A Journey Into the World of Falconry

 

Rough-Legged Hawk. Print by John James Audubon. Courtesy of Harvard Art Museums.

By Lauri deGaris

Over the past few years, I have enjoyed sharing numerous picnics on Cumberland Island with Carol Ruckdeschel. We get together as often as we can and chat about island life. Carol’s knowledge of barrier islands along the Southeast Coast is unsurpassed. She has authored two books, “A Natural History of Cumberland Island” (2018) and “Sea Turtles of the Georgia Coast” (2014). And Carol is the subject of Will Harlen’s book “Untamed: The Wildest Woman in America and the Fight for Cumberland Island” (2015).

Last October, on the southern end of Cumberland Island National Seashore, Carol and I shared a picnic. We were sitting under the shade of an oak tree with a view across the salt marsh from the grounds of Dungeness. We spoke of many things that day, but one bit of news Carol shared with me really got my attention. Carol told me that she passed a group of trappers on the beach near the north end on her way to share time with me. In typical Carol fashion, she stopped and asked what they were up to. The answer to her question shocked me.

Carol said she had stumbled upon a few people trapping falcons on the north end of Cumberland Island National Seashore. The group had several small tents set up on the beach. And they were using a pigeon as bait dangling from the top of a tall pole. The flapping pigeon in distress was tied to a rope that extended to the tent on the beach. Those in the tent controlled the rope and the pigeon. The crew sat in wait for a migrating falcon to spot the anxious pigeon.

Carol inquired if anyone in the group had a permit to trap migratory birds on a national seashore. One person claimed to have a permit but did not offer to show it to Carol. Carol snapped a few photos of the trap and moved on down the beach.

A few weeks later, Carol inquired about the number of permits issued by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources to trap migratory birds of prey in the area. She was told by Robert Sargent, Ph.D., Program Manager, Wildlife Resources Division, in an email, “So far as we know, the only raptor species taken for falconry on Cumberland is peregrine. Our records indicate just one was taken during the 2023 season. The falconer reported it was taken in Camden County, not specifically on Cumberland, but that’s probably where the take occurred.”

A few weeks after Carol told me about the falcon trappers on Cumberland Island, I took a sunrise walk along the south end beach of Amelia Island. I stopped to admire the warm morning light shimmering on the water when I spotted a small bird exhibiting odd behavior. I watched what looked like a small sandpiper trying to submerge itself in very shallow water. Then it appeared, unmatched in speed and hunting skill, a falcon dove from the sky and tried to catch the small bird. After several attempts, finally, in “one last fell swoop,” the falcon grabbed the bird by the back of the neck and flew to a nearby tree. The falcon sat and consumed its prey in a dead cedar tree on the undeveloped Riverstone property. I managed to capture the event with my phone camera.

Falcon trapping on Cumberland Island. Courtesy of Wild Cumberland.org

After this experience, I knew I had to learn more about falcons and the art of falconry. I found Accipiter Enterprises, Educational Birds of Prey in Live Oak, Florida, and visited them. The experience was informative and allowed me the opportunity to handle a few of these magnificent birds with a trained falconer. It was a powerful experience, allowing a hawk to land on my outstretched arm and gaze into my eyes. There are many types of birds of prey at the education center, which include a variety of hawks and owls. The facility owner shared more information than I could absorb in the four hours we spent together with the birds.

A few weeks later, I visited The Center for Wildlife Education and Lamar Q. Ball, Jr. Raptor Center at Georgia Southern University in Statesboro. They have a wildlife sanctuary and education center in the middle of the campus dedicated to birds of prey. I attended an afternoon workshop about falcons and other birds of prey and toured the wildlife sanctuary.

Peregrine falcons are the fastest animal on the face of the earth. When diving for prey, they can exceed 200 mph. They are like a speeding torpedo with feathers. They prefer to nest on cliffs and ledges. However, they are known to raise their brood on transmission towers, skyscrapers and bridges. They feed on small birds and animals. Some peregrine falcons migrate, while other populations are resident. Migratory falcons travel up to 15,000 miles annually to winter in warmer climates. A male falcon is referred to as a ‘tiercel,’ derived from Old French. It means the male is one-third smaller than the female. The female falcon is known as a ‘falcon’ or ‘falconer.’

Today, peregrine falcons are widely distributed and found on every continent except Antarctica. Before World War II, there were thousands of nesting pairs in North America. By 1965, the peregrine was considered extinct east of the Mississippi. And, only 39 known nesting pairs existed west of the Mississippi. Peregrine falcons in the Great Plains were nonexistent.

In 1970, the peregrine falcon was federally listed as an endangered species. The worldwide use of the pesticide dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane (DDT), especially after World War II, decimated the bird of prey population. Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring” (1962) helped the world understand the mounting evidence of the pesticide’s declining benefits and environmental harm to all animals, including humans.
Scientists and environmentalists began organizing to find ways to counteract the damage of DDT. Canada banned the use of DDT in 1970, and the United States followed suit in 1972. Another few years of DDT use, peregrine falcons and many other animals would have gone extinct.

Dr. Tom Cade, professor at Cornell University established The Peregrine Fund in 1970. Aided by a dedicated group of graduate and post-doctoral students, falconers all gathered peregrines to begin a captive breeding project. Some were taken from the few remaining in the wild. However, most peregrines for the project came from falconers throughout North America. The Peregrine Fund and the North American Falconers Association, founded in 1961, raised and released more than 4,000 peregrine falcons, restoring the North American peregrine population. Today, the North American peregrine population has rebounded. President Bill Clinton officially removed it from the endangered species list in 1999.

In the wild, peregrine falcons less than one year of age have a one-in-ten chance of making it to their second year of life. If all goes well, the average life span of a falcon is about 15 years. The average life span of a falcon in captivity is also about 15 years if cared for properly, according to Kitty Conner at the International Bird of Prey Academy in Live Oak, Florida.

Permits are granted to individuals who meet state and federal requirements for possessing birds of prey. Requirements include a minimum of 2 years apprenticeship under a trained master falconer. During this time, the trainee learns how to care for and train birds of prey. After successful completion of the apprenticeship program and testing by state regulators, the trainee is allowed to have one bird for personal use. After five years with one bird, one is considered a master falconer and can obtain additional birds. However, most falconers keep only one bird. Regulators inspect and ensure that housing for birds of prey meets national standards. Many falconers will tell you this is a lifestyle, not a hobby. Becoming a falconer requires dedication and patience. And it is a 365-day-a-year job.

Falconry is the art of humans using falcons to hunt prey for sport and sustenance. It was practiced in ancient China as far back as 4,400 years B.C. Falcons were given as royal gifts in the Heian dynasty. In Persia and Arabia, pictorial records depict falconers with birds on their wrists, representing man’s dominance over nature.

Horus – Ancient Egyptian God. Courtesy of History Hits.com

One of the earliest images of kingship in human culture, dating back 3,000 years, was found in Egypt. The far-flying, far-seeing falcon was inscribed on a pharaoh’s tomb. The sharp-eyed falcon represented the flight of intuition, showing the way to distant places of experience.

Horus was an ancient Egyptian god most often depicted with a falcon’s head crowned with a pschent, the emblem of the pharaohs. He was the son of Isis and Osiris. After defeating his jealous brother in battle, Horus became the protector of the pharaohs with royal power. Horus was the guarantor of universal harmony in the afterlife and considered the god of the sky and celestial spaces.

Shakespeare was a falconer. In his play “The Taming of the Shrew,” Petruchio negotiates marriage terms with Baptista, father of ill-tempered Katherine. Once married, Petruchio embarks on a plan to tame Katherine as one would tame a wild hawk. Starved and kept without sleep, Katherine eventually agrees with everything Petruchio says, however absurd. Petruchio had tamed the shrew.

The female falcon was preferred for falconry because she was fierce, quick, and built for catching game. To train a female falcon, a falconer has to help her overcome the wariness of man. Many falconers hold the falcon on the wrist, stroking her feathers while offering her nourishing food. Eventually, the falcon becomes accustomed to her captor. Not all falconers are cruel like Petruchio in Shakespeare’s play.

In many indigenous cultures, the feather of a falcon is highly regarded. It represents speed, agility, and vision into the future. The peregrine falcon flies high with trade winds. It can see ultraviolet light and is, therefore, considered a messenger between the upper and lower world.

Raptor is from the Latin raptere, “to seize,” and is also the root of rapture. Mystics link the falcon’s spiraling upward flight to upper worldly ascent and the falcon’s spectacular dive for prey as the spirit seizing the human heart. In Hinduism, the falcon steals inspiration from its guardians’ heavenly abode and the divine elixir of immortality.

Falconry reached great popularity in medieval times (500-1500). By 1600, it had reached its highest level in England and was governed by strict rules. A king could fly a gyrfalcon, which was white and rare. An earl could fly a peregrine, and a yeoman could fly a goshawk. The sparrow hawk was reserved for priests, and servants could fly a kestrel. By 1800, the decline of the aristocracy and the popularity of hunting with guns caused falconry to plummet.

In 1900, The Gloucestershire Chronicle in England published an article entitled “Reminiscences of Falconer,” written by Major C. H. Fisher of The Castle, Stroud in the county of Gloucestershire. Major Fisher endeavored to write about his experience as a falconer. He aimed to “make it acceptable to those who have already had some experience of the sport while encouraging to others who may be inclined to take it up.” He further writes, “The ancient field sport is a fascinating one and deserves all that has been said of it by the old writers. On the part of the falconer, no doubt, it requires the exercise of much gentleness, patience, and skill, as well as attention to the proper mode of procedure.”
Fisher goes on to illustrate the history and nature of the “ancient and noble science of falconry as distinguished from the sports characterized by cruelty” in his essay first published in 1871. He describes the peregrine falcon as “a friend and companion of nobles of all ages … the most docile and useful by far of all hawks ever known to man.”

In August of 1910, national newspapers reported the use of falcons to hunt was underway in New York. Seven trained falcons, in charge of an expert falconer, arrived at the estate of Paul Rainey on Long Island. They are believed to be the first ever brought to this country for work in the field. The trainer said the medieval sport of falconry was being revived abroad, and Rainey was not the first American sportsman to show a sympathetic interest.

In 1946, naturalist William Turner was living in Washington D.C. and discovered a peregrine falcon living in the old post office tower on Pennsylvania Avenue, between the White House and the Capitol. Turner watched the falcon for several years, making several attempts to trap her.

He noted that after the spring, she left her nest and returned to the tower in the fall to spend the winter. “I have often seen this bird picking up starlings above the heads of the people on the avenue,” wrote Turner. After three years of trapping attempts, the naturalist finally caught the falcon. Immediately, the falcon was hooded and all the regalia, including bells, swivel, jesses (leather pants for birds) and leash were put on the bird. Two weeks later, she was flown free. Turner was quoted as saying, “She would go up out of sight, until the proper command when she would dive earthward at a terrific speed and strike her prey lifeless.” Eventually, Turner released the falcon, and she flew directly back to the post office tower. This story was published in many newspapers across the country, including the Topeka Kansas Weekly.

On May 16, 1948, The Chicago Tribune published William Fulton’s essay on the Royal Air Force (RAF) of Britain. According to Fulton, the RAF used falcons during World War II. Even though shotguns replaced falconry as the choice of most hunters, a few falconers were still practicing the sport in World War II.

In 1947, birds alone caused 17 accidents to RAF planes in the United Kingdom and Germany. With more planes taking off each day, bird collisions were a real problem. Drastic action was deemed necessary, and a committee was appointed.

The first attempt to control the birds was with gunfire. The military fired their guns into the air before take-off to scare the birds away. The flock would return after a few minutes and resume feeding on the airstrip. After a few days, the plovers and gulls became accustomed to the noise and refused to rise altogether.

Someone in the Air Ministry’s accident prevention program suggested using falcons to scare the birds away. The RAF did not have to look far for a falconer to handle the job. Ronald Stevens from the Royal Corps of Signals had already performed a successful top-secret mission with his falcons over the isles of Scilly off the coast of Cornwall. He and his team of falcons were assigned to the islands with the mission of taking down strange pigeons believed to have been released by German U-boats with coded messages. Stevens and his falcons would hunt for the pigeons, retrieve the messages, and turn them over to Signals.

Flights were staged just before daily feeding time for the falcons. The falconer would slip off the falcon’s leash and fix a leather hood over its head to keep the bird quiet. Once in the field, the falconer pulls off the hood and swings the falcon around to launch the bird into flight. When the aerodrome was cleared of all birds, the falconer blew a whistle, and the falcon returned to the falconer. A piece of raw meat was waiting for the returning bird. The flying of a falcon over the aerodrome once a day kept the field clear for the safe takeoff and landing of RAF planes.
Stevens continued hunting with falcons well after retirement. He swore that hunting with dogs and falcons was better than hunting with dogs and guns. He said time and time again, the falcon would fly aloft in great climbing circles until the dog flushed the bird. When the bird flew, the falcon set up to ground the bird by going into a steep, fast dive, then struck the bird behind the neck, and the quarry dropped dead.

On June 12, 1949, the Idaho Sunday Statesman reported that Morain W. Nelson of the U.S. Soil Conservation Service told community members some Idaho falcons are valuable to agriculture as they prey on rodents and insects. Other hawks kill barnyard fowl. Farmers and hunters should learn to distinguish between the different types and not kill the beneficial hawks.

Heavy land development for an ever-increasing human population has forced peregrine falcons to reside in some unlikely places. Many high-rise buildings in metropolitan cities have resident peregrines controlling local pigeon and rodent populations. Avid birders will line up early in the morning to watch a feathered bullet in pursuit of a pigeon. Not everyone is happy about this situation or the aftermath of a falcon meal on the sidewalk.

In Maine, Acadia National Park closes down several of the most popular hiking trails on the East Coast during peregrine nesting season. On March 1, 2024, the Precipice Trail, Jordan Cliffs Trail, and Valley Cove Trails were closed to protect peregrine falcons from human disturbance or harassment during this year’s annual nesting period. From May through July, rangers at Acadia National Park will set up spotting scopes for visitors to watch falcons nesting from a safe distance. July is especially exciting because that is when the fledglings are learning how to fly. Efforts over the past several decades to restore the nesting population of peregrines falcons in Acadia National Park have paid off. Today, there are more than 150 nesting pairs of falcons.

The migratory route of many peregrine falcons passes directly over the barrier islands along the east coast of North America. Assateague Island National Seashore has one of the longest-running research studies on peregrine falcons in the Americas. Fifty years of survey data illustrate the peregrine falcon has rebounded after the effects of DDT. However, researchers have noted a slight decline in the number of peregrines sighted at Assateague Island in the past decade. Researchers believe severe weather systems, human presence, and development along the coast, plus an increase in the presence of bald eagles on the beach, are to blame. Although the decline is noted, they are quick to point out that the presence of bald eagles will keep all other birds away, as they are aggressive. Because of this, researchers are suggesting that peregrines may be trading Assateague Island for safer beachfront elsewhere.

Cumberland Island National Seashore certainly could be considered a safer beachfront elsewhere. Many barrier islands like Cumberland Island provide an ideal resting stop during migration. However, unlike Assateague Island National Seashore and Acadia National Park, which protect migratory falcons, Cumberland Island National Seashore allows trapping of these migratory birds of prey.

It seems to me that Cumberland Island National Seashore should be protecting wild resources such as the peregrine falcon on migration. The Peregrine Fund in 1970 used captive-bred birds to rebuild the peregrine population and did so successfully. Why can’t falconers use captive birds for their hobby? I asked this question when visiting the Birds of Prey Center at Georgia Southern University a few weeks ago. The answer I received was that first-time falconers prefer to use wild falcons, so if they decide to give up the sport, they can release the falcon back into the wild. If they use a captive breed falcon, it will not survive in the wild.

I wonder if the cost of a captive-bred bird may be why some falconers trap wild birds. According to master falconer Kitty Carroll at the International Falconry Academy in Live Oak, Florida, the cost of a captive-bred falcon is currently about $3,000.

I look forward to my next picnic with Carol Ruckdeschel on Cumberland Island. I know she will share a story with me about some unusual event see has witnessed on the island. And, I will have to satisfy my ever-present curiosity to learn more about whatever that may be.

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Paula M
Noble Member
Paula M(@paula-m)
18 days ago

Trapping wild life in a designated National seashore area should be very carefully monitored….especially when these birds are not a nuisance and are not a subject of over-population. This story makes me very sad.

stevenfahlgren
Member
stevenfahlgren(@stevenfahlgren)
13 days ago

Thank you for creating and sharing such a fascinating article.

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