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17 july 2011

First things first: do you rhyme the first syllable of "falcon" with "shall" or "tall?" I grew up with the "shall" pronunciation, though after much viewing of The Maltese Falcon, I now have the "tall" version – unless, of course, I am talking about the NFL team in Atlanta, which obviously rhymes with "shall-c'n."

That's when I talk about falcons at all, of course. Helen Macdonald's title Falcon in the Reaktion Animal series brought home to me that I only vaguely knew there was a difference between hawks and falcons. (To make matters worse, the NBA team in Atlanta is the Hawks.) Eagles are obviously bigger, and owls and vultures quite different things, but hawks and falcons always blended together for me. I see hawks nearly every day in my own neighborhood, but falcons, never; for me the Red-Tailed Hawk stands in for all the smaller raptors of the bird world.

Well, my ignorance is boundless, and very slow to recede. But Macdonald set me straight. Falcons are smallish birds of prey, and among them are the fastest animals, in any medium, ever to have lived. They have a long association with aristocracies and monarchies, as a partly-tamed companion hunting species. (Falcons are more akin to cats than to dogs or horses; they can be tamed but not broken, and they're solitary by nature.) Once at the brink of extinction in many developed countries, falcons made a strong comeback in the late 20th century thanks to bans on DDT and proactive repopulation efforts. They are now common birds on Manhattan Island; I keep imagining I've seen them there, but I've probably just stared up at their roosts from the street and known they were up there somewhere.

The Reaktion books sometimes feature a chapter that escapes from the series' formulas and becomes an exceptional individual essay on some aspect of a creature in culture. (Not that I'm knocking the series formulas, which are wonderful.) Falcon has such a chapter, a meditation called "Military Falcons" where Macdonald looks at how armed forces have employed falcons in both literal and figurative ways. Macdonald shows how modern militaries have used falcons to "naturalize" aerial combat.

Eagles . . . connote old-fashioned styles of warfare: huge armies, large-scale infantry movements and massive and deliberate strength . . . Falcons, not eagles, are the iconic animals of post-modern, network-centric war, built on the concepts of global vision, surveillance, rapid deployment and lightning strike. (152-53)
At the same time, falcons have had dramatic uses as military animals, most notably in the business of clearing gulls away from runways. (Falcons' service in the second world war as anti-carrier-pigeon weapons was somewhat less efficient.)

Falcons are so iconic that it's perhaps a shame that they've been used in marketing with such little cachet: as monikers for dumpy powerless cars (the Ford Falcon, the Toyota Tercel), or, as noted, for one of the least successful of all NFL franchises. But the real thing still flies above Manhattan. In her final, fascinating chapter, Macdonald discusses this most iconic of urban animals. A creature of the cliffs, the peregrine falcon has composedly taken over skyscraper ledges. It will doubtless still be there in the postapocalyptic era, after we have departed.

Macdonald, Helen. Falcon. London: Reaktion, 2006.