Thursday, June 22, 2006

John Blakeman responds in the discussion over "raptor terms"

Photograph by Donegal Browne


I beg to differ with such an authority as a Merriam-Webster dictionary. In the strictest sense, the dictionary reference is correct, a baby hawk on a nest is an "eyas."

But the etymologist who wrote this entry was not aware of the proper, historical falconry use of the term. And be aware that several centuries ago, when the term entered the English language, there were no ornithologists. The term was devised and used by falconers, no one else. At its origin, it was a falconry term.

And falconers continue to use it. To a falconer, to say that a baby hawk is a "chick" is downright demeaning. A baby chicken is a "chick." And baby chickens bear no behavioral resemblance to the far more (to use a favorite personal term) regal raptors. We falconers cringe when the unknowing call a baby hawk a "chick."

Fortunately, NYC hawkwatchers are now using the proper term. The hatchlings on the St. John the Divine nest were eyasses -- and using the proper contemporary term, they will be "eyasses" for their entire first year. Here's how the terminology works for falconers.

And by the way, the modern, accepted spelling is "eyass" and "eyasses." "Eyas" is also accepted, but is more archaic. The two-S form is preferable.

Here's how falconers use proper sex and age designating terms. All, as the dictionary mentioned, derive from much earlier usages, when falconry was a common sport in England, before the advent of sporting firearms.

Eyass -- 1) a young hawk on the nest, and 2) a falconer's hawk at any age that was initially taken from the nest. A falconer's eyass hawk could be five years old. Falconers use this helpful term because eyasses taken for falconry tend to retain some of their youthful behaviors throughout their lives. (Be aware, however, that very few eyasses are taken by modern falconers for falconry. Eyasses are hard to train and easily become imprinted -- behaviorally disturbed. Modern falconers seldom take eyasses. In many states, such as here in Ohio, the taking of eyasses for falconry is illegal and doesn't occur.)

Most wild raptors taken for falconry are passagers. A passager is a hawk in its first migration (its first "passage") from August through early winter, or is a hawk taken during that time. My current falconry red-tail, Savanna II, was (as is) a passager. I trapped her late in the migration in October.

Passagers from the north will be seen in Central Park starting in September when the autumnal migration begins. The newly-fledged St. John the Divine eyasses will become passagers when they start to drift off to the south in September or October.

When the birds get their typical red tails, in the molt of their second summer, they of course become adults. The falconry term for an adult hawk is a "haggard." Although in popular usage "haggard" can mean disheveled, to the falconer the term connotes the high intelligence and survivability of an adult hawk. Haggard hawks are survivors. Pale Male is a profound haggard.

For falconry, haggards are useless (and not allowed to be trapped under state and federal falconry regulations). By the time passagers reach adulthood, they have gone through all sorts of survival difficulties and learned how to successfully live in the wild. I continue to marvel at all of the red-tail haggards in New York City.

One last term, which isn't used for wild raptors. An eyass or passage falconry hawk is usually kept through the molt and flown and hunted in the following season. After passing through the molt in the falconer's care, it is said to be "intermewed."

Using all of the proper falconry terms, my current female red-tail is five-times intermewed passager. She was trapped in her first migration, and I've cared for her for five molts. She's now in her sixth molt, getting a new set of feathers to resume hunting next fall.

Oh, I forgot the term "brancher," an eyass that has begun to step out onto the branches of the nest tree. Just before fledging, the eyasses at the cathedral were "branchers." (Or, were they "statuers.")

I hope this isn't too confusing. For those of us who work with raptors and train them, these terms are as useful as those used for other animals. A horse isn't just a horse. There are stallions, fillies, foals, geldings, and who knows what else. For cattle, there are bulls, cows, steers, and calves. So the contorted raptor terminology has historical precedents and parallels.

--John Blakeman

The alliteration of "eyass crossing guard " is ever so much better than
"fledgling crossing guard" any way. :-) D.B.


Ben C. said...


Thanks for the follow-up to my error in thinking eyass was only the nestling phase. This was gathered from my reading of texts over the past ten years and missing the use of this term during the fledgling stage.

I just checked Wheeler's 'Raptors of Eastern North America' and he has:

Eyass. Nestling or fledgling falcon.

Ben C. said...

P.S. - Whenever I referred to the young Red-tailed Hawks in a nest I always referred to them as nestlings.

Mario Profaca said...

Hi Donegal!
Greetings from who-know-where-is-it Zagreb, Croatia!
Just thought you might like to see hawk's nest built at my balcony at 20th floor three years ago. Two squadrons of hawks have been born there on my balcony this so called 'wild birds' chosed for their home.
Obviously, there is no Empty Nest Sindrome here!
(Unfortunately, only in Croatian language so far).