Few introducing word
About twenty people stood where a gravel road ended at the gate to a cattle pasture, watching a female peregrine falcon pump her long, slender wings and sweep in wide, climbing circles above them. An early-March sunset silhouetted the low mountain ridges around Dillon, Montana, and lit up the falcon’s clay-orange breast each time she swung toward it. The peregrine’s spiraling flight lifted her higher and higher into the sky, until the only detail visible was the low sun flashing silver on the undersides of her wings.
The people watching were almost all members of the Montana Falconers Association, gathered for their annual spring meet. The meet had been organized by Brian Mutch, who works for the Peregrine Fund, the organization largely responsible for repopulating the United States with endangered peregrine falcons. Mutch had been charged with rehabilitating this particular bird after she was found wounded by a gunshot the previous fall.
As the falcon soared, the evening sky filled with the fluttering forms of ducks that wanted to land in a creek bottom across the field from the falconers or in the pasture itself, where a local rancher had left alfalfa for his cattle. The ducks had spotted the falcon from a great distance and were careful to fly above the raptor. Most ducks–in fact, most birds–can escape a falcon in a tail chase; falcons are most effective when they stoop down on prey. The peregrine ignored the flying ducks and circled in the sky–“waiting on”–watching the people on the ground.
Mutch had spotted five mallards feeding in a shallow swale in the field between the end of the road and the creek bottom. When the peregrine had climbed to about a thousand feet, Mutch and his brother, Dale, charged across the field, dodging befuddled cattle, whooping both to flush the ducks and to draw the falcon’s attention. The mallards shot into the air and fled in a tight sprint to the south.
High above, the falcon tilted earthward, rowed her wings to power her stoop, and then poured herself down through the sky. Wind ripped audibly through her feathers, and the small brass bells tied to her feet whistled. When the ducks saw the falcon free-falling toward them, the small flock split. A drake hesitated, unsure which pair to follow, and the prey had selected itself. The falcon slammed the duck with an impact that sounded like a baseball bat swatting a down pillow. Sinking her talons deep into the duck’s back, the peregrine rode her prey to the ground with little loss of velocity.
A strange oooohhh of awe rose from the falconers gathered at the end of the road, one that said they appreciated the kill but felt it a little, too. Mutch ran to where the two birds had come down, worried that the falcon had hit the ground too hard and might be injured. He found her perched atop the duck, stripping feathers and skin from his breast with twitching jerks of her sharp beak.
Mutch picked up both the duck and the falcon. Then, after ripping off one of the duck’s legs and holding it in front of the falcon until she began to eat, Mutch drew the rest of the duck away. Usually the falconer will reward his bird by allowing it to eat part of the warm carcass, often the head, and then supplement its meal with some frozen meat. Once the bird is separated from its kill, the falconer will bag the prey and take it home for supper. Brian Mutch dined on duck that night.
Falconry, at heart, is about what birds do naturally. Perhaps the sport’s greatest attraction is its lifting of veils, so to speak, on the nature of killing and prey, and the perception it creates for the falconer that he is somehow one step closer to the workings of the raptor’s world. That the falcons, hawks, and eagles used in the sport are calm, poised killers that employ thrilling aerial abilities in slaying their victims adds to the fascination. Falconers become attached to their birds with a passion that nonfalconers simply can’t imagine. Two weeks after the Dillon meet Brian Mutch sat in a bar in Ovando, Montana, talking about the lengths he’d go to for his other bird, a captive-bred peregrine named June that he has had for nine years. “I’ve often wondered, if I got stuck in my truck somewhere, like in a snowstorm, how I could shave off pieces of my skin and keep her going,” Mutch said, with a chuckle that did not mean he was kidding. Many falconers have a fascination with birds of prey that runs too deep for them to understand fully. They speak of seeing falcons in their dreams and remember spending hours as children gazing at hawks on telephone poles. “It’s crazy,” said a falconer at the Dillon meet. “I hope I get over it someday.”
A falconer’s involvement with his bird is constantly reinforced by the amount of time they spend together. “Manning” a bird, or teaching it to hunt from the fist and return to a lure, requires daily interaction. Once the bird has been taught to accept its human hunting partner, maintaining it in effective flying condition demands constant attention.
Unlike dogs and horses, a wild-caught falcon is not submissive (although a captive-bred one might be somewhat so). Falconers do not physically intimidate their birds into compliance the way a dog trainer might. The falconer’s main tool is hunger. Falconry is based on convincing a bird that the falconer is its best meal ticket. This is not to say that falconers starve their birds; that would be counterproductive, because raptors must maintain their weight within a delicate range–a matter of a few ounces–in order to fly efficiently.
Ultimately, a falconer doesn’t hunt a bird; the falcon recognizes and agrees to hunt with a consistent producer of prey. Every time a bird leaves the fist, it is free to migrate–to fly away forever. In the early days of falconry on this continent, a number of falconers incorporated that fact into their sport. Falcons, particularly peregrines, were trapped in the spring, manned, and flown throughout the fall and winter. When migratory urges began welling within the birds the following spring, they were released back into the wild. Although that practice still exists, over the past thirty years it has become less common.
Hunting with raptors has been practiced throughout the world for millennia, but in the United States the sport, for all intents and purposes, had its beginnings in the 1930s. Nowadays, hunting should be supported by modern devices to enhance the range of observation, such as binocular and rangefinders. Especially for bird hungting, using of rangefinders is indispensable (check Top Rangefinder for the best rangefinder reviews) Early American settlers had no time to train birds to fly after game, particularly when birds were far less effective than guns, traps, nets, and even dogs when it came to putting meat on the table.
Another impediment to falconry in America was the settlers’ perceptions of the birds themselves. Falcons, hawks, and eagles, like bears, wolves, and foxes, were predators competing with settlers for prey, and they raided domestic stockyards and chicken coops. As such, they were to be killed on sight. Change in this attitude was a long time coming. Well into this century states paid bounties on raptors. As late as the 1960s it was illegal in some states to keep certain raptors captive but perfectly acceptable to kill them, as long as you left the carcass in the field. As the recovered peregrine that Mutch took to Dillon illustrates, raptors are still sometimes shot.
When Americans began to practice falconry, they adopted ancient training practices and language. In strict falconry jargon “falcon” refers only to a female peregrine falcon. A male peregrine, typically a third smaller than the female, is a “tiercel.” The female gyrfalcon is a “gyrfalcon,” while the male goes by “gerkin.” How a bird came into captivity further defines it. An “eyass” is a chick taken from a wild nest, or aerie, and raised in captivity. If the bird was taken just as it was beginning to stray from the nest but before it learned how to make extended flights, it is called a “brancher.” Birds caught in the wild when they are older than that are “passagers,” or “passage birds,” because they are generally taken during their first migration. If such a bird has reached its adult plumage, it is a “haggard.” Should its first molt occur in captivity, it is “intermewed.” Purists would claim that only someone who flies true falcons–peregrines, gyrfalcons, and other raptors of the genus falco–is worthy of the name “falconer,” and that those who fly hawks, eagles, and owls should be called “austringers,” although this bit of snobbery has fallen out of fashion among mainstream American falconers.
Louis Agassiz Fuertes kindled an interest in falconry with his 1920 National Geographic article “Falconry, The Sport of Kings,” and Colonel A. E. “Luff” Meredith, a career military aviator, is generally credited with bringing falconry to America. But it was the Craighead twins, Frank Jr. and John (now well known for their grizzly-bear research), who, beginning in the mid-1930s, did the most to spread popular interest in falconry. While still in high school the Craigheads met Meredith in Washington, D.C., where he talked to them about training wild raptors. At the time, the brothers had been shooting birds to satisfy an interest in taxidermy, but falconry captured their fancy. The Craigheads began working with Cooper’s hawks and quickly moved to peregrines, prairie falcons, red-tailed hawks–even owls and ospreys. In 1937, while attending Pennsylvania State University (where they flew their falcons on the university golf course), the brothers co- authored an article in National Geographic about falconry.
Five years later they published another piece in the magazine. Those two articles created a foundation for American interest in the sport. But the shaping of modern American falconry would take another thirty years, and its fortunes were intimately bound up with those of the peregrine falcon, which the pesticide DDT nearly brought to extinction.
Peregrine falcons began rapidly disappearing from this country in the 1950s, and DDT was not initially implicated. Indeed, falconers were blamed at least in part for the dwindling of the peregrine population. Prior to 1970 no effective captive-breeding programs existed, and most falcons used in falconry were taken from the wild. It was assumed that a vast black market existed for illegally trapped birds.
Certainly there are now and were then bad falconers. In 1984 Operation Falcon, a major U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service sting, nabbed a number of falconers for various felony violations. Operation Falcon proved to be a wildly controversial episode in the annals of falconry: it engendered bad feelings between falconers and law-enforcement agencies which persist to this day. The operation was fraught with mismanagement, falconers claim. For example, they say, the Fish and Wildlife Service appeared to violate the spirit of the laws it was purportedly trying to uphold by allowing agents to steal then-protected anatum peregrine eggs from a nest for use as bait. In court Operation Falcon lost de facto entrapment arguments, found almost all its felony charges reduced to misdemeanors, and failed to prove the existence of an organized black market.
The truth is that the falconers’ take of wild birds was probably biologically inconsequential. From 1965 to 1970 it became evident to biologists that the real villain was DDT. As it happens, falconers turned out to be largely responsible for the remarkable recovery of the peregrine falcon. In 1970 Tom Cade, a falconer and at the time a professor of biology at Cornell University, started the Peregrine Fund, which orchestrated what has been one of the more successful re-introductions to date of an endangered species in this country. Where others–including the Fish and Wildlife Service–had failed, Cade succeeded, largely because the birds he used for breeding stock were young birds donated by fellow falconers and were comfortable with captivity. The older birds used by the Fish and Wildlife Service would not breed.
“A lot of the information that led to the conclusion that a continental decline had occurred came from falconers who had been in the field, watching nests and keeping records,” Cade told me not long ago. “Falconers were also influential in captive-breeding and release techniques. Their biggest contribution to the Peregrine Fund was to donate birds–either lending or giving them–so that we could use them as breeding stock. About half of the birds we used came from falconers.”
In addition to saving the wild peregrine, the Peregrine Fund’s captive-breeding program ensured the availability of birds for falconers. Captive breeding–along with the advent of radio telemetry–has also influenced the sport in other ways.
Traditional training methods call for leaving birds hooded or in dark rooms for great lengths of time, to keep them calm. But the advent of captive-bred birds has led to new approaches. Chicks are often given the run of the house. This dispels their notion that every time they see a human being, they will be fed. It also deepens the bond between man and bird. Mutch’s peregrine June, which he raised from a chick, now believes that Mutch is her mate and will actively court him, sticking her beak in the dirt and raising her tail high while loudly sounding the kak-kak-kak of her mating call.
Radio telemetry has allowed falconers to keep their birds longer, further increasing opportunities for learning and decreasing pressure on wild populations by nearly eliminating the need for trapping new birds. Prior to telemetry, a falcon that pursued prey for miles before killing it–or giving up and roosting–would probably not be found again. But now a falconer can track his bird and lure it back to him. Telemetry has also changed the kinds of flights falconers will attempt with their birds, making possible the pursuit of challenging quarry like sage grouse and prairie chickens, which are likely to fly a long way off before a falcon can catch them.
The North American Falconers Association, founded in 1961, now claims 2,600 members (an additional 1,100 falconers are believed to operate independent of the organization). NAFA estimates that the number of participants has increased over the past decade by about 10 percent. “We’re growing at a very slow pace, which is what we want,” says the president of the organization, Ken Felix, a veterinarian from McKean, Pennsylvania.
Owing largely to NAFA, falconry is probably the most highly regulated wildlife-related sport in existence. “Falconry is hard to get into and it’s kind of designed that way,” Mutch says. “It’s designed to discriminate against people who aren’t totally committed to it. You get a lot of people who want a glamorous pet– who want to walk around with a falcon on their fist. Falcons are not pets.”
Felix points to a traditional stronghold of falconry, Great Britain, to illustrate what NAFA does not want to see happen in this country. “The trouble in England right now is, to be a falconer you only have to plunk down fifteen pounds for a license. As a result, the sport is deteriorating. Incompetent people are doing it. I’m not elitist, but I think the situation we have in the U.S. is appropriate. We are keeping the sport generally away from casually interested people. We now have regulations. They’re restrictive, but we want them restrictive. They’re not hardship. Anybody who wants to put forth the effort can do it.”
The effort is a serious undertaking. To become a master falconer in the United States a person must pass a hundred-question exam and then spend two years as an apprentice to a licensed sponsor and five years as a general falconer before applying for master falconer’s status. Each state regulates the kinds and number of birds a falconer may fly at each stage of his progression, and may inspect mews and breeding facilities randomly. NAFA has been instrumental in developing legislation to protect birds of prey, and is actively involved in raptor restoration and rehabilitation programs. NAFA publications keep falconers up to date on developing techniques in the care and training of raptors.
NAFA’s concern with standards indicates an awareness that all responsible falconers have about their sport: despite falconry’s basis in natural acts, it is the hand of man from which the falcon flies. A falconer’s error can bring this home with gritty reality. The day before Mutch’s peregrine made its stoop at the ducks outside Dillon, a female gyrfalcon was killed while chasing sage grouse. The gyrfalcon had followed a grouse into cover and caught it in sagebrush. While she held the bird, trying to figure out how to extract and kill it, a golden eagle slammed the gyrfalcon from behind.
Jeff King, then a forty-year-old registered nurse and veterinary student, had trapped the immature gyrfalcon in the Palouse region of eastern Washington five months before. “A wild bird like this would probably not have allowed itself to be killed by another predator unless it had gotten pretty hungry,” King said weeks later, still upset by the incident. He was coming to terms with the notion that he had miscalculated, had made the falcon hungry enough to ignore her natural caution, and had cost the bird her life.
Even captive-bred raptors revert almost completely to instinct in the act of hunting: nobody trains peregrines to break the neck of their prey immediately after bringing it to the ground, yet they all do. Falconers simply couldn’t do much to improve a falcon’s efficiency in killing; the human being’s work is geared toward gaining acceptance from the bird and taking it into situations where it can act naturally. Each time he succeeds, a falconer edges closer to fully understanding those acts and what they mean.
Hunting with birds of prey is an ancient sport, but it did not become popular in the US until the 1930s, and it is highly regulated. Falconers helped to repopulate falcons in the 1970s after the use of DDT made them an endangered species.