Thursday, September 10, 2015

Long live the Queen

HM Queen Elizabeth II is now Britain's longest-reigning monarch, having surpassed Queen Victoria.

Linking to a previous post featuring the Hudson's Bay coronation blanket. I'll try to do a new blanket post soon; it's been a while.

Monday, September 7, 2015

"The Collection of Marie Claire"

Disturbing...haunting...and beautiful.

Monday, August 17, 2015


The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston has digitized the Ehon taka kagami, a collection of hawking prints produced in the 1860s by Japanese artist Kawanabe Kyôsai. (Big tip of the hat to Patrick Burns at Terrierman's Daily Dose for bringing this to my attention.) This is a fantastic source of information for any falconer interested in the history and geographic/cultural variation in the sport, and conveys a sense of what a formal, elaborate approach characterized (and to some extent still does) Japanese falconry. Bill Jameson, author of The Hawking of Japan, noted that "in one book of the Meiji period there are illustrated seventy different ways of tying a leash to the screen perch, the method varying with the holiday or occasion, the visiting nobles present, and the species of hawk." The book referenced is almost certainly the Ehon taka kagami.

These are not static field-guide-style images; clearly the man had spent some time observing hawks, for the postures are recognizable and authentic. Naturally, the illustrations are of otaka, or northern goshawks, the preeminent birds of Japanese falconry. For centuries, passage goshawks (and occasionally haggards) were imported from mainland Asia, as the mainland subspecies were larger than the native gos, and often paler as well—then as now, white goshawks were status symbols. One of the roles of the daimyo (feudal lords) of the islands of Tsushima was to ensure a steady supply of goshawks from nearby Korea.

Both of the falconers in the picture below are carrying the buchi, a branch of wisteria (occasionally willow or plum) that is frayed on one end and used as a brush to clean the hawk's beak and feet. The end opposite the brush is often sharpened for putting disarranged feathers in order. The buchi has its origins in feudal law—commoners, even those hired as professional falconers by the daimyo, were not supposed to touch hawks—but is still used by some traditionalists who find nervous accipiters more accepting of it than of the human hand.

Other equipment depicted includes the relatively light Japanese hawking glove; the ikebukuro or live-lure bag with its bamboo toggles for attaching to the falconer's belt; the ôo or silken leash; and of course the hoko or screen perch.

Scenes from the field make an appearance as well, including the use of a live lure to recover a hawk as well as flights at quarry. Several of the illustrations include dogs, reflecting the longstanding alliance between dogs and hawks in Japan, although the Japanese hunting breeds such as the shiba-inu are far less specialized than those originating in the West (pointers, spaniels, retrievers, etc.).

Another scene from the field: the falconer, with buchi stuck into his belt and kuchiekago or wicker food-basket slung against his hip, feeds his hawk—not on the fist as in the West, but from the right hand, possibly using an egôshi or tidbit-box—while a companion waits patiently with several head of game tied to a stick, and the dog sniffs the ground for scraps.

View the whole thing.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Verdigre again

Photos with fish in them by yours truly; the rest are Jessa's.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Uncle Shaftie and the societies

For over twenty years now, I've kept and occasionally bred estrildid finches. Beginning with a pair of orange-cheeked waxbills, I soon added other African species: lavender waxbills (which remain my favourite), rosy-rumped (Sundevall's) waxbills, red-cheeked cordon bleus, and bronze-winged mannikins have all graced my aviary. I've also kept a few Australian and Asian species, including spectacular Gouldian finches, far more pedestrian zebra finches, and both white-headed and black-headed munias.

For a long time, though, I resisted keeping society finches, also known as Bengalese finches. A domesticated form of the white-rumped munia, they share many characteristics of the munias and mannikins which comprise the genus Lonchura, but are highly variable in plumage, beyond a general tendency to pied brown-and-white patterns. They have frequently been used as foster parents, not just for other Lonchura finches, but for many other estrildids. I might have had more success raising waxbills if I had kept societies, but a decided preference—perhaps snobbery—for wild-type birds prevented me from doing so.

Over the years, though, I've come to a greater appreciation for the ecotone between the natural and the artificial; to a realisation, in fact, that the distinction between the two is in itself artificial. I now hawk over dogs (at one time anathema to me as a personal practice), I keep a backyard flock of bantam chickens, I hope soon to have a loft of pigeons, and two years ago I let Jessica talk me into keeping a small flock of society finches.

What a good decision that has been! At the time, my formerly diverse flock had dwindled to two male shaft-tailed finches and an ancient bronze-winged mannikin, the last survivor out of an original group of six or eight. The bronzewing and the shafttails didn't interact much, and I felt bad for the poor little bronzie—most estrildids are highly social, but none more than the Lonchura species, which tend to live in large single- or mixed-species flocks. Introducing the societies gave the apparently decrepit bronzewing a new lease on life; he took immediately to his new cage-mates, became much more active, and when he finally passed away (at the age of at least thirteen), I was grateful that he had spent his final months in a state of contented sociability.

Another unexpected benefit to keeping societies stems, ironically, from their domesticated status. Most if not all of my estrildids have been captive-bred, but being only a few generations removed from the wild, they have nevertheless retained a great deal of their natural reserve. The societies, on the other hand, after centuries of domestication, are quite tame, with the result that instead of behaving in the "less natural" way I might have anticipated, they actually display a greater range of natural behaviours, unafraid to simply be birds even under close observation.

This includes breeding behaviour, and our flock recently fledged its second set of youngsters in as many years. I say "flock" because I haven't the slightest clue which birds are actually the parents, partly because I'm not that careful an observer, partly because the finches are not banded for easy identification, and partly because the birds themselves behave as a unit, with all of them (including the lone surviving shafttail) typically sleeping together, crammed into the same wicker nest basket despite the presence of two others.

This usual sleeping arrangement changed, though, when eggs started to appear in one of the alternate baskets. One or two of the finches (presumably but not necessarily the parents) would incubate the eggs—and later brood the nestlings—day and night, while the rest of the flock went about their daily routine and, come nightfall, dogpiled into the communal basket. So I was concerned one evening when I noticed that, instead of a society or two, it was the shafttail occupying the basket with the fledglings. The next morning, though, I again heard the insistent chirping of the little beggars and saw one of the societies feeding them. This is when Jessica and I started calling the helpful Aussie "Uncle Shaftie".

Since then, he has continued to take an active interest in the welfare of his young non-relations. If Jessa or I approach the cage, he flies up to be near the fledglings, chirping at us in what I suppose could be construed as a menacing fashion. The other societies? Couldn't be arsed; our presence is not perceived as a threat. (If anyone willfully or otherwise misunderstands the difference between captive-bred and domestic, I submit this as evidence for a clear distinction.) A couple of days ago, when Jess opened the front of the cage for maintenance and one of the fledglings more or less accidentally flew out, Uncle Shaftie—whose normal reaction to the cage being opened is to fly to the back of the cage or to stay on the highest perch—darted down and out to follow the little prodigal around the living room, from the Norfolk Island pine to one or two of our decorative cages to the palm tree which stretches to the ceiling. (Jess says they looked especially good in the palm. See this recent post from 10,000 Birds, incidentally, for some nice pictures of wild estrildids.)

We haven't seen Uncle Shaftie feeding the young societies, but he's almost always close by when they are being fed. He continues to roost communally with the society flock—only the fledglings eschew the basket, possibly because they lack confidence in their ability to fly to it.

I wrote the above back in October, but never got around to finishing or posting it. I post it now as a tribute to Uncle Shaftie, who died peacefully last weekend—the day before "his" fourth clutch, a Bengalese singleton, fledged. Rest easy, mate.

On the fly again

Ellie with bluegill.

Saturday, July 11, 2015


In a hole in the ground there lived a squirrel. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a thirteen-lined ground squirrel hole, and that means comfort. It had a perfectly round door, which opened on to a tube-shaped hall like a tunnel. The tunnel wound on and on, going fairly but not quite straight into the side of the hill, and many little round doors opened out of it, first on one side and then on another.

I suppose thirteen-lined ground squirrels need some description, as they are somewhat shy of people. They are a little squirrel, smaller than most, though inclined at times to be fat in the stomach. They dress in subdued colours, but striking patterns—lots of stripes, certainly, but also polka dots within the stripes, and people who know a lot about squirrels have given them a lovely name, tridecemlineatus, of which they are inordinately proud. They have long clever brown fingers, good-natured faces, and chirpy little birdlike voices when they talk, which is frequently. There is little or no magic about them, except the ordinary everyday sort which helps them to disappear quietly and quickly when large stupid folk like you and me come blundering along.

Thirteens, as some people call them—other people are apt to call them gophers, or damn gophers, or more likely not to think of them at all—spend a good deal of their time near their holes, alert to the approach of people, or watching with great interest the goings-on of their fellow squirrels.

These goings-on might include some bickering, some rapid chasing, even the making of more thirteens.

But the squirrels who are not engaged in squabbling, chasing, or wooing, as I've said, spend a good deal of time near their holes, ready to disappear in a flash if it looks like too much excitement might be about to happen. "Keep your nose out of trouble, and no trouble will come to you" is the motto and practice of the respectable thirteen.

Thirteens really are fascinating creatures. You can learn all that there is to know about their ways in a month, and yet after many years they are still worth the time it takes to watch.

Friday, July 3, 2015


Some photos (mostly by Jess, a couple by Ellie and me) from a recent camping/fishing trip on Verdigre Creek. Our closest neighbours were Cooper's hawks (a nest with at least two young ones, perhaps a week from fledging), we were serenaded by screech-owls and whippoorwills, and winter wrens provided a much better wake-up call than the fake birds that live in my alarm clock back home. Belted kingfishers and great blue herons fished the creek with us, and we had Baltimore orioles, rose-breasted grosbeaks, yellow warblers, and eastern phoebes for company.

It is good to get away once in a while...