Tag Archives: book review

“H is for Hawk”, a review

I haven’t read the book, but given the heaps of praise it’s recieved from non-falconers it’s nice to see a falconer take the time to write a review.

From the review: “This will probably be the only bad review you’ll ever read of H is for Hawk.

Note: it’s not really a bad review, it’s a good review with a sidebar. Helen Macdonald writes breathtaking prose, her story is poignant and filled with all kinds of fascinating bits of information, and she has an extremely likable voice. So what’s wrong with the book?

T.H. White…”



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“Life with an Indian Prince”

After publishing their article about falconry in National Geographic, Frank and John Craighead received a letter from K. S. Dharmakumarsinhji, Bapa for short.  Bapa was an Indian prince, the brother of Maharaja Sir Krishnakumarsinhji of Bhavnagar.  Over the course of several years the Craigheads and Bapa exchanged letters.  They discussed hunting and falconry and each of Bapa’s letters ended with “Sometime you must come and see all this for yourselves.”  John and Frank, in return, invited him to America.  Bapa was the first to accept and visited the Craigheads for two weeks.  Wanting to return the favor and see all of the things Bapa had described the Craigheads needed to find the money to travel to India.  An editor at National Geographic solved their dilemma by giving them an assignment and a grant for the trip.  The Craigheads thus traveled to India and wrote “Life with an Indian Prince”, which was published in National Geographic in February, 1942.

LwaIP - Frank and John

The article reads very much like the Craigheads first, very much full of palpable adventure.  It is written so well that you are transported to India with them and feel as if you’re sharing in their experiences.  Also like “Adventures with Birds of Prey”, the article is filled with well-composed photographs that help bring the words to life.

LwaIP - Bapa

“Life with an Indian Prince” focuses less on falconry than did their first article, though it is still at the heart of the story; nearly have of the photographs include a bird of prey.  I really like seeing the various traps that were developed and employed in India, especially an authentic bal chatri.  It’s neat that the same concept, though obviously modified, is still used today; it’s what I and most apprentices use to trap their first red-tail.

LwaIP - Bal chatri

It’s also interesting to see how historic falconry in India differs from historic and modern falconry in America.  For instance, the Craigheads mention catching kites and owls with their birds.  Other birds of prey weren’t historically hunted for falconry in America (at least, not that I’m aware of) and they’re protected now.  The Indians also employed a classical method of manning in which the bird was carried on the fist for days at a time.  Handlers took shifts during the day and night and in this way the birds were tamed in a few days instead of a few weeks as they are with less intensive methods.

Bapa had his trappers catch or buy many species, including peregrines, lugger falcons, sparrow hawks, goshawks, saker falcons, and shahins (=shaheen, a subspecies of peregrine).  The Craigheads wrote of eagles being trapped, but never mention if these were trained for falconry or not.  Frank, John, Bapa, and Bapa’s trainers flew all of these birds.  Game was apparently very abundant as many birds would be cycled through each day.

LwaIP - peregrine

In addition to falconry and general descriptions of India and life there the Craigheads included two interesting stories.  The first recounted a royal wedding the Craigheads were invited to attend, which lasted three days with little sleep.  A procession of 100 elephants was involved at one point.  One paragraph sums it up the best I think:

The parades were like a rotating colored disk.  There were so many moving forms and colors that my lasting impression will not be the silver carriages, the trays of silks and jewels that were presented to the bride, or the gorgeously dressed groom, but it will be an image of a great color splash, as if a bubbling spring of color had overflowed at out guest palace on the hill and trickled down as a long quilted ribbon to the new palace by  the lake.  Even the visiting maharajas were overwhelmed by the beauty, cost, as lavishness of the ceremonies.

The second story was about hunting with cheetahs.  Apparently Indian royalty imported adult cheetahs from Africa and trained them to hunt black buck, a species of antelope.  Bapa’s grandfather once had a stable (what do you call a group of trained hunting cheetahs?) of thirty cats; his favorites roamed the royal palace like dogs. Bapa’s brother Nanabhai was in charge of all of the Cheetahs and apparently had fewer than thirty.  Each cat cost around $400.  They were hunted out of the open back of a truck.  The hunted was conducted by driving around until a heard of black buck was located.  Nanabhai would drive to within a few hundred yards (driving being a relative term as the Craigheads report him doing 50-70 mph across bumpy terrain, swerving around ditches and holes) of the heard, slam on the brakes, and the cheetah would be released.  It may seem unsporting, but the cheetah often did not catch a black buck.  At the very least, it certainly would have been something to see!  I’m glad John and Frank captured it with such stunning photograph and descriptions.

LwaIP - Frank and John boat

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 photographs in this post © National Geographic.

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“Adventures with Birds of Prey”

“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).

AwBoP - John

AwBoP - Frank with owls

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.

AwBoP - bald eagle

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.

AwBoP - DC falcon club

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.

AwBoP - peregrine

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.

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“American Kestrels in Modern Falconry”

American Kestrels in Modern Falconry” by Matthew Mullinex is the only book that is dedicated to these tiny falcons.  Often overlooked as just an apprentice bird Mullinex demonstrates that kestrels can be excellent gamehawks when flown at the proper quarry (European sparrows and starlings) and have a place in modern falconry.

The book is pretty short at 139 pages with smallish pages and largish font.  I managed to read it in two days.  Still, there is more than enough here for an aspiring apprentice.  Mullinex covers natural history, the historic use of kestrels in falconry, and what bird to trap (which is not necessarily straight forward when many states allow haggards in addition to passagers to be trapped), in addition to fairly standard issues found in other introductory books such as trapping, manning and training, equipment, entering, weight control, and diet.  He emphasizes the importance of weight control, which may be tough for a first-year apprentice.  Kestrels have a flying window of 2-3 grams, and often within 1 gram.  In order to achieve that kind of control is is necessary to weigh the bird twice or more a day and feed it small portions twice or three times a day.

He also gives a substantial number of pages to different methods of hunting and accidents – important considerations when hawking these little birds.  Car hawking should be a pretty obvious choice as it lends itself to the generally short flights of kestrels at their best prey.  Mullinex also described pallet hawking – that is, sending a kestrel after sparrows that are hiding within stacked pallets often found around the back of stores and feed lots – and night roost hawking.

Like other introductory books, Mullinex provides appendices with an example of the first month of training and hood patterns.  These can be very useful to a new apprentice.  A few things I haven’t seen other places that I really like are a weight control and behavior chart, and disposition tables, which illustrates that kestrels are not lost or killed more than red-tailed hawks in falconry.

The book is peppered with photographs (b&w unfortunately) and line drawings.  One I particularly enjoy is a still-life, “Kestrel Fare”, because it plays upon the classic paintings of the game larder.


“Kestrel Fare” by Steve Hein

All-in-all, the book makes me confident that I could fly a kestrel.  It’s well-written and worth buying, especially if you don’t have another introductory-type book.  For the experienced falconer there is perhaps less here to be gained as much of it is covered elsewhere, though it may convince them that the kestrel isn’t just an apprentice bird to be ignored or scoffed as a serious choice for a gamehawk.

Finally, I like how he ends the book:

“There is room to explore here.  A true generalist, the American kestrel borrows at will from the falcons, accipiters, and buteos whatever is necessary to make the catch.  Already falconers are training kestrels to wait-on; some using kites to raise pitch.  How long can it be before balloons or dogs are added to the formula? The kestrel’s ability in a cast of two makes me wonder if three might not be the magic number for pursuit flights at quail? Imagine a group of sibling kestrels perched shoulder-to-shoulder, leaning toward the dog and a scaled quail just waiting to break.  One lifetime is too short to try it all.”

That sums up the book nicely and mirrors my own attitude toward falconry.

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“A Hawk for the Bush”

“A Hawk for the Bush: A Treatise on the Training of the Sparrowhawk and other Short-winged Hawks” was written by J. G. Movrogordato and initially published in 1960.  It quickly became a classic falconry work and a first-edition in good condition can often fetch $500 or more.  Thankfully a revised edition is currently available for much less and has more current information.  While Movrogordato wrote the book about training the Eurasian sparrowhawk the training techniques can be applied to any shortwing.

Movrogordato covers all of the basics of training a hawk, including the choice of hawk (he argues for the hacked eyass), rearing an eyass, breeding sparrowhawks, equipment, hood training, diet, and hunting. Most of this is applicable to North American austringers; some, such as hawking along hedge rows, is not, though can still be interesting to read.  I think his point about carrying the hawk is applicable to most birds – it’s either carry the bird on the fist and offer it no other perch during manning (quite difficult without friends willing to carry it throughout the night), or you must make it want to ride the fist and not carry it a second longer.  When it’s done eating replace it on the perch and do not pick it up until the next feeding.  Don’t try to carry it for long periods (even up to 18 hours a day, only to replace it on the perch so you can sleep, otherwise you will have the worst sort of bird.

He also included a chapter titled “Mishaps”.  While some of the information should be fairly common sense (such as change old jesses before they snap) it also includes things like imping feathers and how to find a lost bird (which is much easier now thanks to telemetry).  It is a good chapter for apprentices to read and take to heart.

While most of the book deals with eyass hawks Movrogordato does spend some time discussing sore hawks, which are hawks that are out of the nest and capable of flight (so older than branchers) but that haven’t left the nest area yet and continue to play with their siblings while they learn to hunt.  They fall somewhere between the eyass and passager as far as training and  temperament.  Not many authors discuss the sore hawk, though this interesting developmental stage is being rediscovered by falconers.  Many people cite Movrogordato’s discussion about it.

Included in the revised edition are chapters on health and disease, a chapter of short overviews of other shortwinged hawks, and appendices on how to make and Anglo-Indian hood and patterns for such a hood.  These definitely add to the book rather than detract. Some of Movrogordato’s hawking diary entries are also included.  Looking over these can be a good way to get a general idea of the speed at which a shortwinged hawk might be trained.

In addition, numerous drawings and paintings by R. D. Digby and G. E. Lodge are included as illustrations that were not in the original book.  I really liked many of these, they’re quite good and some art interspersed with pages of text always helps to liven up reading.

“Gasim Rizgala with female lanner Johara, Larry Crowley with tiercel saker Sindibad and Jack Mavrogordato with female peregrine Selema at Khartoum, Sudan”

One thing I enjoyed about the book is the dry humor.  For instance, he begins in the preface by stating:

“It has for some years been the lot of falconers to receive enquiries from would-be falconers anxious to train the sparrowhawk.  My own advice to all such has generally been identical with the famous piece of advice which Mr. Punch once gave to those about to marry*. Experience has, however, shown that well-meaning if negative recommendation has been almost as generally ignored…”

and down in the footnotes states:


Later on when discussing carriage training he states:

“Remember that sparrowhawks (unlike goshawks, in my experience) are most frightened of human beings, less so of dogs, and do not greatly object to machines.  Get them used to people, therefore, especially women and children.  Your hawk may be perfectly used to you and quite fearless in your presence but yet regard every other person she meets as if they were not merely a stranger but a different sort of animal altogether.  It is, therefore, a good plan to have the hawk carried by more than one person.

And, if your household is deficient in well-trained women and children, there is quite a lot to be said for the falconer getting himself up in “drag” and wearing skirts and fancy hats instead of the dull old clothes with which the hawk is so familiar.”

He later goes on to warn:

“Never forget that the relationship between you and your hawk is one of partners, not of master and servant.  Avoid the “I’m the master now” attitude.  Don’t swear at the hawk, however infuriating her behavior (easier said than not done, this).”

Great advice for any falconer, but it’s delivered in such a way that’s dryly humorous and serious at the same time.  I love it.

“Jack Mavrogordato, Renz Waller e Ernesto Coppaloni”

All in all, I really enjoyed reading “A Hawk for the Bush”.  There is a lot of information here, much more than can be had in one reading, so I’ll be picking it up again.

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“The Falconer’s Apprentice”

The Falconer’s Apprentice. A Guide to Training the Passage Red-tailed Hawk” by William C. Oakes was the first falconry book I ever read.  It’s quite short, only 173 pages, and has relatively small pages and large print.  It’s not the most technical manual about falconry ever written, but it is a very good introduction to the sport for someone who thinks they may be interested.

The book offers a step-by-step guide for the first year apprentice.  It starts with a short introduction to falconry as a sport and it’s history.  Next is a rather lengthy chapter devoted to pre-trapping preparations, such as game prospects in your area, building mews, equipment you’ll need, hawk food, and figuring out where you’ll hunt.  These are all very important aspects for the falconer-to-be to consider and may be enough to turn some people off.

The section on traps and trapping is very short, only two pages, as Oakes expects the apprentice to get most of their instruction in this from their sponsor.  And rightly so, the sponsor should be very involved in the trapping of an apprentice’s first bird.

Manning, feeding the bird and using food as a training tool, and flying a bird all follow in fairly rapid succession.  He treats hunting and game with some brevity, again because the sponsor should be involved with this.  The conditioning and diet chapter addresses what to feed the bird, different ideas on exercise, weight control, and keeping a log book.  He covers how to build a giant hood and how to use it in the short section on transportation.  The book finishes off with a chapter on releasing the bird back into the wild.

One aspect I really enjoyed about the book is the focus on ethics in falconry.  As much as some people would like to make it out to be, falconry is not a blood sport when practiced correctly.  While both falconer and hawk enjoy catching game, it’s not the head count that matters at the end of the season.  It’s the thrill of the flight, whether it ends in a kill or not, and enjoying being near a wild animal following it’s natural instincts and being allowed to join it.  There is a respect for the quarry.  I share his sentiment: “I accept the kill as a natural conclusion of, but not the ultimate reason for, the chase.”

The illustrations are acceptable.  They’re not the best I’ve seen in falconry books, but they serve the purpose.  Ideally an apprentice should see their sponsor’s equipment in hand to understand how it should look anyhow.

All in all I find this to be a good, if short, intorduction to falconry.  It’s best suited for someone who is on the fence as to whether they want to take the plunge or not as it does a good job as demonstrating how much effort is required to train and fly a hawk.  For a more serious apprentice it is best paired with a more comprehensive book though is still a good resource to have on hand.

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“The Passage Cooper’s Hawk and Those Who Fly ‘Em”

I stumbled across a thread on the NAFEX (North American Falconry Exchange) forum a few months ago advertising Bill Boni’s new book “The Passage Cooper’s Hawk and Those Who Fly ‘Em”.


Front cover

I’m intrigued by Coops and would like to fly one some day so decided to get the book.  The book is self published and in the thread Bill gave instructions on how to get a copy (basically mail him $20).  The thread can be found here:


Overall I’m very pleased with the book.  It’s set up as a series of chapters written by different austringers who have had success manning, training, and hunting passage Cooper’s hawks.  The book is pretty professionally made for a self-published book, though the pictures are a bit grainy.  There are also some mistakes as far as basic grammar, punctuation, and spelling that should have been corrected before publication, but not so many that it’s distracting to read.

Being set up as chapters of different people’s experiences has pros and cons.  There’s no single method of training spelled out in discrete steps, which might be annoying if that’s what you’re looking for.  However, after reading more than one or two chapters you start to see the commonalities between successful training and hunting regimes.

Many of the take away messages seem pretty self-evident to me, but perhaps they’re not to everyone:
1. Treat the hawk like an individual and respond to what it wants.  Don’t force a hawk to hunt from the fist if it would rather hunt from a tree.
2. Some people have success training Coops the same way they train a RT.  Other people deviate from that in various ways, such as using a strobe light in initially manning or start hunting them before they’re fully manned and finish training in the field.
3. Birds trapped at different times of year are very different.  People have had a lot of success with birds that are just out of the nest not being fed by their parents but also haven’t left the family group/nest area yet.  They have some traits of imprints in being easier to train but not the bad qualities like screaming or attacking the falconer for food. Conversely, birds trapped later in the season are still trainable but much more difficult or impossible to make do what you want; they are much more focused on hunting how they want and will not be good falconry birds if you try to force them into hunting how you want.
4. Weight control is important.  They’re small birds with pretty tight windows, though some people have had success increasing their weight as they become better trained through the season.
5. The most important point is that Cooper’s do make good falconry birds and aren’t the hell beasts some people make them out to be.  They take a lot of work and aren’t for everyone, but can be rewarding if you have the time.

All-in-all I think it’s well worth $20 (which includes shipping!), even if you’re not interested in fly a Coops.


Bill Boni and his Cooper’s hawk, from the last page of the book.


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