S. Kent Carnie
By S. K. Carnie
Benjamin Watson Stilwell was born in China, son
of Joseph Warren Stilwell, then a U.S. Army officer
language/area student. Joe Stilwell later earned fame
commanding U.S. forces in the China-Burma-India
Theatre during World War II when he was known
admiringly by his troops as “Vinegar Joe.
Reflecting Bens character, while the war-time draft was still in effect,
he volunteered for military service––despite knowing his severe
asthma would have exempted him. To avoid any hint of favoritism
(being the son of so famous a general and with his older brother
already a general and three sisters married to two colonels and a
lieutenant colonel), he enlisted in the U.S. Navy, Seaman 3rd Class.
Ben had shown an interest in birds at an early age, exemplified
when his parents felt it appropriate to give him a Chinese falconer’s
“hawk-waterer, even before his teens. By the time I first met him in
1945, when he had begun studies at nearby Stanford University, his
fascination with falconry was obvious. His first bird, however, was a
haggard female Great Horned Owl, followed by an eyess peregrine
most notable for his vocal powers. Still, we persevered, enchanted by
references to the sport in the popular press of the day; starry-eyed
kids” as Ben later put it.
Our fortunes drastically changed when we made contact with
Minard Stevens, an experienced falconer living just 50 miles away.
Ben by then had acquired a war-surplus Jeep and, with fellow
“starry-eyed kid” Bill Kurtz, we three began a series of weekend
pilgrimages. Arriving before lunch on Saturdays, we ate “Steve and
his wife “Dirk” out of house and home, slept overnight on their
living room floor, and dominated their weekends with hawk talk!
Steve had a magnificent falconry library which he generously shared
with us. The walls of their tiny house were covered by paintings sent
to Steve from India by his friend Bob Widmeier who was serving
there during World War II. Steve imparted to us not only a wealth
of falconry experience but an appreciation for the sport’s associated
art, literature, and history. Perhaps more important, Steve instilled
in us an ethical standard lasting the rest of our lives.
Beyond the “hawk talk, our adventures were wide. There were
jaunts afield, looking for eyries and trapping, all with Steves
imparted wisdom. On one weekend trapping trip we found we
had forgotten our silverware. “No problem said Ben. With his
upbringing in China, he cut a couple of willow branches and showed
us how use them as chopsticks. But the rest of us still found it hard
to eat canned fruit cocktail with a couple of sticks. Eventually,
together we published a reprinting of Bert’s famed treatise on
shortwings, for the occasion deeming ourselves (with tongue in
cheek) “The Bate and Slice Society. Ben, thus, became one of the
original five charter” members of this five-member, unchartered
When Ben left Stanford he went on to medical school at Canadas
McGill University. His eventual medical specialty was pathology, a
reflection of his non-extroverted personality. I always thought he
should have become a surgeon, however, since he was incredibly
capable with his hands.
Early on he undertook to carve a
stooping falcon, using observations on our weekend eyrie
trips to ensure its accuracy. That he carved in maple (an
exceptionally hard wood) only added credit to the beauty of
his finished product. He later carved a soaring falcon with
similar results, both carvings now in the collections of The
Archives of Falconry.
In undertaking his medical career he left behind active participation
in falconry, but not before putting his hand to a haggard peregrine
(they were legal then), two Cooper’s Hawks (one a haggard, the
other an eyess hacked with my own in 1948) and a lovely big eyess
German goshawk. Career or no, Ben retained at least a keen, if
inactive, interest in falconry until his passing. If the number of his
birds was small, the fascination and devotion he displayed with
them was a true credit, not only to himself but to the sport. R.I.P.
Right- a Chinese Hawk
Waterer by Ben Stilwell.