How much did Baker really see? The controversy that surrounds The Peregrine

“The hardest thing of all to see is what is really there,” J.A. Baker wrote in The Peregrine. The iambic heptameter thought forms a sort of credo for the elusive author. But the sentence may have a double meaning; it’s not clear today how much Baker really observed in his outings on Essex’s fenlands.

Questions about The Peregrine began to surface shortly after the book’s publication in 1967. No falcon expert had ever observed a peregrine eating worms, ever – yet Baker observes this happening often, in such passages as this one: “He rose up almost at once, with a thick red earthworm dangling from his toes. … he bent his head down to meet his uplifted foot and ate the worm in three gulping bites. … Three times, during the late afternoon, he planed down to the field to catch and eat a worm.” There were other objections:

  • Peregrines don’t perch in bushes and swamps, as Baker claims.
  • His peregrines hunt in ways no one else has witnessed (they do not engage in play, for example).
  • His account of peregrine biology is mostly faulty (the peregrine’s eyes do not swivel, they do not weigh anything near one ounce each).
  • Peregrines do not fly with wings held in a dihedral.
  • They do not hover nearly as much as Baker claims to have seen them hover – on one page (166) the peregrines “hover” five times.
  • A peregrine’s prey does not behave in the suicidal ways that Baker describes.
  • The quantity of peregrine kills he claims to have discovered are highly exaggerated.

Mark Cocker (Alasdair Cross/Creative Commons)

The last question raised perhaps the greatest controversy. Baker claims to have found, over a ten year period, 619 carcasses of birds killed by wintering falcons. And how did he see falcons so regularly in Chelmer Valley, where few others had seen them? The dispute continues today, and is likely to continue for some time to come.

Baker died in 1987, many of his letters and much from his diaries has been destroyed. Yet Baker insisted to his death that he wrote what he had observed. He was convinced he was right. We are left to make the best of it, and many have tried.

Author and naturalist Mark Cocker, in his introduction to 2011 edition of The Peregrine, The Hill of Summer, and Diaries (Collins), took up the defense: “if you watch peregrines long enough they will do things that other people do not normally see, and even things that no one else has seen, such as eating worms. Recent research has just disclosed behaviour not widely recognised – namely that peregrines hunt and kill during the hours of darkness (Baker, incidentally, notedthat the birds are active after sunset.)” We can’t call something untrue simply because it was without precedent, he insisted.

“Peregrines, however well-studied, are birds of mystery still. That, surely, is the allure of all field study,” he wrote. Cocker reminds us that Baker was distilling the observations of a decade, and possibly more. He had “compressed and manipulated the time frame,” wrote  Cocker. Elsewhere, “To read the book as a blow-by-blow series of genuine journal entries is to fail to appreciate the difference between the literal truth of a notebook and the literary truth as expressed by Baker.”

Author and conservationist Conor Mark Jameson came up with a startling insight of his own in Silent Spring Revisited: “Looking again closely at my copy of The Peregrine and these peculiar, detailed, loving descriptions of the bird, I had what felt like a moment of clarity, as a hypothesis dawned on me that just might clear up the confusion. There is a species that all of this fits, and could describe, and it’s neither Peregrine nor Kestrel. It’s Saker Falcon – Falco cherub. Or even, at a push, Lugger Falcon – Falco lugger. Or possibly a hybrid of either of these with Peregrine Falcon. They can be cross-bred in captivity…

“Baker’s decade straddles a period in which the owning of raptors had become what Gerald Summers called a ‘craze’.” They were problematic to train, easy to lose, and others flew off and were released.” In other words, Baker was viewing birds that may have been hybrids, and partly tamed.

Jameson defends Baker

As for the dead carcasses of birds, he had his own theory for that, too: “It’s well known that organo-chlorine pesticides persisted in the food chain in the post-war period, accumulating in the bodies of top-end predators like Peregrines, causing infertility and reproductive problems. What seems less remembered is that these chemicals were sometimes directly lethal, killing birds of all kinds in large numbers.” Mulling over Baker’s book, he suggested, “Perhaps poisoning might even explain the unusual or lethargic behaviour of closely studied raptors of the time.”

Cocker knows that the questions are challenging and difficult: “These doubts cannot simply be dismissed as the kind of pettifogging scepticism that sometimes seems indivisible from the science and pastime of ornithology. There are serious issues that all informed readers of The Peregrine have to face.”

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