Review: Understanding the Bird of Prey by Nick Fox
If love, knowledge and commitment for all things bird of prey were immortalised in words and bound into a book, then this is surely it. A lifetime of passion soars within the pages of Understanding the Bird of Prey by Nick Fox, world renowned falconer, biologist and writer.
Everything you always wanted to know about falconry and hawks, raptors and falcons, as well as everything you never even considered, is here in abundance. But as the author states, this is for basic principles only, and ‘(t)here comes a point where you have to get in there and “just do it, mate”’.
This bible of a book is in fact a second edition, and much has been rewritten from the first (1995) due to, but by no means exhaustive, recent research and conservation work, advances in technology, and the recognition by UNESCO of falconry heritage.
This edition can be digested as an e-book or in a more traditional paper format, and each chapter is supported by instructional videos, such as ‘Anatomy’ and ‘Basic Training’, thus ‘creating a package you can dip into and out of as you wish’.
So who is this book for? Well, falconers, breeders, ecologists, and birders to name but a few, however as society is feeling the need to return to nature, this book gives everyone the connection for a very intimate relationship.
With countryside restrictions such as private land boundaries and conservation laws, it can be more difficult nowadays to get out and experience birds of prey.
From my garden in Carmarthen I can watch Red Kites (once perilously close to extinction in Wales) hang in the thermals, and feel my chest swell with the beauty of the silhouette as big as my thumb nail.
In the nearby British Bird of Prey Centre, I can encounter a variety of birds through a barrier, gaze at the beautiful complexities and patterns of their feathers.
I can watch the flying show, marvel at the way the kestrel zips between us, catches meat in the air. I can feel the strength of the Golden Eagle’s wings as it beats deep over our heads.
But what I never considered is the sheer magnitude of what being a falconer entails, and how complex birds of prey are.
As Tom J. Cade from The Peregrine Fund Inc. has written in the Foreword, ‘Birds of prey have stirred human emotions since time immemorial because of their fierce beauty, great strength, commanding presence and superlative skill as hunters’.
Having read Understanding the Bird of Prey, I certainly feel a deeper connection for them. And with this comes a greater innate need to protect them.
When presented with just over five hundred pages of information, I would have once baulked at the thought of consuming this amount. Scientific school books still plague me to this day. Thankfully however, the consideration for the reader’s capacity to digest so much precise and niche material is present throughout.
Firstly, the eleven chapters, for example Chapter 1 ‘Structure and Function’, are organised into more manageable sections, including ‘Taxonomy’, ‘The Skeleton’, ‘The Senses’, and so on. ‘Small details are key to everything’.
Furthermore, each smaller section is chunked up using generous helpings of photographs, clearly labelled diagrams, a range of charts and graphs, handwritten field notes and the most beautiful ink illustrations of birds I have ever seen. These range in size from a quarter of a page right up to a full page spread.
Have you ever considered the position of a peregrine chick in an egg at time of hatching, complete with identification of the airspace, alular claw, and allantoic blood vessel crossing near the nose? Well, there is a diagram for that.
Pictures and information from around the world are a common inclusion, showing the falconry community has a global spread. Pakistan, China, Peru and Mongolia all feature, amongst others.
The language too is user friendly and, despite the huge amount of specific terminology and detail, Nick Fox has written in a clear and precise manner. The ability for the reader to understand is incredibly important as the welfare of the bird is of utmost priority.
To get it wrong would be damaging, even dangerous, and we are given numerous examples of how birds of prey are harmed due to neglectful or ill-informed ownership.
Beautiful linguistic imagery takes shape amongst the scientific facts. ‘Falconers have always been determined individualists, and when they applied themselves to restoring raptors a whole night sky of individual stars started to twinkle around the globe’. Sigh.
There are breaths of lightheartedness and Nick Fox skillfully drifts in a selection of more playful and comical moments, easing the pressure of the subject specific element. At one point, he explains the crucial use of a 24/7 CCTV camera to check on ‘sick/injured falcons or even staff taking a cheeky 5 minute break whilst pressure washing!’
He also allows his strong views and opinions to swerve through, for example when explaining the right types of anklets and jesses to use (all with diagramatic pictures, of course) he laments that ‘There have been examples of really stupid falconers flying their hawks with the swivel still on the jesses!’
This highlighting of unacceptable ignorance always rears its head alongside an importance of the safety and wellbeing of the bird and this, I would say, is Nick Fox’s through-line.
Everything included within this beautiful book is for the protection, and in the interest of, the bird. His lifetime of love and dedication shines through.
Takeaways from the pages are immense. I have learnt the word ‘imprint’ (when a human rears a chick from birth, and the chick believes them to be their parent) and all that entails throughout the bird’s life.
I am aware of problems with hood designs, peregrine migration routes and artificial insemination (extremely detailed). I am now versed in the building of breeding pens (but not in security measures in place from thieves – this is the one thing he refuses to include, for obvious reasons).
I can tell you the best ratio components for fat and muscle with regards to health and hunting. I had never heard of Rofalconry before, whereby dummies (robots) are built and painted to look like real birds, and then used as prey in training. They are ‘flown’ by humans (pilots) using a radio controller. Now I know.
I am astonished by how birds hatch from eggs. How the chick progresses from allantoic respiration to lung breathing, using its small egg tooth to puncture through the inner shell membrane and reach the air cell to begin this process.
How the hatching muscle is stimulated by the resulting excess amount of carbon dioxide, telling the chick to start tapping and lift a small section of the egg shell, known as ‘starring’. And gradually, oh so gradually, the shell comes away. The chick is born. Amazing.
So why is it so essential that falconry is known and continues? The final chapter, ‘Raptors and Humans’, is of immense contemporary importance.
Firstly, it follows the journey for falconry to be inscribed on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Mankind. How fantastic, and the submission, quoted as being ‘the largest and best prepared…they ever had’ is included within this chapter.
Nick Fox explains how falconry has helped immeasurably in the preservation of birds from persecution, game shooting and egg collecting. The world is rapidly changing and charities have been created across the globe to assist with species survival, from captive breeding programmes to raising awareness of habitat loss, shooting and pesticides.
He makes it very clear that ‘Falconers have never, in any country at any period in human history, endangered any population of raptors or any other species’.
Hence why this second edition is so important. Our world is a very different place than what it was almost thirty years ago. And with our increasing need to protect our natural world, this book plays an integral part.
Understanding the Bird of Prey by Nick Fox is published by Cambria Books. You can buy a copy here.
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