“Adventures with Birds of Prey”, by the brothers John and Frank Craighead, appeared in the July, 1937 edition of National Geographic. It was one of the first popular articles to examine modern falconry and provide excellent photographs. In fact, the Craigheads were among the first to capture many of the raptor species on film and provided many insights into their behavior and biology. And they were young, scarcely in their early twenties, when this, their first article, was published!
The Craigheads weren’t the first or only people to be involved in falconry in the first half of the 20th century. They include a photograph in the article of six young falconers from around Washington D.C. where they lived at the time, each with his own bird, and mention other falconers they met or were in contact with throughout the article. Still, from what I can gather it was this article in National Geographic that inspired many of the falconers who would become pivotal in the 1950’s-1970’s in keeping falconry alive in America as a recognized and legally protected sport. It was also read by an Indian prince, who extended an invitation to the Craigheads to come stay with him and practice falconry in India. This experience would later be written up as “Life with an Indian Prince”, which was also published in National Geographic (Feb. 1942).
The article itself is well-written. It follows the Craigheads on various adventures they had while finding and training birds of prey, including training their first birds (Cooper’s hawks of all species!), climbing 70′ trees and constructing blinds for themselves or the camera, repelling down cliff faces to photograph peregrine falcon and raven nests, and imping a new tail onto a Cooper’s hawk. It is fun to read and is accessible to falconers and non-falconers alike. The thrill of the adventures is palpable. It feels almost bigger than life, like something you’d read in a fiction novel, except these young men actually did everything they wrote about.
Even though the writing is excellent, it’s the photography that makes the article. They stand the test of time and are still worth looking at, perhaps even more so as so much more skill was required to capture the images than is needed today. And not only are the shots well-composed but there are a lot of them. The effort and skill that went into taking the photos is evident by the myriad of different scenes that are shot, including bald eagle, osprey, peregrine falcon, Cooper’s hawk, and raven nests; standard falconry fare of a weathering yard and a group shot of men with their birds and dogs; and adventure photography of repelling down cliffs and out of trees.
As falconers the Craigheads seem to have been quite successful. They had no formal training and no one to show them the ropes; their only guide was a National Geographic article by Louis Agassiz Fuertes, “Falconry, Sport of Kings” (Dec. 1920). What they lacked in training and experience they made up for in patience and perseverance. Their first two Cooper’s hawks caught game and must not have been too bad as they never mention screaming or other bad behaviors. They flew many, many species of birds (including kestrels and merlins; peregrine and prairie falcons; Cooper’s hawks; red-shouldered, broadwinged, and red-tailed hawks; barn, screech, and great horned owls). It seems like they favored peregrines because of their speed, though also held favorable opinions of the “prairie falcon, Cooper’s hawk, goshawk, pigeon hawk [merlin], sharp-shinned hawk, and even the little sparrow hawk [American kestrel].” However, they felt the “red-shouldered, broad-winged, and red-tailed hawks” were not worth flying. It’s interesting that they saw the potential of the kestrel when others scoffed at them as apprentice birds but missed how excellent game birds red-tailed hawks can be.
All-in-all it’s a great article to read. It’s a fairly quick read peppered with excellent, early photographs of raptors and has all the adventure of fiction.
After the National Geographic articles were published early in their careers, the Craigheads continued to lead lives devoted to wildlife and wildlife research. The wrote much of the “Wild and Scenic River Act” and conduced exemplary research radiotracking grizzly bears, which developed radio tracking as a tool for ecological research. Frank Craighead founded the The Craighead Institute (formerly Craighead Environmental Research Institute) in 1964, which continues the brother’s legacy of wildlife research and conservation.
*Note* All photos in this post © National Geographic.