Bad Ass Birds

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Aerial alarming at a nearby dog.

I was looking out of my office window when I spotted a man in a bright yellow vest surrounded by cops in a parking lot. Naturally, I became curious about what was going on. When I saw a beautiful reddish brown Harris’s Hawk (Parabuteo unicinctus) fly down to his outstretched hand, I run downstairs to meet them. Antonio, the falconer, was showing off his hawk Aerial to a group of cops who were giddy like 1st graders on a field trip. They were all taking pics and videos of this beautiful creature, while Antonio was generously answering questions, giving tidbits of information about his bird, and even letting people hold him. Shortly, more people gathered around, but Aerial seemed more interested in the juicy bits of quail meat that Antonio would offer him than in all of the commotion around him. It was a perfect example of how we are naturally drawn to the wildness, mystery, and beauty that the birds of prey exemplify. As if by some magnetic force, Aerial was able to detour folks from their daily routines, even if just for a moment.

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Aerial flying up to Antonio’s arm. The blue antenna is a GPS transmitter.

Antonio remembers being interested in birds ever since he was a little kid.  He was sixteen when he learned about falconry. Two years later, he was flying his first bird, an American Kestrel (Falco sparverius), as a falconer’s apprentice. He continued on as general falconer and after a total of seven years became a master falconer. Eventually, he directed his passion for birds of prey and falconry into a business. He is now the owner of Sky Patrol, a bird abatement company. While falconry is considered the art of training and using a raptor to hunt for sport, abatement is the act of using a raptor to scare off or pursue depredating birds or other wildlife to mitigate damage. He currently has a contract to keep any potential birds from nesting in the empty buildings on the former Fort Ord that are slated for demolition. It’s a seven days a week job that he shares with his girlfriend Deann.

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Antonio, takes Aerial from Deann

Antonio uses several species of birds for the abatement work, but most often it’s either a Harris’s Hawk or a Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus). In the United States, only birds that have been bred in captivity can be used for abatement as it is against the law to use wildlife for commercial purposes. Harris’s Hawks are the only species in a genus Parabuteo. Behaviorally, what distinguished them from other hawks is their social structure. Known as wolves of the sky, they form family hunting groups with a clearly defined hierarchy with a largest female as a dominant bird (raptors are sexually dimorphic with females being 1/3 larger than males). Physically, their long tail and shorter wings make them more maneuverable than other similar sized hawks such as a Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis). “A good Harris’s Hawk will never seize to amaze you in what it can do” – said Antonio. More maneuverability means that Harris’s Hawks can hunt quite a variety of prey; they can catch a crow, a pigeon, or a jackrabbit. Their social nature also means that they are very intelligent and easy to train. For these reasons they are a hawk most used in abatement work, and very often in falconry as well.

Peregrine Falcons are famous for being the fastest animals on the planet. When a peregrine falcon tucks its wings and dives headfirst from a height (an attack mode called stooping), it can reach speeds up to 320 mph. Peregrines can generate enough force at impact that they are able to kill or stun prey several times their own body weight. From golden eagles to hummingbirds, about 250 different species of North American birds have been documented to be preyed on by peregrine falcons. According to Antonio, that number is likely ten times as much worldwide.

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Antonio with a male Peregrine Falcon

In the United States, Peregrine Falcons are a success story of conservation efforts that stemmed from the enactment of the Endangered Species Act. Their populations began to decline in the 1940’s, and continued to fall into early 1970’s, primarily due to poisoning from pesticide DDT. By 1975, there were only 324 known nesting pairs of American peregrine falcons, and the eastern population was extirpated.  Since being listed as an endangered species, the ban on use of DDT along with active recovery programs resulted in Peregrine Falcons reaching stable and healthy populations to the point of federal delisting in 1999. The recovery success of Peregrine Falcons is a hopeful example of how thoughtful policy and dedicated organizations and individuals can make a positive impact on our natural world. Today the Peregrine Falcon represents a success story of an animal taken from the brink of extinction to population numbers greater than in any time in recorded history.

A falconer trains his birds in such a way that they will want to come back every time they fly. When Antonio wants his bird to come back, he holds up his glove and the bird (usually immediately) flies back to him. It is a symbiotic relationship of sorts, where the birds have learned that it is more beneficial to hang out with humans than go it alone.  This is part of the reason why falconers must closely watch their birds’ weight; a well fed raptor may not be so interested in a quail offering.

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Aerial is always watching

Falconers can capture certain types of birds from the wild for falconry, but for abatement purposes they must get their birds from breeders. Breeders can select birds for different characteristics.  Among falconers, two qualities are seen as most desirable in raptors; tameness and how gamy they are, or how much they like to hunt.  Gamy birds are more desirable as are birds with veracious appetite. Harris’s Hawks and Peregrine Falcons are often used by falconers, but crossbreeds between species are also possible.  Hybrids between Gyrfalcons (Falco rusticolus, the largest species of falcons) and Peregrine Falcons are becoming popular for their strength and speed.

Although considered to be at the top of their food chain, captive bred birds used in falconry and abatement work are not without danger. Often native raptors in the area will attack and even try to kill them. This becomes especially a concern when a bird gets lost. If a falconer gets separated from his or her bird, he or she must find it quickly because captive hawks behave differently than their wild cousins and are an easy target. Birds that were not raised in the wild don’t have the knowledge necessary for survival and “they don’t have any street smarts” as Antonio put it. Losing a bird in the old days meant spending many hours, sometimes days searching and calling for the bird until it was found. With today’s GPS technology this has become less of a concern. Antonio attaches a GPS transmitter on his birds so if he loses sight of them he can track them with his smartphone. But he also acknowledges that it tends to make falconers lazy and not train their birds as well as they should.

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Tracks of a Peregrine Falcon on a beach in San Mateo County, CA

Peregrine Falcons have a worldwide distribution (their Latin name means traveler). In Monterey County your best chance to spot wild Peregrine Falcons is along the shoreline where there are concentrations of shorebirds and waterfowl, or on the top of Embassy Suites building in Seaside. Although the peregrine falcon habitat has shrunk due to anthropogenic activities, they have adapted very well to living in cities and nest and roost on top of artificial structures such as tall sky scrapers. During the breeding season (usually March through May) you can even view a live feed of a nest site on top of the PG&E building in San Francisco. But you will have to travel to Arizona, Texas, or south of the border to see a wild Harris’s Hawk. Check out the ebird map for recent sightings and please share this post with others if you found it educational.

2 thoughts on “Bad Ass Birds

  1. Wonderful article and photos. I really love how you highlight the conservation story of the peregrine falcon – the work to achieve that success by the Peregrine Fund and other organizations is an awesome example of conservation in action! Truly are bad ass birds.

    Like

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