess why. On the other hand, Dodi is sixteen years old (and therefore, getting on a bit in barn owl terms) and didn’t mind a little touch to show how soft his feathers are:

It'd make good toilet paper, that's all I'm saying...

With special thanks to Simon Tebbutt pictured here with his Russian Steppe Eagle (Aquila nipalensis)

Told you eagles were big...

and special thanks to Elizabeth for the present, pictured here with Dodi, the Barn Owl:

Beauty and the Beast: Pick for yourselves which is which!

For the writers who have been intensely bored with all this bird-talk, here are some every day phrases that come from falconry:

Mantle – when a bird makes a kill, they spread their wings and huddle over it to protect it from other birds and the falconer. This is known as mantling, and it’s the origin of mantle meaning a covering.

Fed up – when a bird is fed up, it has had too much food already to fly again in the hunt. We use it to mean bored.

Bowse/booze – when a hawk drinks, it’s called bowsing and it might be the derivation of our boozing – to drink a lot.

In a flap – if you go to a falconry display, you’ll see at least one of the birds do this. They launch themselves off the handler’s glove and attempt to fly. Because of the jesses (that’s the correct term for the restraints on the leg) restraining them they can’t go anywhere, hanging upside down and flapping. Hence, in a flap.

Codger – a term of abuse (though not very strong) for an old man, it comes from the portable perches used to hold the birds for falconry, which was called a ‘cadge’ (probably a corruption of ‘cage’). The man who carried it was generally the oldest of the lord’s retinue, since he could take no active part in the rest of the hunt, and came to be known as the cadger. Later, this was corrupted to codger.

4 Responses to “Nick Palmer, Falconer”
  1. Jackpalmer says:

    Nick Williams is the man you were searching for

  2. James says:

    I’m doing this soon when i get it booked!

    • Nick says:

      I know – same present for Christmas from our other halves. How weird. Clearly we’ve been too much alike over the past year =)

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