Saturday, March 01, 2008

The formel's eye: Blakeman


The photo 2/28/08] of the Riverside female, the head close-up with the head tilted way over, clearly shows the light brown iris of the bird. This is almost surely a third-year female. Older adults have much darker, chocolate-brown eyes.

You can also see the slightest variation of color between the upper parts of the iris and the lower parts. The upper edge is very slightly lighter in color. This variation is typical of third-year adults.

Next year, the iris will be uniformly dark brown.

Once again, the tiercel mate is almost yellow-eyed, but with a red tail, so is in it first year of adult plumage, a two-year old.

This is a young couple, a two-year male (tiercel), and -- I'll try to get used to using (and explaining) the term -- a three-year old "formel."
I like it. I hope falconers can be persuaded to resume usage of the term -- after a few centuries.

And yes, female hawks are a bit more "formal" than the tiercels.

--John Blakeman

PS Both photos are courtesy of The first was labeled by John Blakeman

Friday, February 29, 2008

A name for female hawks

Chaucer paper doll by David Claudon

Yesterday John Blakeman wrote that while male hawks are called tiercels by falconers, "there is no really fine, deliberate designation of a female" among hawk species. Chris Karatnytsky, one of the Central Park owl prowlers, begs to differ:

Dear Marie,

John Blakeman should not lose sleep over the failure of falconers to choose a properly serious name for the female hawk. A poet has done so for us. The female is a "formel." I know this not as a student of falconry, but as a student of Chaucer, the great poet of the medieval period who is considered the "Father of English Literature."

Geoffrey Chaucer is the author, most famously, of The Canterbury Tales. (It was an innovation and his greatest bequest to Shakespeare, not to mention the rest of us, that Chaucer wrote prose and verse in the vernacular language, as opposed to Latin or French.) But the work of interest to the topic of tiercels and formels is his seven hundred line allegorical dream poem called Parlement of Foules (The Parliament of the Fowls), first printed by William Caxton in 1478.

Parlement of Foules
is largely centered around the comic debate that ensues among a gathering of birds after three tiercels declare their intentions to marry a formel. In the end, Nature herself steps in to grant the formel a year's "respit," so that she can well ponder the decision to select her mate and then choose him of her own free will -- "to have my choys al fre". (Holding out for Pale Male, I betcha.) Then, the dreamer awakens.

Parlement of Foules is interesting, not only for its forward-thinking philosophy in matters of feminism (Chaucer clearly loved women), but also in that it is the first occurrence in literature of Saint Valentine's Day as a special occasion for lovers. And, of course, there are the birds...

According to the on-line version of The Oxford English Dictionary, tiercel is derived from "tierce," a word of obscure origin indicating "a third part" of something. One-third, that is. Thus, from the first, the tiercel was recognized as the smaller bird, less adapted to the chase, and therefore less valued. At least, this was according to the standards of the day as described by a contemporary. The formel claimed status as the "fore-male."

formel regards,
Chris Karatnytsky

PS from Marie: As it happens, Chris K. and her border collie Fig both play pivotal roles in the central story of my forthcoming book Central Park in the Dark.

PPS Happy Leap Day to one and all.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Riverside pair: she's older

photo courtesy of [click on image to enlarge]

In his comments below about the Riverside Park redtail pair, John Blakeman describes a situation similar to the one Central Park birdwatchers witnessed when Pale Male first arrived in the park. He was a browntail that first year we saw him [1991]. His eyes were yellow. And he hooked up with an "older woman" hawk, one with dark eyes and a red tail. Subsequently we called her First Love. [My 1999 book tells that story in detail.] The sentence I have enlarged [in paragraph 3 below] applies to Pale Male. He was one of those rare hawks of his species to mate before his tail turned red. A remarkable bird from the start!

From the photos today on, showing the two Riverside Park Red-tails, it appears that the golden-eyed, first-year adult, is the "tiercel," the male -- the term is mainly used in falconry. The dark-eyed bird is the female, and in one photo she's shown with some new nest lining material.

How can I, as the biologists say, "sex" the birds, determine their sex? The toes of the golden-eyed bird are slightly narrower than those of the other bird. The same is true of the tarsus, the scaled, ankle part of the leg just above the feet. I've handled several hundred Red-tails, and can visually detect the very slight but visible widths. When I trap a wild Red-tail, the first thing I look at is the size of the feet, the length and width of the toes, along with the relative width of the tarsus. The differences in the Riverside pair are definitively obvious.

From this, there is the very good possibility that the female has nested before, but who knows where. The tiercel almost surely has not. There are just a few cases where an immature Red-tail has mated while still in brown feathers, in the spring following its hatching. . .

Sadly, for the Red-tail and other similar hawks that were never used in classical falconry, there is no really fine, deliberate designation of a female. A good number of falconers and raptor biologists label a female Red-tail as a "hen." For me, that's a term that should be reserved for real hens, female adult chickens and other closely related species. For me, "hen" is not properly serious enough to be used for a female Red-tail. To me, they are never so diminutive as to be called a mere "hen."

I'm therefore stuck with "female." I've lost a bit of sleep on occasion, trying to summon appropriate neologistic powers and fabricate some new word for a female Red-tail. No luck.

I'm open to suggestions. This is a linguistic hole that needs to be filled, although I'm not certain that these gaps are ever sufficiently filled by anything than other than normal conversation among aficionados, over decades.

Anyway, the Riverside Park tiercel is nesting for its first time.

--John Blakeman

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

One of our connections with Red-tailed Hawks?

Remember the Feb. 19th post here about Pale Male and the pine sprig? Regular correspondent Jan Lipert sends in a comment:

Now here's a thought I had the minute I read your & John's posting about the evergreen twig in Red-tail nests. . . Over the years I've noticed that carpenters and builders often place a leafy tree branch at the top of a newly constructed home. I haven't researched it, but I read somewhere that the practice goes back so far in the past that it's impossible to tell when it actually started. Interesting, though, don't you think?

Donna Browne [ ] adds another thought about the pine sprig:

In reference to the pine sprigs on Red-tail nests, I read a theory akin to John Blakeman's, that in those cases where more than one nesting site has been under consideration, that the pine sprigs are placed on the nest that has been decided upon for that season. The sprig is cast. It's time for the serious business of raising a family.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Riverside hawks: Blakeman

Photo by Bruce Yolton


A pair of photos of an adult Red-tail, perhaps one of the new Riverside Park pair, shows the bird with a yellowish iris, a definitive indicator of the bird's age. Fully mature birds have entirely dark brown eyes. This bird got its first red tail feathers in last summer's molt. It's now entering (in March or so) it's third year.
This is almost surely its first nesting attempt. These young, inexperienced birds are well-known for coming up short in some nesting or eyass-raising capacity. As I described before, the nest often isn't well-constructed and eggs cool. There can be incubation and eyass feeding difficulties.
I mention all of this to forestall the lamentations that would naturally arise upon the nest's failure this year. Hawkwatchers, in this case, should not be discouraged if the nest fails. Rather, this is a normal learning experience for the young pair, setting them up for future successes.
Of course, the nest may be a complete success, too. I hope so. A good number of first-time nestings do succeed.
No matter this year's results, it's so good to learn of yet another Red-tail pair taking a territory, building a nest, and so completely residing in New York City. It's a testament to the both quality of the natural environment in The City, and to the adaptive majesty of this regal species.
I hope more and more New York City residents can come to regard these great hawks as iconic symbols of nature in the city. I especially thank you, more than anyone else, for bringing all of this so clearing into public recognition and understanding. We all live better lives because of your efforts.
--John A. Blakeman

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Adult Raccoon Material

Frequent correspondent Bob Levy writes:

Caution: This Report Contains Adult Raccoon Material. Parental Guidance Recommended.

This arguably voyeuristic and slightly out of focus picture was taken in Central Park at the height of the Northeastern Raccoon mating season. The fuzzy image testifies to exuberance the couple exhibited.

Three nights later I was back at the same spot witnessing more mating behaviors but there was no way to know if the participants were the same. After they separated I observed the male’s rejection by another female and her subsequent selection of a second male. She welcomed the newcomer by gracefully waving her bushy tail and calling to him from thirty feet above the ground. Her rejected would be lover left as the second male climbed up to her. He wasted no time responding to her and as he got behind her she turned her head toward his. They jerkily pressed their snouts together and made a series of snarly sounds. Then she sang out another chorus of her mating call and copulation began. It then occurred to me that these two had selected a poor location for this activity. The branch on which they stood was very thin. As the thought passed I heard a short sharp crack. The branch snapped off and the male dropped toward the ground. I shouted “NO!” out loud as he plummeted but to my, and no doubt his relief, his fall was stopped by another thin branch about ten feet below. It seemed the crisis had passed but then came second short sharp crack. The male dropped another twenty feet and he smacked into the ground with a heavy thud. It was too dark to see where he had landed and I expected the worst because there were several large rocks around the base of the tree. I pulled a flashlight out of my pocket and scanned area but did not see him. Out of the corner of my eye I detected movement a few yards away and to my amazement saw the victim walk away into the brush and out of sight. I can only hope that he did not suffer any serious injuries but It’s hard to believe that there would not repercussions from such a fall.

And the moral of the story? ...(brace yourself)... I trust the couple had learned an invaluable lesson about selecting an appropriate place to mate. In fact... (here it comes)...from now on I hope they practice safe sex.