Tuesday, June 9, 2009

More on hawk terminology from John Blakeman

John Blakeman sends us two clarifications on hawk terminology:

The word “eyass,” a newly-hatched or young hawk, can be spelled “eyas,” with one s, or “eyass,” with two. Both are valid, but the slightly more preferred or prevalent is the former, with two s’s. This, like so much of falconry and raptor terminology, dates back four or five centuries, when English was not yet a generally orthographic language. Spellings were rather variable and phonetic. Consequently, “eyass,” or “eyas,” are both valid. I (and most falconers and raptor biologists, I believe) prefer “eyass.” It’s a whole lot better than “baby” or “chick, ” in either spelling.

And properly, now that the birds have fledged, they remain eyasses, all during the summer, until they enter the migration, when they become “passagers.”

I've indicated that the haggard female, in this case the mother, should be called a “formel,” a female adult hawk.

First, that’s not the case with the falcons, only with hawks and eagles. In the strictest sense, a “falcon” is a female peregrine or other falcon species. The male peregrine is the “tiercel.” So there are peregrine tiercels and peregrine falcons, just as there are bovine cows, bulls, steers, and heifers. A few centuries ago, speakers made distinct sense of the age, sex, and other conditions of the animals they were speaking of. (There can be no hawk “steers,” which would be avian equivalents of horse geldings. For those unfamiliar with steers and geldings, do a Google on the matter.)

I'm certain that some readers, especially those who are familiar with falconry and raptor biology, are asking the question, “Where did this fellow out in Ohio come up with the word “formel” for a female hawk?” Good question. Here’s the answer, with a much more formal and detailed paper on the subject for a falconry publication in the future.

No dictionary I can find, other than the Oxford English Dictionary, a most detailed and formal (-al) scholarly work, lists the word “formel” (-el) in reference to female hawks. Actually, in the 14th and 15th centuries it was commonly used in reference to female hawks or eagles. Males of both hawks and eagles were (and are) called tiercels. Female falcons were “falcons.” Female hawks and eagles were called “formels,” which is SO much better than “hen.” A hen is a female chicken or other gallinaceous. “Hen” doesn't work for a female red-tailed hawk. So, I and some other raptor people are re-instituting the use of this useful and appropriate term. Up in New York, the hawkwatchers there have quickly and comfortably taken “formel” into their raptor lexicon. It works so well.

And if anyone thinks this is an inappropriate neologism (the making up of a new word), it’s not. It’s taken right from Geoffrey Chaucer himself, from The Parliament of Fowles, written in the 14th century, where a female golden eagle is referred to as the “formel,” opposite a tiercel eagle.

So, may I admonish the Philadelphia hawkwatching community to subscribe to this useful but lost-for-a-while (well, for four or five hundred years) term. The Franklin Institute formel did her motherly duties in an exemplary fashion. And we all got to watch it.

My best to all. Keep in touch.

–John Blakeman

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