Caring for Falcons in a Time of Extinction

From the Series: Multispecies Care in the Sixth Extinction

Photo by Felix Remter.

In a small town close to London, I visit Graham, a falconer and breeder of peregrine falcons. Peregrines, sharing their fate with many other bird species, were almost extinct in the 1960s due largely to the use of pesticides in industrial agriculture (Cade and Burnham 2003). After successful conservation and reintroduction schemes, the falcons have become an iconic flagship species—admired by many as the epitome of wilderness and natural beauty (MacDonald 2006). The birds that Graham keeps in his backyard share ancestry with these wild mythic creatures, yet their lifeways are of a very different kind. Graham’s falcons have grown up to identify with him as a partner. Once the breeding season arrives, the falcons—male and female—will start to court Graham (and vice versa), intensifying a pair bond that has loosened over the winter months. This relationship is a “work in progress” and, as Graham points out, “can never be taken for granted.” Care in this context involves different affective values, characterized by taking the falcons seriously as subjective beings with their own desires and intentions, while also restraining them for the broader goal of captive breeding of the species.

Graham says that the male falcon from whom he is going to collect semen today is already in his third breeding season, and that the bird has grown very fond of him. Through a small hole in the wall of the aviary I observe Graham uttering a greeting call that sounds remarkably avian. The falcon looks expectantly in Graham’s direction, returning the greeting. Graham is wearing a large rubber hat with a honeycomb-like surface. Slowly and steadily, he approaches the falcon, gently bowing in front of the attentive bird. Graham passes a morsel of the bird’s favorite food, a bit of quail leg. The falcon responds by approaching him; first returning the bowing gesture, then passing the food back to Graham. After a few minutes of exchanges, Graham again bows his head toward the falcon, who starts to utter a loud, high-pitched sound that the falconer mimics. Eventually the falcon jumps atop the rubber hat, clutching it with his feet and paddling with his wings for balance. Graham calmly waits until the bird has copulated with the hat and hops back onto one of the ledges. The act of copulation is brief, but both still maintain contact by exchanging quiet calls. Graham takes a syringe from his bag and collects the little droplets of semen, placing them into a glass tube. Before he leaves the aviary, he approaches the falcon once more, receiving some affectionate “beak rubs” and passes another small gift of food.

Graham’s caring for the birds is based on his learning how to engage with the falcons such that they will respond to him as a potential mate, rather than as threat, competitor, or parent. Courtship among falcons, free of direct human constraints, involves wide distances and elaborate airborne displays, ritualized exchanges of food and vocalizations all conveying affective desires and intentions toward their mate. Maintaining a pair-bond is the result of a socially demanding process of intimate, corporeal, and inter-subjective acts of affective care for the breeding partner (Schroer 2018). For breeders, such as Graham, a challenge lies in establishing these kinds of relationships in the enclosed, human-made environment, requiring tuning in to the particular moods, intentions, and desires of the birds as subjective agents (Schroer 2021). These inter-subjective encounters are embedded within wider caring regimes with the objective of maintaining the right kind of relationship with the individual bird for the end purpose of breeding and continuing the species. Care here is neither symmetrical nor harmonious. As Thom van Dooren (2014) has shown considering the ethics of violent care in captive breeding environments, these involve radically asymmetrical power relations and may have damaging effects on those who become objects of care. Yet, the negotiation of this trans-species pair-bond also suggests broader nuances and potentialities of more-than-human sociality that involve (perhaps) “unexpected combinations of cooperation and coercion and of asymmetry and intimacy” (Lien, Swanson, and Ween 2018, 20) within particular restrictive domestic environments (Anderson et al. 2017).

How did we get here? How does this backyard intimacy and the practices of care involved in the breeding of birds relate to the fate of peregrines in the Sixth Extinction? Within these trans-species encounters lies a long history of human/falcon relationships. In the 1960s, it was increasingly observed that many bird species were rapidly vanishing due to use of pesticides in industrial agriculture (Carson 2000 [1962]). Peregrines, in Europe and North America, were among these diminishing creatures. Gradually people started to take notice and saw reason to act through pioneering hands-on conservation methods of rewilding captive-bred birds. At the time, this was a radical (maybe desperate) proposition, as birds of prey had long been deemed impossible to breed in captivity and under “controlled” conditions. Yet after experimentation with captive breeding methods in the 1970s the first captive-bred peregrines were released back into an imagined wild.

The conservation story of rewilding peregrines is built on multiple, material, bodily, and semiotic learning histories founded on care for birds in a time of extinction. Today, peregrines are once again common in many parts of the world. Yet, their lifeways have changed significantly. Some birds dwell forever in captive environments of a growing commercialized bird trade that increasingly experiments with hybridization of specific falcon-crosses. Other peregrines, some of them descendants of rewilded birds, now claim urban landscapes as their territory (Hennen 2017). Towering above the city, they teach their young to survive above the brawling streets. Paradoxically, concern to stop the demise of this iconic wild species from the toxic ecologies of agricultural production may have ultimately led to drawing their lives ever more closely into interdependency with human worlds and intensified practices of care.


Anderson, David G., Jan Peter Laurens Loovers, Sara Asu Schroer, and Robert P. Wishart. 2017. “Architectures of Domestication: On Emplacing Human-Animal Relations in the North.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 23, no. 2: 398–416.

Cade, Tom J., and William A. Burnham. 2003. Return of the Peregrine: A North American Saga of Tenacity and Teamwork. Boise, Idaho: The Peregrine Fund.

Carson, Rachel. 2000. Silent Spring. London: Penguin Books. Originally published in 1962.

Hennen, Mary. 2017. The Peregrine Returns: The Art and Architecture of an Urban Raptor Recovery. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lien, Marianne Elisabeth, Heather Anne Swanson, and Gro B. Ween. 2018. “Introduction: Naming the Beast—Exploring the Otherwise.” In Domestication Gone Wild: Politics and Practices of Multispecies Relations, edited by Heather Anne Swanson, Marianne Elisabeth Lien, and Gro B. Ween, 1–30. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

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

Schroer, Sara Asu. 2018. “Breeding with Birds of Prey: Intimate Encounters.” In Domestication Gone Wild: Politics and Practices of Multispecies Relations, edited by Heather Anne Swanson, Marianne Elisabeth Lien, and Gro B. Ween, 33–49. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

———. 2021. “Jakob von Uexküll: The Concept of Umwelt and Its Potentials for an Anthropology beyond the Human.” Ethnos 86, no. 1: 132–52.

van Dooren, Thom. 2014. Flight Ways: Life and Loss at the Edge of Extinction. New York: Columbia University Press.