JWN Arts & Hawking 

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l'Alethe Reborn

copyright Jim Nelson, 2017

       My personal journey of discovery to identify “l’Alethe," the mystery falconry bird of 16th Century Europe, began in the Bird House of the Bronx Zoo in 1971. I received my falconry permit from the State of Washington in 1969--back then there was no sponsorship; licenses were applied for and issued based on a short questionnaire supplied by the Fish and Game Department—but the continual uprooting of the Nelson family precluded the establishment of a mews. I contented myself by reading every published work of falconry I could lay my hands on, building hoods, and hawk watching/nest hunting wherever my youthfully wandering feet would take me. Living near New York City at that time, trips to the American Museum of Natural History and to the Bronx Zoo provided bonus opportunities to explore raptor related experiences within the Big Apple.

       I remember the day I entered the Bird House and saw a tiercel bat falcon in a glassed-in enclosure. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I had seen a lot of raptors by now, but this beautiful creature was exquisite beyond compare. From the zoo I made a beeline to the library and researched Falco rufigularis. While doing so, I learned about another, even more exotic raptor; the orange-breasted falcon, Falco dieroleucus. I discovered that the orange-breasted, like the bat, was South American in origin; but, as a member of the “peregrine tribe," was well-known to the falconers of medieval Europe. Back then, I just accepted this as fact.

            Two years later I moved back to Washington and finally had the chance to fly some "beginner birds" (read: kestrels, redtails, and Cooper's hawks) when an opportunity for travel to Mexico presented itself in the form of an off-campus study program. I jumped at this chance and for the next three-and-a-half months spent time exploring the interior, the Pacific coast, and the Yucatan Peninsula.  I saw a variety of exotic raptors--including wintering peregrines (in 1976 that was a big deal to an aspiring longwinger)--but my efforts to find OBF's were unsuccessful. Knowing now what I do about their rarity and the great lengths that some prestigious and well-funded falconer/biologists have gone through to locate them, I am not surprised a teenaged college kid on a shoestring budget failed at that time. But I came away from that quest with something precious nonetheless, a pretty good mental map of the type of habitat the OBF's haunted; and, by observing the hunting behavior of bat falcons in the village of Emiliano Zapata (the two species having much in common in terms of overall build and general hunting habits), I also developed a good notion as to how that type of falcon operated.

       Fast forward to 1982. By this time, I had proceeded further down the falconry trail, having added wait-on longwinging to my credentials. In particular, I developed an appetite for hawking Hungarian partridge (Perdix perdix). For those who haven?t actually hawked huns, they are a robust and dynamic medium-sized game bird whose abilities on the wing ?under fire? from raptor attack have to witnessed to be properly appreciated. Being a red-muscled bird, they have flight capabilities and staying power that brings them closer to the grouse species as a quarry bird than to their white-muscled gallinaceous cousins the chukar, quail and pheasants.

Having now finished college, my first wife and I decided to pursue teaching careers in the Alaska bush. This half-decade adventure could fill volumes of its own, but germane to this tale is a book I read to help wile away the long, dark hours in mid-winter on St. Lawrence Island. The book was a compendium of a series of British Falconer Club Journals dating from the late 1930s through the early 1970s. Among some great information, two articles in particular caught my eye. One by T.A.M. Jack entitled "Partridge Hawking with D'Arcussia" (1954), the other by William Ruttledge entitled "The Identity of l'Alethe" (1955).

       In these articles, translated writings of the Renaissance-era French falconer, Charles D'Arcussia, were examined for information that could identify a South American raptor the Spanish were importing in the 1500s and 1600s which they called "aleto" and which the French purchased from them and referred to as "l'alethe."

The Story of the Alethe

            During the time of Shakespeare, a new bird from the New World came upon the falconry scene in Spain, Portugal and France.  It was known to courtiers of Henry IV and Louis XIII as the Alethe—according to Ruttledge, probably pronounced “Alette”--and to the Spanish as Aleto.  Alethes, prized as “high-mettled” partridge hawks, were snapped up as soon as they arrived on the docks for 300 ecus apiece.  Imagine a purse sack loaded with 300 quarter-sized gold coins, a handsome price in any age!

            In 1955, noted British Falconer, William Ruttledge, speculated on l‘Alethe’s identity.  From Ruttledge one may learn alethes were exported to Europe from South America.  In his estimation these were most likely the orange-breasted falcon (Falco dieroleucus).  However, physical descriptions more resembled the aplomado falcon (Falco femoralis), a fact Ruttledge acknowledged but discarded in his belief that the aplomado was not worthy as the “high-mettled” alethe.  His article was later challenged in 1986 by Jose Antonio Aguilar Rivera, who contended that “los Aletos” had been various raptors in the genus Micrastur, the forest falcons, in particular M. semitorquatus, the collared forest falcon.

       My own thinking was originally influenced by the writings of Harry McElroy, who, in the mid-1980’s resided in Peru and Mexico and flew passage aplomado falcons at quail. McElroy did not engage himself in the alethe debate at that time which, for me, made him the perfect observer because his descriptions were not bias one way or the other. Comparing McElroy’s observations of passage aplomados in 1986 and Charles D’Arcussia’s observations of the alethe from the 1590’s, I became convinced that aplomados indeed had the high-mettled stuff required to be the real McCoy, and furthermore the aplomado better fit the historical descriptions for both featheration and hunting habits.  After a fairly expensive period of research and writing, I published my theory in 1995 in the Washington Falconer’s Association Journal, and then again later in 1996 in the NAFA Journal

       Theorizing is one thing, proving is another.  I worked cooperatively from 1995 to 2010 with Harry McElroy and Doug Alton, then of San Jose, California, to import breeding pairs of Peruvian aplomados, and in time train and fly them a grey partridge (Perdix perdix) which I believed then, and still do today, to be the sole acid test for the real alethe.  

        The following outlines my original arguments for the aplomado as the Alethe, as well as updated evidence provided by aleterio colleagues in Latin America, and from my own experiences and successes hawking partridge with aplomado falcons in Eastern Washington.

        Four individuals, Charles D’Arcussia, the French falconer, Fernandez Ferriera, the Portuguese falconer; Philip Henriques, a Portuguese traveler to the New World; and Inca Vega Somebody, an oral history re-teller from Peru—provided our original sources of information.

D’Arcussa was French country gentleman of “modest standing” who frequented the court of Louis XIII to visit his “most magnificent stud of hawks in Paris.”  Louis had his mews organized in teams of men, bird and dogs specifically assigned for various flights.  For heron flights he assigned fifteen men, four greyhounds, and twelve falcons.  He also has a large team for kite hawking, and another for crows.  D’Arcussia himself employed, or saw used, peregrines, sakers, lanners alphanets (a type of lanner), goshawks, sparrowhawks, and Alethes.  He is our prominent source as d’Arcussia is the only writer who states that he witnessed game take with trained Alethes. 

        Ferriera was a Portuguese falconer who was also very knowledgeable about Alethes, but his writing makes it unclear the degree to which he observed them hunting in the field.  Phillipe Butaca Henriques, a friend of Ferriera, claimed to have seen wild Alethes while waiting there for passage out.

Huber, the artist who provided one of two graphic depiction of the Alethe, may have drawn from life, description or recall. There is no documentation as to what the source of inspiration was for his image.  An unknown artist who illustrated for D’Arcussia provided what must be considered the most authentic image of an Alethe given the time frame.  Between these two artists we can turn for evidence of both anatomy and plumage.

       Huber, the artist who provided one of two graphic depictions of the alethe, may have drawn from life, description or recall. There is no documentation as to what the source of inspiration was for his image.  An unknown artist who illustrated for D’Arcussia provided what must be considered the most authentic image of an Alethe given the time frame.  Between these two artists we can turn for evidence of both anatomy and plumage.

       Enter now the “armchair quarterbacks.” They are 1) Schlegel and Wulverhorst—and later Belvallette—who believed the Alethe to be Harpagus bidentatus (Belvalette’s Falco bidentatus), a form of cuckoo-falcon; 2) T. A. M. Jack, a British falconer who translated d’Arcussia’s writing on partridge hawing with Alethes and then questioned the identification of the Alethe as a cuckoo-falcon; 3) William Ruttledge, a British falconer and one time editor of The Falconer, who stated his own belief that the Alethe was the orange-breasted falcon; 4) Jose Antonio Aguilar Rivera, who felt that “los Aletos” were forest falcons in the genus Micrastur, primarily the collared forest falcon; and 5) myself, Jim Nelson, who was the first author to state unequivocally and provide arguments in favor of the aplomado falcon as the genuine high-mettled Alethe.

       The following is Jack’s translation of d’Arcussia.  The brackets are Jack’s, the parentheses are mine: “For several years there has been another sort [of hawk] known; that is the Alethe.  They are now highly thought of, as much because they are rare as for their “gaillardise” [literally in modern French jollity or spriteliness].  The first one I saw was at Ferrara, thirty-eight years ago (i.e. about 1590], which belonged to His Highness (in 1590 the king of France was Henry IV; Goubert); and on the same occasion, when I was passing through Turin, I saw two more belonging to the Late Duke of Savoy. The present Queen (Marie de Medici, Louis XIII’s mother), when she was visiting Marseilles, had one brought to her which several people no doubt saw, and which flew partridge very well…”Their size is almost that of a peregrine tiercel, and their plumage on the back is just the same. Their front is a pale orange, rather like a parrot, with a brown crescent like a horseshoe at the bottom toward the thighs.”

         Compare the above with Ferriera’s description. Again, the brackets are Jack’s and the parentheses are mine: “They are small and their plumage is different from that of other hawks. Part of the breast, thighs, and belly is covered with reddish feathers, and their crop is about the same color as a Kite’s. The head is almost entirely encircled by a band of the same color.  Under the wings, with some parts of white, are grey feathers with cross spottings, very like[?] a falcon’s plumage. Their wings are long, the tail well proportioned to their body, the legs are pretty thin and the pounces long.”

       Ruttledge dispensed the notion that the Alethe was a cuckoo-falcon.  To summarize his main points, H. bidentatus is a South American raptor little resembling a true falcon; but, d’Arcussia includes the Alethe only in his section on longwings. H. bidentatus also lacks the dark crescent shaped transverse band across the belly, key to the Alethe  Ruttledge examined skins of bidentatus and described them as having short wings and short, weak toes; but of the Alethes, Ferriera says, “Their wings are long…the legs are pretty thin and the pounces long.”

       This brings us to the notion that the Alethe was either the orange-breasted falcon or the aplomado.  Ruttledge introduces this view by saying: : Having, I hope, demonstrated that neither did Schlegel and Wulverhorst not Belvalette’s authority identify the Alethe correctly, we go back to d'Arcussia and Ferriera, from whose description the salient points emerge that the Alethe was found in Brazil, was a high-mettled bird that probably resembled a peregrine tiercel, and had an orange-coloured mail with a dark band across it…One is, in fact, left with three true falcons all of which have orange mail with a dark transverse band.  One of these, the White-throated Batfalcon (Falco albigularis Daudin)[now classifed as F. rufigularis], was further eliminated as being too small, so that there remained the aplomado falcon (F. fuscocaerulescens Viellot) and the orange-breasted falcon.           

            Ruttleledge contended that the Alethe’s behavior of pursuing quarry into cover led early arm-chair quarterbacks to assume that the Alethe was accipitrine.  This was evident in written speculations which referred to the Alethe as the “goshawk of the Azores.”  Belvalette even described the Alethe as a bird of light colored irises, though no such mention was made by any original source.  Thus the double-toothed kite was set forth as the first candidate.

            Rutteledge did admit that Ferriera described the aplomado. However, he maintained the “real” Alethe was the bird d’Arcussia described and suggested perhaps that “slack-mettled” aplomados were being foisted off as look-alikes “high-mettled” orange-breasteds.  So it became critical to analyze the physical features of d’Arcussia’s “genuine" Alethe in detail.  Rutteledge favored the orange-breasted because he concluded that it more closely resembled the peregrine and believed that d’Arcussia’s description was designed to draw that comparison.  However, except for the size being “almost that of a tiercel peregrine” and the plumage on the back being “just the same,” d’Arcussia wrote no other comparison between the Alethe and the peregrine.

            Both female aplomados ad female orange-breasteds are tiercel-peregrine-sized birds.  Ventral coloration, as described by d’Arcussia, favored the aplomado.  Orange-breasted falcons have no crescent-shaped band near their flanks, and their orange color is deep and dark compared to the aplomado’s which could be accurately described as being “pale orange.”  Also, the North American subspecies of the aplomado, F. f. septentrionalis, is described as being bluish grey above and looks peregrine-like on back. The aplomado still remains top candidate by virtue of all physical descriptions offered by d’Arcussia as well as Ferriera.