Monday, July 26, 2010

"Big Black Nemesis"; or, what is an Altai Falcon anyway?

A while ago, LabRat at Atomic Nerds started a series of posts on the evolution of sex among other things. The first was appropriately called "Shuffling Your Cards: Why Sex?"

Since in science we are both mad nerds obsessed with evolutionarily odd strategies like parthenogenesis in local lizards (and the hybridization that may have started it) we were soon engaged in the longest, most intense, and perhaps most digressive scientific correspondence of my life or at least the last ten years-- both fun and exhausting. Suffice to quote one late night two- liner from her to me that we did NOT follow up: "I know I am cat-vacuuming at this point but this post will be the death of me.  I just found your ZW parthenogenetic snakes." I had actually predicted their existence! There were more such, down to today.

We were both interested in the nature of species, and therefore such things as the ambiguous speciation of the genus Canis. I introduced her to the mysterious Four Corners of the Altai, where Gyrfalcons and Saker falcons, two species that according to their "monographer" Potapov were imperfectly separated at the end of the Ice Age, may still interbreed, and even more controversially may segregate into distinct types that are named and valued differently by Arab falconers when caught on migration.

Before I get into the mystery birds of the Altai let me show you the theoretical "parent" species. The Gyr, whether white, gray, or black, is a huge bulky bird, both fast and strong. Here is an example from John Burchard's years in Arabia, being dubiously contemplated by a little Barbary, a sort of desert Peregrine that is the smallest species flown there and that gets little respect from the Arabs, who prefer large quarry. All Gyrs flown in the Middle East are domestically bred.



For a look at typical Sakers, see the Mongolian young being banded by Lauren here. They will lighten up in adult plumage but "brown, streaky" is a fair description of either plumage.

LabRat has done an incredible synthesis of known and speculative biology and maybe a bit of anthropology here, so I'll confine myself to examples of big falcons in the Almaty breeding center in Kazakhstan, many looking like hybrids (and most utterly unlike Lauren's birds or the Sakers in western bird books), as well as one wild one near there described to me by the ornithologist who photo'd it as an "Altai falcon"; that is, a wild example of WHATEVER these mysterious birds are. The captive birds, in all their variety, are from Kazakhstan's diverse habitats too.

I should say before someone else brings it up that much (manufactured?) political controversy surrounds both the more common Sakers and these birds. "Altais" have at various times have been dismissed as human- influenced hybrids, while simultaneously being called nearly extinct; actually, they are probably a naturally- overlapping breeding population extending over a vast range. The admirers of "regular" Sakers (which contrary to wild claims do not command six- figure prices; I have bought a good one for $750!) are accused of being at the root of a vast and improbable conspiracy to smuggle them out of their homeland, and used as a fund- raising tool for at least one rather shady group. I think none of these statements are true. I am not denying some smuggling of the most desirable varieties of both "Altais" and other Sakers goes on, but I doubt that it is widespread or organized-- for one thing, most who make these accusations don't mention how vast, physically inaccessible, and politically divided their range is. Do not bother me with "Save the Falcons"; check out "Falco" or Middle East Falcon Research Group first to read about people engaged in actual work that helps the birds. I think Sakers face far greater threats when the Mongolian government broadcasts tons of poisoned seed from airplanes, in a futile, expensive attempt to eliminate gerbils. Meanwhile, at the other end of the line, Gulf Arabs are learning to train the vastly cheaper, legal domestic equivalents. Falconry is still, in the words of James I of England, "a great stirrer- up of passions".

Back to the birds, with a sigh of relief. First: a huge (high 40- ounce? more?) dark female, the size of a Gyr but with, perhaps, a bit of the Saker's slightly lankier build. In honor of Shriekback's song, with lyrics pertaining to several of our themes ("Big black Nemesis/ Parthenogenesis..") I think of her as Nemesis, one hell of a name for a hunting hawk. She is either what the Arabs call an "Adham" or the even larger and darker "Sinjari". Both can resemble dark Gyrs; some are built heavier, like the Gyr in the first photo, though the Arab falconers find them hardier than Gyrs.



Second: a wild bird photographed near Almaty by ornithologist Andrey Kovalenko and ID'd as an "Altai", also huge and even less determinate as to species.



These two are definitely Sakers but uncommonly pale, named "Ashgar" and described as "white" by the Arabs that love them.



If the black bird of this mixed pair doesn't have Gyr genes I will eat it uncooked. With its feathers on.



Despite appearances, this woman is NOT a Kazakh taxonomist after a long day of trying to classify the birds of the Altai.

1 comment:

dave said...

Steve
This has nothing to do with falcons but I didn't know how else to contact you. I have been doing some family genealogy research lately and came across "Querencia" I would like too see it but didn't know how to get it. My mother (Jane) is doing well (at 92). It's been a long time since I last saw you. My phone--772 463 7118 My EMail---weinerdavid@bellsouth.net

Look forward to hearing from you
Dave Weiner