Hawks & Falcons, Then & Now

Although biologists now place hawks and falcons in separate families, ancient and medieval people did not distinguish clearly between the two.

Gray Hawk

gray hawk

Prairie Falcon

prairie falcon

Egyptian representations of the god Horus, for example, combined features of several species, though the most important model is probably the peregrine falcon.

Peregrine Falcon

peregrine falcon

In the early 20th Century the Irish poet W. B. Yeats used the image of a circling falcon to represent the social and cosmic order in his famous poem “The Second Coming.” And he got something ‘wrong’ too! Can you spot a factual error in the first stanza?

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

prairie falcon

prairie falcon

Yeats’ error?

Falcons don’t respond to auditory cues from their handlers.  Yes, I suppose Yeats is technically correct that a distant falcon won’t actually “hear” the falconer, but my point is that’s not how they communicate to begin with.

A few days ago I mingled in a crowd of perhaps 100 bird watchers clustered around a falconer. The falcon was easily half a mile away, high up out of camera range, circling lazily. The handler, seemingly indistinguishable from the rest of us, simply raised one hand, not even above his head but just about nose level, and wriggled three fingers.

That’s all it took!  Immediately the falcon banked and dove down at his trademark 240mph to land lightly on the handler’s arm.

prairie falcon

In what is probably the oldest animal fable to have come down to us from the Greeks, Hesiod used a hawk to represent the inexorable power of fate.

gray hawk

A hawk had caught a nightingale in his claws and carried her high into the clouds, at which point she began to weep.

The hawk rebuked her, saying, “Goodness, why are you screaming? . . . He is a fool who seeks to compete against the stronger: he both loses the struggle and suffers injury on top of insult” (Works and Days, p. 43).

Gray Hawk

gray hawkgray hawkgray hawkgray hawk

🙂 🙂 🙂

[All photos taken Christmas week in Tucson, AZ]

6 Replies to “Hawks & Falcons, Then & Now”

    1. Thanks, Bruce. The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum has a wonderful raptor free-flight show that allowed me to get a lot of good close ups.


  1. I hope you’re planning a book for these spectacular birds, so astoundingly beautiful!
    I love the way you always catch light through extended wing or tail feathers. And such drama in their hearts! All the poses of skilled orators or our best thespians, the grace to these exquisite creatures.
    Re Yeats, I’m thinking anarchy is never ‘mere’ but wondered about the hearing, and the description of the handler’s mere signal was superb to read. What eyes they have! What eyes YOU have!


    1. Thanks, Barbara. If there’s a trick to getting good shots part of it is to take thousands of pictures and throw 99% of them away. 🙂


    1. Thank you! I was certainly aided by this being a bird show where they flew close enough for good pictures. I was so enthralled that I went to take pictures six days in a row! 🙂


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