Monday, December 24, 2012


Little time for blogging lately; I might eventually write about the Nebraska Falconers' Association meet, but first I wanted to round out the North American Falconers' Association meet with one last post.

One of the most memorable characters from the 2012 NAFA meet in Kearney was neither a falconer nor a hawk, nor a dog, but a pigeon. Specifically, a brown pigeon with a grey rump who, having been brought to the meet by a falconer, escaped from the falconer's truck. Now, I'm no pigeon expert, but I would have expected the pigeon to make a few ascending circles to get its bearings and then line out for home, wherever that may have been. (I didn't inquire and so don't know whose pigeon it was.) Instead, it made the Holiday Inn parking lot and adjacent weathering yard its manor, hawk-infested though it may have been.

We arrived on Tuesday evening, at which point the pigeon was already well-ensconced. Sometimes perching in a tree above the redtails and Harris' hawks, sometimes flying lazy circles around the parking lot and weathering yard, sometimes strutting among the assembled SUVs and pickups, the pigeon was always in evidence. Ellie and I made a semi-concerted attempt to grab it, each of us sneaking nonchalantly around the corner of a hawking rig in a pincer movement, but the pigeon was wary; it had already evaded a few such efforts by others attending the meet, as well as the noose carpet that a more methodical would-be trapper had employed. No, this pigeon, having made good its escape, was determined not to return to captivity, though neither did it seem interested in travel—the Holiday Inn, it seems, was good enough.

(Lest anyone think that our look-casual-and-grab technique was hopelessly naïve, I did bare-hand a pigeon in downtown Lincoln a couple of hours before my wedding to Jess, wearing a tuxedo no less. I was wearing a tuxedo, not the pigeon.)

I helped break down the weathering yard late Friday afternoon, pulling posts and rolling fence, and of course the pigeon was still there, watching the deconstruction and presumably breathing a sigh of relief that all the hawks and falcons had gone. And it was still there late Saturday morning as we loaded the station wagon and pulled out; we were headed for home, and the pigeon apparently thought it was home. As we drove off, we wondered at its fate; maybe it will integrate into one of the flocks of feral pigeons in downtown Kearney, a mile or two north; maybe it will discover too late that not all Cooper's hawks are tethered to bowperches. I rather enjoy not knowing.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Closing ceremony

One new feature at this year's NAFA meet was a central European-style closing ceremony, hosted by German falconer (and newly elected IAF vice-president) Thomas Richter. Game taken during the meet is laid out on evergreen boughs, songs specific to each game species are played on horns (or, in this case, a recording is played on a speaker), and all present observe a few moments of silence as a gesture of appreciation for the quarry that makes the hunt possible, nourishing both hawks and our spirits.

[Donna Vorce and Shea Stull gathering cedar branches.]

[The square laid out.]

[Game ceremony by torchlight.]

Note to young falconers: The format can be different, but never miss a chance to honour your quarry.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012


I was spectacularly unsuccessful at the NAFA raffles, but Ellie picked up a small treasure on a $1 ticket: this apparently hand-drawn illumination.

Unfortunately, I know nothing of this picture's provenance, or even which raptor is depicted. My first impression is of an Old World kite or, more likely, one of the small forest eagles—a snake-eagle or something similar. That white tail ought to be diagnostic, but a quick look at Ferguson-Lees & Christie (Raptors of the World) yielded no definitive matches. Informed speculation is welcomed, as are translations from anyone who can read the inscriptions in what I take to be Hindustani (Hindi-Urdu) but might be Arabic.

Meanwhile, this awaits framing; it will eventually find an honoured space in the Farrell-Churchill household.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

My week in review

I had a somewhat odd NAFA meet. I'm always delighted when it's just two hours down the road in Kearney, but I had to work Monday and Tuesday, so I hawked in Lincoln after work on Tuesday and didn't get in to Kearney 'til late. Then I had to return to Lincoln on Wednesday to pick up Ellie, so I hawked in Lincoln again. High winds assured that, once in Kearney, I get in less flying than I had intended, while a series of headaches both literal and figurative meant that I spent less time socialising than I might have otherwise. The result is that I felt strangely detached from all the goings-on.

Still, it was good to have the girls with me, and good to see old friends again. Several of them had missed me in the five years since my last NAFA meet, and a few expressed concern—a reminder that some of these see-you-in-November friendships transcend mere hunting-buddy status to become genuine friendships. Stekoa helped out by flying reasonably well even when it was too windy to find quarry; once the wind died down on Friday afternoon, he caught the second bunny he saw. Photos (by Jessica) from Thursday's and Friday's hunts follow.

Monday, November 26, 2012


Late Friday morning, we went for a brief starling hunt at a local feedlot. These starlings are hunted hard by the resident raptors—not just merlins, but also prairie falcons, Cooper's hawks, and sharp-shinned hawks—so they're wary, and we didn't get the high ringing flights generally preferred by merlin enthusiasts. Still, we did see a couple of good flights.

Diane Moller and her black merlin. [All these shots are by Jess.]


Jeremy Bradshaw and his Richardson's merlin.

Closing with a flock of starlings, at just above cow level.

Following the flight.

Sunday, November 25, 2012


A brief tour of the weathering yard at the NAFA meet in Kearney...

White gyrfalcon. We nicknamed this one "the moose" for her size.

Some gyr hybrids.

Peregrines—blonde tundrius peregrines.

Tiercel prairie.

Gyr x merlin hybrid.

Richardson's merlin and jack.

And, moving to the other side of the yard...



Harris' hawk.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Massacre of the redfoots

I recently received news (HT Rob Palmer) of a wholesale killing of Amur falcons, also known as eastern red-footed falcons (Falco amurensis), in Nagaland, northeastern India. I use "wholesale" in the literal sense, as these raptors are being killed for sale as food, at the rate of twelve to fourteen thousand per day. (Estimates by Conservation India; article here.)

I'm not unmindful of the First World/Third World issues here, but it bears pointing out that this slaughter is not just contrary to Western sensibilities but also against Indian as well as international law. Unfortunately, it seems there will always be those who think poverty is an excuse for bad behaviour, just as there will always be those who think wealth provides an exemption from common standards of decency.

It really is a pity to see this befall such a charming and indeed beneficial bird. The red-footed falcons (both eastern and western) are small, agile raptors, almost entirely insectivorous, and catch their prey on the wing. We don't have anything like them in North America; the closest ecological equivalent is probably the Mississippi kite. (Phylogenetically, they've been variously linked to merlins, kestrels, and hobbies.) Like Mississippi kites, they are at least partially social, an arrangement facilitated by their dietary habits, and in migration form large, loose flocks. The Amur/eastern red-footed falcon breeds in the Sino-Siberian region (see map below) and winters in southern Africa; as such, it is one of relatively few birds of prey to make a transoceanic migration. As you can deduce from the map, their migration route takes them directly through India, and they use this as a staging area, feeding as much as possible in order to fuel their crossing. And it is here, massing in great numbers on the staging grounds, that they have become so vulnerable to market "hunting".

[Breeding range in yellow; wintering range in blue. Map by Ulrich Prokop, after distribution maps in: Ferguson-Lees & David A. Christie: Raptors of the World. Houghton Mifflin Company Bostand and New York 2001. pp 867 and 276.]

I have placed "hunting" in quotes deliberately: This is mass slaughter for purely economic reasons (short-sighted ones at that), of the same sort that rendered the passenger pigeon and Carolina conure extinct. The little falcons are netted in huge numbers as they go to roost; it seems quite likely that others are shot opportunistically. As noted in the Conservation India report, this is far beyond a subsistence activity: "It is still a mystery where huge numbers of dead amurs go everyday, as the local villages cannot absorb such numbers for their consumption. One of the hunters told us that two pick-up trucks from Dimapur were to pick-up the birds from Pankgi village (we couldn’t confirm this and passed on the information to the District Commissioner and Superintendent of Police). It is critical to understand where the bulk of the birds go."

Update, from a 2009 post by traveler Joyce Tan (HT Bird Ecology Study Group):

There is no shortage of food in Nagaland – they are farmers by tradition, growing padi, potatoes, yam, fruit and vegetables on the hilly slopes, and rearing domesticated animals for meat. It seems that the tribal tradition of capturing wildlife for food remains an active past-time among some segments of the population up till today. I fear for the survival of the Amur Falcon and other wildlife, if they are still being hunted down indiscriminately for sport and recreation. I have spoken to Naga people who are my friends about conservation and wildlife protection. I pleaded with the youngster who had captured the two birds in these photos, to let them go. He politely gave me his word that he would do so. However, I fear that not enough is being done to change the traditional forms of “enjoying” wildlife in these parts. There is one unmistakable observation in Nagaland – in the rural parts that I visited: the absence of any bird life. The flowering plants and trees are there, the forest edge is usually not far away, yet early mornings and evenings are not filled with birdsong and colors. When I do see them, I fear for their safety and freedom.

I will attempt to update this post further as the story develops.

Thursday, November 1, 2012


Jessica's thunderbird on the left, mine on the right.

Hope to be posting more regularly in the near future.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

English Breakfast

J: "Just so you know, you're only supposed to use three teaspoons per pot."

M: "Well, I used four. Wait, are teaspoons the big ones or the little ones?"

J: "The little ones."

M: "Oh god..."

It was a bit strong.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Medical school

M: "If I remember correctly from medical school, the neck bone's connected to the backbone."

J: "That wasn't medical school, that was elementary school."

M: "That would explain the singing..."

J: [Pauses.] "I think I may have misrepresented my qualifications on my résumé."

Monday, July 23, 2012

Randy J. Farrell, 1958-2012

Sorry to report that Jessica's dad has passed away. A small tribute follows.

Randy John Farrell was born and raised in New Orleans, the fourth of five sons (no daughters) in an Irish/French family. His father, by all reports a man with a violent temper and unreliable self-control, died when Randy was 12, and the young Randy was a bit of a hellraiser. One of his stated "career goals" was to be a getaway driver for the Mafia, and when he was finally caught stealing cars, he was offered a choice common in the Deep South of that era: prison or military service.

He chose the latter and joined the U.S. Marine Corps. His occupational specialty was small-arms repair and maintenance; it's not clear if he was interested in firearms prior to his stint in the Marines, and he never was a hunter, but he was always skilled with the mechanics of things. (Jessica remembers him, years later, picking up defunct bicycles from flea markets and salvage yards, disassembling them, and then reassembling component parts from several different bikes to make new ones for her and her sister.) He began to get his life together in other ways as well, eventually finding peace in religion—not the Catholicism of his family background, but a more evangelical Christianity

At the same time, he was dealt a severe setback in the form of type I diabetes, which led to his taking a medical discharge from the Corps at age 19. His first marriage was rocky and fell apart within a few years but produced a son, Christopher. The day after his ex-wife remarried, Randy began dating Susan Markant, and they married in 1988. Jessica was born later that year, and her sister Heather two years afterward.

[Jessica with her dad, c. 1991]

The new family struggled, though, as Randy's health continued to deteriorate. His kidneys began to fail, and he eventually received a kidney and pancreas transplant, which was successful for several years. Tragedy struck again when Chris, who had followed his dad into military service (U.S. Army for Chris), died of a drug and/or alcohol overdose. Not too long thereafter, Randy went into organ rejection, the diabetes worsened, and things went downhill from there. Peripheral neuropathy rendered him susceptible to injury, especially foot injuries, and years of exposure to anti-rejection medications had suppressed his immune system, so he was prone to infection as well. Diabetes eventually resulted in blindness and, on occasion, altered mental state.

[Randy & Susan Farrell, 2000]

Shortly before we traveled to Arizona to visit her family (they had moved there, much to Jess's chagrin, in 2003), Jessica expressed concern that I might not remember her dad the way she wanted him remembered. I wrote to her:

I understand your concern, but I promise to remember your dad for what you’ve told me about him, not just what I see in Arizona. I’ll be thinking of a craftsman who scours Tucson and Phoenix for the perfect piece of hardwood to put into a table for which he won’t charge near enough; a joker who hides under the bed to reach up and scare his kids; a joker (again) who accelerates or hits potholes on purpose when his wife is applying lipstick; a protective family man who sits where he can see the front door of the restaurant; a Marine.

And so I will. When we got the word that he had taken a turn for the worst, we hit the road as soon as we could, but things went too slowly on our end and too quickly on the other. We are currently with family in Louisiana, awaiting the memorial service, and pondering the tragedies of life—but at least we are doing so together.

I'm especially glad now that I had that chance to meet Jessica's dad in April, and that I had the privilege of experiencing his sly sense of humour firsthand. I had been deferentially addressing him as "Mr. Farrell"; "Hey man," he said in his soft Louisiana drawl, "you can call, 'Mr. Farrell' is good."

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Monday, July 16, 2012

Green anoles

So where is this rich subtropical habitat? Cafe du Monde in Metairie, Louisiana. Wildlife is where you find it.