K is for Kāhu

New Zealand’s birds of prey

The other day I started to read H is for Hawk, last year’s winner of the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction. It has a swag of good reviews behind it, and no doubt sits on bedside tables throughout the land. And one day, it sat in front of me as I took the train home. ‘What’s that about?’ asked the man beside me. ‘Someone training a hawk,’ I said.

‘There’s only two people permitted to train hawks in New Zealand,’ he said. ‘Otherwise it’s against the law. ’

‘The law?’

‘You’re allowed to train a magpie,’ he said. ‘But not a hawk.’

My train buddy spotted someone he knew and disappeared before I could ask him more about magpie training, but I’ve since seen that he’s partially right that there are restrictions on training hawks. While falconry is not permitted at all with the New Zealand falcon or kārearea, the kāhu or swamp hawk can be used in the practice of falconry or hunting with birds of prey, and a permit is required. The exception made for hawks reflects the high numbers of these birds - we will all have seen one glide down to a possum squashed into asphalt. Those roads, those possums are here because of people, and these birds are one of the few native species to have benefited from European settlement. By clearing the forests and scrublands, and introducing rabbits, possums and other beasties, we’ve ruined the habitat of countless animals, and created a giant kāhu playground.

Our other bird of prey has not fared so well. The numbers of kārearea have declined over the years as cats, stoats and others eat their eggs. And electricity has not been their friend – there are also cases of them electrocuting themselves on power poles or being mulched in wind farms. It’s a tragedy, because these are spectacular birds, able to catch prey much bigger then themselves, and capable of speeds of 180 kms as they dive in on their victims – unlike the kāhu they tend to swoop from a vantage point rather than gliding about. And they’re beautiful too, small, dark, streamlined creatures. But while falconry with these birds is not permitted at all, its lessons are helping with its preservation. The Wingspan Birds of Prey Trust, an organisation established and run largely by falconers, works to rehabilitate injured falcons and to release captive bred falcons so that their numbers might increase.

I have yet to finish H is for Hawk - I have a few more train rides to go - but I can tell you that the passion, almost obsession that people have for birds of prey is important to the book. It’s a passion that New Zealand’s falconry buffs share – to read about them is to read about interests that start young and never stop. And it wouldn’t hurt us to look at these birds through their eyes, to see again even those common old hawks, see the way they soar, the terrible beauty they bring to our humdrum world of highways and road kill.