Treleaven’s correspondence with Baker: calculation, acceptance, and “marveling at nature.”

R.B. Treleaven (1920-2009) was called the doyen of British peregrine experts. He studied the behavior of the falcons for half a century, and is the author of The Private Life of the Peregrine Falcon and In Pursuit of the Peregrine. 

We only have one side of his correspondence with J.A. Baker, five letters now at the Albert Sloman Library of the University of Essex. Treleaven pounded out his correspondence on an old-fashioned manual typewriter. The letters are peppered with typos and corrections – an inevitable byproduct of the era. “I am afraid my typing gets worse and worse,” he lamented.

The friendship appears to have begun with a phone call from Baker on September 30, 1977. “Dick” Treleaven responded the next day: “I was both delighted and thrilled that you bothered to ring me last night. I had always wanted to contact you. When I first read your book I was puzzled by the fact that you had seemingly achieved the impossible. I knew that you were writing a book of intense feeling and was most anxious to ask you how much of it was poetic license. And now you have given me the answer. None.”

Then he described into his own observations – he had never seen a peregrine hunt a woodpigeons, though “semi-feral” pigeons “they hunt down with ruthless energy.” And, like Baker, he admitted that he, too, couldn’t drive – “my wife drops me off on the cliffs in the morning and picks me up in the evening.” (While odd in America, it was common for the English not to own a car or drive.) He ends with an invitation to visit his “favourite eyrie” in Cornwall.

We don’t know how Baker replied, but apparently the two swapped details on peregrine observations, for Treleaven replied, after some discussion of adult peregrines teaching their offspring how to hunt, “I believe like you the only answer to any of our problems is to spend a hell of a lot of time watching. I am a great believer in the 7 to 10 hour watch.”

Treleaven also described the kinds of efforts serious birdwatchers engage in: he “badly” needed information on the heights peregrines reach when hunting. So he made hardboard silhouettes and placed them on the hill. Then he viewed them in field glasses from various distances, which he measured. “I suspect that peregrines may well reach 5,000 feet when hunting. As soon as I have done my home work I will let you know my conclusions.”

Two redshanks on a pillar. (Photo: Boaworm/Creative Commons)

In the third letter on February 25, 1978, however, his attitude is a bit less scientific, and he confessed to anthropomorphism: “In nature one finds this strange kinship, as the call of a redshank sets an estuary on fire with a single call of alarm.” Too often, he writes, “MAN is the mean one.”

“A peregrine high in the sky – the first snow drop – cannot be represented on a graph or histogram but in the heart which needs no measurement.”

In the fourth letter, three single-spaced pages (perhaps to cheer Baker, who had written that he was not well), Treleaven described a peregrine rescue, on the edge of Bodmin Moor. The bird was injured, and a gawky youth had rescued it. Treleaven and his wife drove to the spot, a bungalow with a corrugated roof behind a stone hedge:

“I slowly took my coat off, went down on one knee and advanced slowly towards the bird – it stared straight at me unflinching. I kept the coat on my knee and very slowly put out my arms and lifted him of his perch and wrapped him up in my coat without any hint of protest; I was fearful of injuring him.” He wrote the bird would have died in 48 hours without his intervention.

Bodmin Moor, where the rescue took place (Photo: Andy F/English Wikipedia)

The final letter, on January 8, 1985, found him busy on new book, and he asked if Baker, too, is embarking on another. Treleaven has had something of a change of heart: “I think my writing now has broader horizons. I am interested in the concept of marvelling at nature and accepting it as it is; not trying to measure or quantify everything; just sit back and look and feel.”

He is anthropomorphizing again: he names the birds he sees in the wild – Mabel, Idle Angus, Alexander, and the Bitch. He writes “very very difficult to prove it is the same bird as last year, although I ‘Know so.’” 


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