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The Falcon

The Peregrine

by J.A. Baker
Harper & Row, 191 pp., $4.95

This is a provocative book. If you are a naturalist, after purchasing this book (not a novel) about a peregrine falcon, you will either be enthralled by the poetic prose of the author or be maddened by his style and shut the book with a bang, but whichever you do you will get something unusual for your money. The British edition has been available for some time, and The Peregrine has received extravagant praise there in some quarters, as a glance at the jacket will reveal.

On both sides of the Atlantic the peregrine falcon is seriously losing ground and if, as seems all too probable, nothing can be done about it, the peregrine will eventually disappear from the scene. For once this deplorable state of affairs cannot be placed at the door of the gamekeeper or pigeon-fancier, but fairly and squarely on the shoulders of the chemists who, in their zeal to manufacture a pesticide to kill all insect life and to find a method by which a grain crop could be increased by the use of fertilizers, completely overlooked—or ignored—the dangerous consequences to wild life, especially to the avifauna. This is a sad opening to a book about one of our noblest birds. “Few peregrines are left, there will be fewer, they may not survive.” Such is Mr. Baker’s opinion after ten years’ intensive study in Eastern England.

The book is divided into three parts: (1) The Beginnings; (2) Peregrines; (3) The Hunting Life. In Part One the author describes the surroundings of his home:

There are four hundred miles of tidal coast. It is the longest and most irregular county coastline…farms are well ordered, prosperous but a fragrance of neglect now lingers like a ghost of fallen grass….

For ten years I spent all my winters searching for that restless brilliance, for the sudden passion and violence that peregrines flush from the sky. For ten years I have been looking upward for that cloud-biting anchor shape, that crossbow flinging through the air….

In his introductory pages the author tells us that he has tried to preserve a unity in his book, binding together the bird, the watcher, and the place that holds them both. He describes everything that took place as he was watching, but does not believe that honest observation is enough: the emotions and behavior of the watcher must also be truthfully recorded. He tells us he has tried to capture the extraordinary beauty of this bird and to convey the wonder of the land he lived in. The result is the book—the work of a poet-naturalist—which lies before me for review.

Mr. Baker describes the field-craft which he employed to enable him to overcome a peregrine’s natural suspicions of a human being:

To be recognised and accepted by a peregrine you must wear the same clothes, travel by the same way, perform actions in the same order. Like all birds it fears the unpredictable. Enter and leave the same fields at the same time each day, soothe the hawk from its wildness by a ritual of behaviour as invariable as its own. Hood the glare of the eyes, hide the white tremor of the hands, shade the stark reflecting face, assume the stillness of a tree. A peregrine fears nothing he can see clearly and afar off. Approach him across open ground with a steady unfaltering movement. Let your shape grow in size but do not alter its outline. Never hide yourself unless concealment is complete. Be alone. Shun the furtive oddity of man, cringe from the hostile eye of farms. Learn to fear. To share fear is the greatest bond of all…

In Part Two Mr. Baker states a great many “facts” which are open to dispute or even to direct contradiction. He seems to be weak in his anatomy (unless it was a slip) for the hind toe of the peregrine is the shortest, not “the longest of the four” (p. 20); again, the “print of the hind toe” would tend to be shorter not longer than that of the front toes (p. 137)* . Mr. Baker states (p. 35) that “the eyes of a female peregrine weigh approximately one ounce each” (italics mine) and are “larger and heavier than human eyes.” That is too much to believe. The eye of one female Fatco p. peregrinus measured by a falconer of repute was 18 mm (lateral diameter), its weight 3.1 gms. The Institute of Opthalmology gives the size of the human eye (average adult) 24 mm * 24 mm and the average weight 7 gms. Doubt can also be cast on the accuracy of the statement “the glazed inhuman eyes…swivelled like brown globes” (p. 35) or again, “the inner wings [sic] were held up at an angle of 45 degrees to the body” (p. 126). When discussing the height at which the peregrine flies he is very dogmatic—300 ft., 500 ft., 1000 ft., 2000 ft. (!). In fact nothing is harder to judge. Moreover he claims to have seen things happen which could only most doubtfully be seen even with powerful binoculars, e.g., at 300 ft. “the bunched toes were ridged and knuckled like golden grenades” (p. 84); and again at 2000 ft., “his toes opened and closed.”

Mr.Baker is equally certain of himself when computing numbers: “The Southern sky was terraced with mazes of upward winding birds: seven hundred lapwings, a thousand gulls, two hundred woodpigeon and five thousand starlings dwindled up in spiral tiers…. Three hundred golden plover circled above them all, visible only when they turned and glinted in the sun” (italics mine). What a sight it must have been!

Doubt again must be expressed on the accuracy of the expression “hovering.” A peregrine does not “hover” in the accepted meaning of that word, in the manner of a Kestrel for instance, and yet Mr. Baker makes constant allusion to it in his text—pp. 42, 70, 76, 90, 135, 154, 177. His “hovering” is not just momentary, e.g., p. 42 “for a minute or more,” p. 70 for two minutes, p. 135 for five minutes, and p. 177 for five minutes. Five minutes is an incredibly long time for a bird to hover in one place. Does he really mean hovering? He uses the term correctly on p. 180 when referring to a Kestrel.

IN THIS WRITER’S experience of peregrines which extends over many countries, he has never been able to approach a peregrine (being evidently ignorant of the technique), but unless Mr. Baker’s peregrines were mesmerized by him, his experiences seem to be unique: see p. 154 “he hovered 20 feet above my head”; p. 166 he caught a mouse “within 20 yards of me”; he came down to the hedge 10 yards away from me”; p. 190 “the hawk is only 5 yards away.” That does give one pause!—a remark which is not intended to imply disbelief but astonishment.

The reviewer has deliberately picked on items in Mr. Baker’s account which seem to be open to challenge—items moreover which could at least be doubled within the 191 pages of his book—but he is equally aware of the excellent pieces of information scattered throughout which bear testimony to Mr. Baker’s shrewd observation and quite uncanny powers exhibited time and again.

In his ten years’ study of living peregrines Mr. Baker has himself learned, as he tells us, that peregrines do not breed till they are two years old, but one-year birds may select an eyrie and defend the territory. The juvenile peregrines that wintered in the river valley were paler than peregrines from British nests; the same nesting cliffs are occupied for hundreds of years. Peregrines bathe every day, they prefer running water, they favor those places where the color of the stream-bed resembles the color of their own plumage. Hunting is always preceded by some form of play. Some soaring peregrines deliberately stoop with the sun behind them; they do it too frequently for this to be merely a matter of chance. These and countless other observations in this section show how closely the author has come to know his subject. He gives the result of 619 peregrine kills, analyzing the result: woodpigeons, Columba palumbus, head the list by a huge percentage, the abundance of the species in winter accounting for the preponderance; gulls come next on the list, and we are informed that the peregrine sees and reacts to white more rapidly than to any color. Lapwings are well concealed when feeding on the ground but once in the air “their black and white tails are a target for the falcon’s eye.” There are many more observations of this kind.

In the third part of his book, Mr. Baker takes us day by day through the calendar, from October 1st to the end of April, following the peregrines and their actions day in and day out—he seems to have been able to find a peregrine whenever he wished—and describes in the minutest detail his daily encounters and his own emotions. Some of the passages are descriptive writing at its best, and the monthly picture he gives of the English countryside in fair weather and foul is a brilliantly evocative one.

October 1st: Autumn rises into the bright sky. Corn is down, fields shine after harvest…swallows and martins call sharply, fly low; jays and magpies lurk and mutter in hedges, blackbirds splutter and scold. Where the valley widens, the flat fields are vibrant with tractors. Gulls and lapwings are following the plough. The sun shines from a clear sky flecked with high cirrus. The wind is moving round to the north. By the sudden calling of red-legged partridges and the clattering rise of woodpigeons, I know that the hawk is soaring and drifting southwards along the woodland ridge. He is too high to be seen….

or again:

February 17th: The crests of the higher fields are dappled brown and white, but snow is still a foot on the lower ground. Water flows in narrow channels through ice six inches thick. There are no blackbirds or thrushes in the valley now; no robins, hedge sparrows, or wrens. Only two feeble skylarks are left of the hundreds that were here in Autumn. Three chaffinches remain from a flock of three hundred. Jackdaw numbers have been halved. Fifty woodpigeons have survived the shooting and the snow, but they are very thin and weak. Crows follow them everywhere, waiting for them to die. Two pairs of bullfinches have come through. There are blue tits and marsh tits in the woods, and a flock of long-tailed tits. There are eighty mallard and forty red-legged partridges in fields by the brook.

Such passages conjure up scenes with which all country dwellers are familiar, and which all can enjoy. But it is when Mr. Baker uses his imagination to describe the “kills” he has witnessed that his emotional style becomes obtrusive; we would refer the reader to p. 120 and allow him to judge for himself: there are many such passages in the volume.

It is this reviewer’s opinion that Mr. Baker believes implicitly that he saw all that he has so vividly described, but there are occasions when he seems to have been carried away by his own enthusiasm and to make statements, in all good faith, which are open to contradiction. Mr. Baker has undoubtedly recorded facts in the peregrine’s life history which have been missed by naturalists of wide experience with equal opportunities but less perception. A reviewer in a leading British paper wondered if Mr. Baker had been a peregrine himself in a previous incarnation—an implied compliment which his American publishers evidently overlooked. They prefer to quote the wildly enthusiastic Sunday reviewers of whom few appear to be conversant with the subject of the book.

A nature study such as Mr. Baker has presented—not by any means restricted to the peregrine falcon—deserves warm praise for the remarkable perseverance and patience which has gone into its making, and when the observer is a gifted writer, as in the present instance, the result is even more gratifying. The style may please some of his readers and will undoubtedly irritate others, but it is Mr. Baker’s own. Despite all its merits, however, the book would have been better shorter, for enough is as good as a feast.

  1. *

    Five Scottish Specimens (females), Royal Scottish Museum: Front toe plus claw 63.5-68.5 mm; average 66.8 mm. Hind toe plus claw 35-39 mm; average 37 mm.

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