Shakespeare rotated rather a keen eye and wielded a sharp quill when it came to birds. In his plays and poems, between 45-70 species have been enumerated by learned commentators, including a reference to seven bird species in one song from ‘A ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’. The dove finds maximum references in Shakespearean works with the eagle and goose following close. While researching for archival material on Punjab’s State Bird, the Northern goshawk, I came across a quaint treatise dispatched to me by the Bombay Natural History Society’s (BNHS) venerable library. It had been published in the Journal of the BNHS (Volume XXVIII - 1) in 1921 and bore the title, ‘Shakespeare on the noble art of hawking’. Its author Lt Col CE Luard started off his essay with a cheery flourish: “The hawker’s sporting toast: A health to all that shot and missed!”
Indeed, of all his peers, Shakespeare took recourse unerringly to falconry/hawking, with more than 50 such references in his writings, often as satirical and seminal human analogies. The subjugation of the prized female falcon’s free-willed nature by the wily falconer, the towering soar of the winged hunter, the thrill of the chase across the moors on horseback, and the coup de grace delivered to the Mallard by razor-sharp talons and classic aquiline beaks lent itself to much dramatisation and hence literary employment by writers of soaring imagination and fecund word play.
Luard noted Shakespeare’s accurate knowledge of falconry reflected in his writings, as opposed to the fallacies espoused on this art by Sir Walter Scott and Lord Alfred Tennyson. Luard declares the Avon bard never confused the falcon with the hawk, the latter being short-winged and flown at quarry in closed, wooded countryside in contrast to soaring, spiralling long-winged falcons deployed in open lands and less winds. He also observes Shakespeare reserved the true falconer’s contempt for kites, kestrels, buzzards and hen harriers.
Hawking was at its zenith in Shakespeare’s Elizabethan times with the Queen herself passionately fond of the hunt. As the ancient art of hawking ebbed from royal culture and wilderness got hemmed in, Luard notes only writers such as Geoffrey Chaucer, Edmund Spenser and John Dryden commanded precision while alluding to hawking.
To cap my telescopic view of Shakespearean hawking, we thumb ‘Macbeth’ to an oft-quoted reference, signifying an overturn of the natural or aristocratic order: “A falcon, towering in her pride of place/Was by a mousing owl hawked at and killed.’’
Counting 2 deceive
Contradictory statements made by the chowkidar of the aviary, Gurmail Singh, before the police and Chhatbir zoo authorities with regard to theft of two Indian great horned or eagle owls on September 11 have strengthened the theory of an inside hand. Zoo director Manish Kumar, on receipt of the replies to show-cause notices issued to employees on duty that night, has placed under suspension chokidar Gurmail, main gate-keeper in possession of cage keys Surjit, another chowkidar Jamil, who was absconding from duty for some time that night, and security supervisor Pritpal Singh.
‘’Pritpal has been removed from charge and is deemed under suspension, which will be confirmed by the conservator next week. Suspended employees have been attached to HQs outside the zoo at Patiala and SAS Nagar. Suspension is on grounds of negligence of duty. I have asked zoo deputy director Arun Kumar to conduct a fact-finding inquiry into the larger issues involved,’’ Kumar told this writer. Pointing to the pressure exerted by sections of the Class 4 employees union, Kumar said he was “intrigued” by their “written demand to drop the police case”.
Zirakpur ASI Tilak Raj, who is the investigating officer in FIR No 207, told this writer: “In his statement to the police, Gurmail says he counted the owls four times — at 5pm, 6.30pm, 8pm and 10pm. At 10pm, Gurmail told another chowkidar Jeet that he was again going to count the owls and says he found feathers spread on the cage floor and owls gone. He also said he earlier discovered a deer fawn missing in a nearby enclosure and then found it, which is surprising as it was dark at that time. Why should an employee go to such lengths to count the owls when the lock was in place?’’ asked Raj.
It was discovered after 10pm that the thieves had taken away the owl cage’s original lock and replaced it with a new lock. ‘’There were no signs or noise of the original lock having being broken indicating the key came from an insider. We are also probing why the regular aviary chowkidar Kuldeep Singh and owl zoo keeper Mewa Singh were absent from the duty on the day of the theft,’’ added Raj.
Kumar agrees and says it is not routine for employees to repeatedly count birds when the lock is in place. In his reply to the departmental show-cause notice, Gurmail takes a different defence and does not allude to his frequent owl counting, maintaining that his beat/round circle was too long and he, therefore, could not prevent the theft.