Falconry – A Detriment To The Birds?

As some of you will remember, I’ve recently made two posts calling into question some of the ethics of the “sport” (some don’t like that term) of falconry.

 

peregrine falcon 0409 ron dudley

This was the bird that prompted my most recent post – an “escaped” female Peregrine Falcon that I photographed along the Antelope Island causeway a few weeks ago.  You’ll notice that she still has her leather falconry anklets above her feet (only one can be seen in this photo).

 

 

american kestrel 7166 ron dudley

And last year, this escaped male American Kestrel was loose near Farmington Bay WMA and it still had not only its anklets but its jesses.  The extreme danger to the bird of having those long, dangling jesses engangle and kill the kestrel is obvious.

In both posts I questioned the ethics of falconry in general, but admitting my relative ignorance of the subject I asked (on the second post) for more information from my readers to “enlighten” me on the subject.

For those who haven’t seen those posts and have the interest, here’s the links:

Escaped Falconry Bird – Peregrine Falcon

Escaped Falconry Bird – Peregrine Falcon, Again

 

Mark Runnels, a master falconer from Oklahoma, responded to the second post with a series of very detailed, knowledgeable and thoughtful comments on falconry – responding to each of my concerns dispassionately and eloquently.

However, that post was made on September 17 and Mark didn’t begin to comment until October 23, which means that his valuable information likely went under the radar for most of my readers (very few folks come back to a post they’ve already seen).  So I decided to repost his comments (and my responses) here.  I chose not to simply supply the link to the post because the “conversation” is somewhat disjointed and difficult to follow in that thread.

This is a “big read” and I fully realize that it will likely have limited appeal since most folks who visit my blog are more interested in avian photography than they are in the ethics of falconry.  But I just couldn’t see Mark’s almost heroic efforts in addressing my concerns about falconry go largely unnoticed by those who may have some interest in the subject.

So, without further ado…

 

Mark Runnels wrote:

Hi Ron, I am a Master falconer in Oklahoma with over 25 years of experience. I love wild caught Peregrine Falcons, and would be happy to give you a falconer’s perspective and answer any questions you might have.

For starters, the Kestrel is inexcusable. He almost certainly got hung up somewhere and died. The jesses that it is wearing are very old-fashioned, and are actually illegal. The falconry permitting system requires that a new falconer spend two years under the supervision of an experienced General or Master falconer. This is supposed to prevent this type of amateurish error, but the system doesn’t always work perfectly. We don’t lose many birds to this type of error and it is never taken lightly. If that “falconer” is identified, he will be educated and at the slightest hint of a recurrence, will be shunned by the falconry community and hopefully his sponsor will have his permit revoked. Care and well being of the birds is always first and foremost.

The peregrine, on the other hand, will be fine. The fact that she was recently in the hands of an experienced falconer means that she is healthy, parasite free, and well equipped to live in the wild. The leather cuffs will rot away in a year or so and she will be none the worse for wear. It is interesting that I don’t see a band on this bird. Usually there will be a gold seamless metal band on a captive raised bird. This must have been a wild caught bird which drastically improves its chances of surviving in the wild now.

You mentioned that the Peregrine may suffer from getting her food “gratis”. True, during the summer molt, we pamper them and follow the instructions of the vet regarding food, supplements, etc. But during the 8 month hunting season, these birds are athletes, and we train them very hard. My bird is flown every day during the hunting season and her condition is pushed to the point that she is healthier, and stronger than a wild bird. I have an elaborate kite setup that builds her condition by encouraging (not forcing) her to fly higher, and work harder. She loves to fly and enjoys the kite. In addition to improving her strength, learning to fly at greater heights makes her a better hunter as well. A well trained falconry bird is stronger, and a better hunter than its wild counterpart. Add in that she is disease and parasite free, and usually fully mature at the time she returned to the wild, and she is very capable of taking care of herself.

With regards to falconry being sport, I suppose if synchronized swimming is a sport, falconry qualifies as well. I view it more of a lifestyle, but my wife calls it “bird worship”. Our entire life is planned around the care, maintenance, and hunting of these birds. Perhaps it is best described as the ultimate form of bird watching. How often have you been driving and seen a Red Tail hawk pounce on a mouse alongside the road? That is falconry. You spoke about seeing the interaction between a Bald Eagle and a Prairie falcon. That is falconry. We are inserting ourselves into the predator/prey drama that plays out everyday across this country, but goes mostly unseen.

Falconry is all about the love of the birds of prey. If the goal was to kill game animals, a shotgun works much better. I killed 15 ducks over the entire season last year. That wouldn’t even make a good weekend for a shotgunner. Plus the ducks that we did take were the older, weaker birds whereas shotgunning is indiscriminate.

The thing that concerns most people about falconry is the idea of taking birds from the wild. Once you understand the population dynamics, you realize that this simply isn’t an issue. Banding studies have scientifically determined that less than 80% of the birds of prey survive their first year. Peregrines are even lower than that. To put this into perspective, a natural environment that can support 10 new birds will hatch 100. Of those 100, only 20 will live their first year. The remaining 80 fall victim to predation, accidents, disease, and starvation. If a falconer removes one first year bird (the only type we take) from the wild, the same 20 will still live, but now only 79 will die. The fact that the falconer captured a wild bird means that there is one more falcon in the world, not one less.

I would like to emphasize that we only take first year birds from the wild. Older birds are stubborn and almost impossible to train, plus they are the natural breeding stock and should be left alone. By custom, tradition, and U.S. law, we only take first year birds that are part of the 80% described above.

The vast majority of falconry birds are not wild caught. Advances in modern breeding techniques means that young birds are available in large numbers for falconry. I am one of the odd ones that love and appreciate the wild caught birds. I spend far more money trapping wild birds than the cost of buying captive raised birds, but it isn’t about the money. I love the idea of bonding with a wild bird, drastically improving its quality of life, and watching it return to the wild someday knowing that we are both better off for the time we spent together. I would estimate that less than 10% of the birds flown in falconry today are wild caught, and far less than 1% of the Peregrines flown in falconry in North America are wild caught.

Falconry (especially the capture of wild birds) is very highly regulated by the government based on hard data from biologists. Peregrine falcons especially are closely monitored. This year there were only 38 Peregrine capture permits issued for over 2000 falconers nationwide, and I know for a fact that many were not filled (one of the two in Oklahoma wasn’t). The fines are steep and willful violations are very rare.

If a falcon survives her first year, she has a life expectancy of 5-7 years. Due to protection from predators, inclement weather, excellent medical care, and the best diet that money can buy, it is not uncommon for captive falcons to live 12-15 years. I have a friend with one that is 21 and enjoying “retirement” hanging out in air conditioned chambers and feeding on specially raised quail. He is too old to fly, and would certainly die if released, but we get too attached to these birds to not take the best care of them that we possibly can.

My bird is a female Tundra Peregrine Falcon named Jet (named for the town near to where she was caught). When I caught her last year, she was starving. The vet said that she was healthy, but just a poor hunter. She was almost certainly headed towards being part of the 80% that don’t live their first year. It is very unlikely that she would be alive today if I had not caught her. I don’t consider that I “took” her from the wild, but rather that I “rescued” her from the wild.

I hope Jet chooses to stay with me her whole life, but I release her everyday and it is strictly up to her if she chooses to return home with me, or go on her way. If someday she chooses to return to the wild, I will know that she is continuing on her way healthier, more fit, and well prepared to live her life in the wild, and I will be the better for having been privileged to have her share a portion of her life with me.

Falconry really is a positive influence on the wild birds of North America. If you have any questions, or concerns, I would be happy to answer them honestly and to the best of my ability.

Mark Runnels Bartlesville OK

 

My Response:

Mark,

Thank you very much for the Falconry 101 course in a nutshell. I know that I, and many of my readers, appreciate the effort you’ve made here to educate us regarding the sport of falconry. What you’ve said is reasoned, thoughtful and persuasive. And you’ve been a gentleman about it. I like your style.

I agree, the kestrel was inexcusable. And from my research (and other sources) I don’t believe it to be an isolated case, though I agree that the vast majority of falconers are conscientous (almost to a fault) about their birds.

I too now believe that this peregrine will “be fine” and in fact I’m delighted that she’s now “out there”. She was spotted again a couple of days ago and seems to be thriving.

You offered to answer some questions. I have a few.

1. You mention that your falcon (Jet) gets her food “gratis” only during the molt and imply that she must “work” for all if it for the other 8 months. Are you saying that she only eats what she catches for that 8 months or do you supplement her diet? What about most other falconers – would you say that they all work their birds daily, so that for 2/3 of the year they eat only (or mostly) what they’ve hunted for?

2. Obviously you’re a truly dedicated falconer. “Bird worship” is your “lifestyle”. As you said, your “entire life” revolves around your bird. If all falconers were like you describe yourself, many of my concerns would be alleviated. But as I’m sure you know, many of them are not. The falconer who apparently owned the peregrine in this post is a case in point. A few days ago I got an email from another falconer telling me that he’s “sure who owned that bird, but he can’t prove it”. The “owner” had the bird for 9 weeks but it was very wild and difficult to train. Finally, with help from others, they “got the bird manned down, free flying to the lure and it killed it’s first pigeon”. But at the end of all that, the “owner” said he “didn’t like the bird” and was going to “get rid of it”. Two months later, when asked about the bird, he said he did “get rid of it”. My point; even though I’m glad this peregrine is now on its own, this particular falconer doesn’t sound to me like an icon of falconry virtues. And I’m afraid there are too many others out there like him. So FINALLY, my question – Do you agree that there’s a significant segment of the falconry community that do a disservice to the sport, and to the birds?

3. I’m a biologist and I think I do understand “population dynamics” reasonably well. First of all, I suspect you meant to say “less than 20% of birds of prey survive their first year”, rather than 80%. If so, they are easy numbers to transpose, and largely I wouldn’t dispute your conclusions as far as you’ve taken them but it seems to me that there’s more to the story. One (just one) example – I’ve heard reliable accounts of falconers using bush planes in Alaska to search Gyrfalcon habitat for the prized white morph of the species so they can be taken from the wild. Think about the effect that removing a non-representative portion of the white morphs would have on the gene pool – reducing, or potentially eliminating that color phase. Any thoughts?

4. You mention “modern breeding techniques”. One of those techniques is to artificially produce hybrids – unnatural crosses between different species of falcons. I know it’s illegal to release them into the wild, but “stuff happens”, as we’ve discussed. Do you see any problem with this practice? As a biologist, I certainly do.

5. You say that you love “drastically improving their quality of life”. I’m unconvinced that you improve their life quality. In my judgement, a full stomach and being relatively free of parasites does not balance out a life in captivity and tolerating hoods and jesses for a freedom loving bird. Prison inmates get plenty to eat and medical care but would much rather be elsewhere. Seems to me that just because a bird has been deeply conditioned by training to return to the handler after a flight doesn’t mean that doing so is the best thing for the bird or that it’s really what it “wants” to do. You say that it’s “strictly up to her” if Jet chooses to return home with you or go on her way after a flight. Don’t you think that after all the conditioning she’s been through that it’s a more complicated equation than that?

One final question. In another post (link below) another falconer claimed that “wild birds are generally released that following spring to go back into the breeding population”. I asked him to please document that claim because I’m skeptical that they’re “generally” (meaning more often than not) released after the first year but I’ve never had a response from him. It is my guess that it’s much less often than “generally”. Do you have any info on that? I’d really like to know.

http://featheredphotography.com/blog/2012/10/14/escaped-falconry-bird-peregrine-falcon-again/

I think this is a valuable discussion Mark. I’m learning some things and I’m really trying not to have a “knee-jerk” response to what you’ve said and I hope you don’t think I’ve done so. My goal is to have a truly informed (and accurate) opinion regarding falconry.

Thanks once more for your very valuable input.

Ron

 

Mark Runnels wrote:

Of course you are correct. 80% die in their first year. I misspoke.

I only have a few minutes. The questions and comments are fantastic and I will respond later when I have time to do so properly.

Thanks!

Mark

 

Mark Runnels wrote:

Hi Eddy and Ron, Just a quick comment regarding the time of year that a bird is taken up for falconry.

The time of year that I like to take a bird depends on what I want to hunt with them and how natural that prey is for them. For example, if I take a passage Cooper’s hawk from an area with a lot of quail, and I want to hunt quail, I will take a late season bird in hopes that she is already familiar with hunting quail.

However, this is seldom the case. I like to push the envelope and encourage the bird to take game that would normally be outside their typical range. For example, my first bird was a male Red Tail that was taken very early in the season. He went on to successfully hunt ducks from a field, and quail over a pointer. Both of which would be outside his normal prey base. By taking an early passage, he was less set in his ways and didn’t know what he couldn’t do. A later bird would have been more firmly wedded to mice and rats, making the transition harder.

I also like taking early birds since the odds are that they are more likely to wind up a statistic than later passage birds.

The third advantage is that it extends my season. With the exception of my Peregrine “Jet”, I usually release passage birds in the spring. If I wait to take a late passage, it makes the season shorter, and it is short enough already!

There is no right or wrong here. There are reasons to both like and dislike early birds as well as late birds. It is simply a matter of personal preference.

I appreciate your taking the time to share your opinion. I can never get enough of sharing other people’s ideas.

Mark

 

My Response:

Mark,

I especially appreciate this part of your comment – “I also like taking early birds since the odds are that they are more likely to wind up a statistic than later passage birds”.

 

Mark Runnels wrote:

Hi Ron,

Meeting was cancelled, and this is more fun anyway!

You have posed several excellent questions and they are too important to answer enmass. Let’s take them one at a time to do them proper justice.

You asked: “1. You mention that your falcon (Jet) gets her food “gratis” only during the molt and imply that she must “work” for all if it for the other 8 months. Are you saying that she only eats what she catches for that 8 months or do you supplement her diet? What about most other falconers – would you say that they all work their birds daily, so that for 2/3 of the year they eat only (or mostly) what they’ve hunted for?”

With most falconry birds, they eat a portion of what they catch and their diet is supplemented by the falconer with other food and vitamins. Like any athlete, the key is weight control. If the bird gets too fat, it has no interest in hunting, and just wants to sit on telephone poles and soar on thermals. We manage their weight to keep it as high as possible while still keeping their interest in hunting. Never, ever, ever to we starve a bird, or even get close to starving a bird. Not only does this endanger the bird, but they go into a “shut down” mode where they sit still and hope something easy wanders by. We want them fat and full of energy, but not so fat that they are not interested in hunting.

To answer your question, I do believe that most other falconers work their birds every day, or every other day. This sport is all about hunting. Birds of prey do not make good pets (in fact they make terrible pets), they are a lot of work and expense to keep, and there is really no other reason to have them. Most falconers I know are ready to hunt more than their birds are. I have a Cooper’s hawk this year as well as Jet for just this reason.

Jet is a special case. She is a phenomenal bird that cannot be replaced. I will let a Red Tail, or a Prairie falcon feed up on what they kill. They have a tough constitution and can tolerate the marginal food that wild game is. Jet on the other hand, eats only quail that are specially raised for falconry. The quail are raised on wire, in a USDA inspected and approved facility, are disease and pesticide free, and vitamin fortified. This is a key element is doubling the captive bird’s life expectancy when compared with wild birds.

Keep in mind that Jet, like most Peregrines, can kill almost anything that flies. She killed two full grown Canada geese last year. But when she approaches a flock of ducks, she will still go for the easiest, slowest duck. Perhaps this duck is diseased, old, or is carrying metal shot from a shotgunner. I won’t risk letting Jet eat this. I let her spend a few minutes plucking a duck (there are a LOT of feathers on a duck!) and then will offer her a choice. She can continue with what she is doing, or step up to me to feed on fresh wholesome quail. She always has a choice, and she always chooses the quail.

That doesn’t mean that the duck goes to waste! It is interesting that I won’t feed Jet wild duck, but we do take them all home and eat them ourselves. Cooking destroys any disease organisms, and we check for metal shot. My kids love fried duck and look forward to my bringing one home. Any leftover parts that we don’t eat are checked carefully and frozen to feed the other birds.

You stated “…imply that she must “work” for all if it for the other 8 months.” The kite training is preparation for hunting, like an athlete training, if you will. The Peregrine is the undisputed master of the sky and she loves to fly. I can’t force her to do anything, only encourage her by setting up situations where she improves her muscle and condition in preparation for hunting. We typically kite train for about a month before the season. After that, it is all hunting.

Jet can leave at any time and hunt on her own. The ONLY thing keeping her with me is that I make hunting (and life in general) easier for her. She doesn’t like me, she isn’t domesticated, she really has a choice, and stays because life with me is easier than life without me. If I tried to force her to work, being with me wouldn’t be easier than hunting on her own and she would be gone in a moment.

A typical hunt mimics a wild Peregrine hunting. I put Jet up near a pond full of ducks, or a field full of pheasants. Just like a wild bird, she rings up to 1,000+ feet and waits there. The difference is that a wild Peregrine may have to wait hours for an opportunity at a duck or pheasant that happens to fly into or out of the area. If Jet stays with me, I act as a hunting partner and flush the ducks or pheasants for her. It’s all about me serving her, not vice versa. From 1000 feet up (or more) she can see for miles. I am certain that she sees other opportunities, but chooses to stay with me because it is easier than hunting on her own.

The bottom line: Jet gets a special diet, but most falconry birds get at least some of what they kill. Any excess is frozen to feed them in the off season.

While you can never say all, the vast majority of falconers hunt their birds a minimum of three times a week. It has been my experience that those that don’t, do not have the drive it takes to be a successful falconer and soon fade away to something less demanding.

More later!

Mark

 

My Response:

Incredibly interesting stuff, Mark!

I’ve watched both peregrines and prairies hunting ducks out along the causeway and it is so VERY impressive to see but I’m blown away that a 1.6 lb peregrine will take on a Canada Goose that can weigh up to 6 times as much as the falcon. Seeing that would be worth the price of admission.

You’ve answered my question, and more. Fascinating information too. Thanks for that.

I look forward to hearing from you again.

 

Mark Runnels wrote:

Hi Ron, Let’s address question #2

You stated:”2. Obviously you’re a truly dedicated falconer. “Bird worship” is your “lifestyle”. As you said, your “entire life” revolves around your bird. If all falconers were like you describe yourself, many of my concerns would be alleviated. But as I’m sure you know, many of them are not. The falconer who apparently owned the peregrine in this post is a case in point. A few days ago I got an email from another falconer telling me that he’s “sure who owned that bird, but he can’t prove it”. The “owner” had the bird for 9 weeks but it was very wild and difficult to train. Finally, with help from others, they “got the bird manned down, free flying to the lure and it killed it’s first pigeon”. But at the end of all that, the “owner” said he “didn’t like the bird” and was going to “get rid of it”. Two months later, when asked about the bird, he said he did “get rid of it”. My point; even though I’m glad this peregrine is now on its own, this particular falconer doesn’t sound to me like an icon of falconry virtues. And I’m afraid there are too many others out there like him. So FINALLY, my question – Do you agree that there’s a significant segment of the falconry community that do a disservice to the sport, and to the birds?”

Wow! Where to start? Let me begin by saying that any group will have a few bad apples. Bad falconers are a significant problem in other parts of the world, but are pleasingly rare in North America. I have practiced falconry in Russia, Germany, and have read extensively about falconry in other parts of the world. Nowhere is the standard higher than in the US. We fly better birds that live longer and take more game than anywhere else I know of, and we do far more to promote the general well being of our wild stocks.

The answer to your question boils down to the definition of the word “significant”. The simple answer is no. Birds of prey bite; they have bad attitudes; they puncture with their talons; they never really become tame; they are expensive to procure (regardless of whether you buy them or trap your own). They take a lot of time and maintenance year round. You can’t just hang them up on the wall like a shotgun and ignore them until the next hunting season. Unfortunately, you will always find a few that do not uphold the high standards of North American falconry, or just want a cool pet. They generally don’t last very long. If they don’t have the will or drive (my wife says “genetic defect”) to commit to falconry for the long haul, they fade away pretty quickly.

Let’s talk a minute about the Peregrine in the picture. Something doesn’t add up. Peregrines, Gyrs, Harris’ Hawks, and Goshawks taken from the wild must be banded with a Federal ID marker. Each state can add more birds to this list, but these four are required by the Feds. This marker looks like a black plastic zip tie with a serial number on it. In addition, all captive bred birds must have a permanent metal seamless band applied when they are chicks. I don’t see any band on this bird, so it is obviously not a captive bred bird. It’s possible that this is a wild caught bird that chewed its plastic federal band off, but I doubt it. The bird in the picture is at least two years old, and probably three based on its coloration. If it was legally caught from the wild, it was caught several years ago.

None of this adds up with the bird in the picture. I suspect that someone (not a legal falconer) caught an adult bird and tried to train it. He got a firsthand lesson on why we NEVER take adult birds!

If he intentionally released it, why didn’t he remove the anklets?

Nothing about this “falconer” or his behavior adds up to a legal, permitted falconer operating within the rules and laws of the US. Holding him out to be an example of falconry and falconers, is like holding out an ivory poacher as an example of hunters in general. If you would like to share this person’s name and contact information with me, I would be more than happy to request a federal investigation into his behavior. This is NOT falconry.

I wish I lived closer. I would offer to gently trap this Peregrine and remove her anklets. Perhaps there is a local falconer in your area willing to do so.

Two down and two to go!

More later.

Mark

 

My Response:

Mark, Sorry for the delayed reply. I first read this as an email and then (for some strange reason) thought I had replied to it.

I’m glad to know that you don’t think the number of “rogue” falconers is significant. And your explanation as to why is convincing.

I took many photos of that peregrine and I don’t see either the Federal ID marker or the metal seamless band in any of them – only the leather anklets.

I don’t know the name of the “falconer” – the person who emailed me about him didn’t share it.

Thanks again for all this valuable information!

 

Mark Runnels wrote:

Oops. I skipped #3, Let me go back.

You asked “3. I’m a biologist…and largely I wouldn’t dispute your conclusions as far as you’ve taken them but it seems to me that there’s more to the story. One (just one) example – I’ve heard reliable accounts of falconers using bush planes in Alaska to search Gyrfalcon habitat for the prized white morph of the species so they can be taken from the wild. Think about the effect that removing a non-representative portion of the white morphs would have on the gene pool – reducing, or potentially eliminating that color phase. Any thoughts?”

This is a problem that is unique to Gyrs. They naturally occur worldwide from solid black to pure white with the North American birds usually somewhere in the middle referred to as “Silver”. The most desirable ones are the ones on the white end of the scale. These are found in relatively large numbers in Iceland, Greenland, and the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia where they are the dominant (only?) phase. The white birds do occasionally wander into Alaska and Canada, but they are not common. There are even reports of one being caught in Oklahoma many years ago, but most of the wild birds are silver in North America.

For purposes of this discussion, let’s set aside illegally taken, or smuggled birds. This does happen in other parts of the world, but despite popular belief to the contrary, it simply doesn’t happen here. There has not been a single proven case of wild Gyrs (or any other bird) stolen from the wild for the purpose of smuggling it out of the country in well over 20 years. It just doesn’t happen in North America. The laws are too strict, the penalties are too high, and captive bred birds are too easily available.

I too have heard stories of guys renting planes and looking for Gyr nests, but these stories dated back to the 1970s. I am certainly not saying that it isn’t going on now, but it does seem less likely. The difference today is that we are simply too good at breeding Gyrs in captivity. They breed like chickens! We bred so many Sakers (a close relative of the Gyr) in Russia, that we wound up letting over half of them go because we couldn’t export them at the time, and ran out of people to sell them to. I can open my internet connection and, assuming that I have the right permits, buy young white Gyrs for $2,000 to $4,000 each, and can buy as many as I want or need (or can afford). That is still a lot of money, but the demand is for breeders to legally serve the Arab market. I am not sure what the cost would be to fly to Alaska and rent a bush plane for days or weeks on the slim hopes of finding a Gyr nest period, let alone a white one, but I would think that the odds would be better, and the cost lower, to simply buy captive bred birds. In addition, by buying domestically bred birds, you can selectively choose exactly the genes you want, some with pedigrees going back 10-15 generations. Wild birds are always a genetic gamble.

All this assuming that you could even get the permits to legally take wild Gyrs. The last I heard, the State of Alaska only allowed resident take, and the quota was severely limited.

I am not aware of any recent significant pressure on the wild stocks of white Gyrs. The take of them in North America is severely regulated. There are tons of them in Russia, Iceland, and Greenland, but importing them is expensive and difficult. It is much easier and less expensive simply to buy breeders from proven bloodlines that are domestically raised.

 

My Response:

Thanks Mark. I’m much relieved to hear that this apparently is not a significant problem.

” We bred so many Sakers (a close relative of the Gyr) in Russia, that we wound up letting over half of them go because we couldn’t export them at the time, and ran out of people to sell them to”

Isn’t the Saker an Asian and East European species not native to North America? I assume (hope) that when these birds were released, it was in Russia and not here. When you said “we” I wasn’t clear on where they were released.

 

Mark Runnels wrote:

Sorry, I thought that was clear. I lived in Russia in 2008 and had a great friend that worked in a falconry center near Ekaterinburg. We bred so many Sakers that we couldn’t sell them all, or even give them all away. The point was that like Sakers, Gyrs breed easily in captivity and there are good numbers of them available through North American breeding projects. This reduces the need to capture wild Gyrs for breeding stock. With regards to the Sakers, they were indigenous to that area so releasing them there was not an issue.

Thanks,

Mark

 

Mark Runnels wrote:

On to question #4

You asked:”4. You mention “modern breeding techniques”. One of those techniques is to artificially produce hybrids – unnatural crosses between different species of falcons. I know it’s illegal to release them into the wild, but “stuff happens”, as we’ve discussed. Do you see any problem with this practice? As a biologist, I certainly do.”

On this one I agree with you. It used to be that hybrids had to be fully imprinted on humans, or surgically sterilized. I wish that the Feds had not dropped that requirement.

I would guess that 60% of the hybrids flown in falconry are hard imprints. These are of no real concern as they will never pollute the breeding stock. They will live out their lives in the wild, but will only “breed” with humans. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about the remaining 40%.

Telemetry has greatly reduced the number of accidental losses, but there are still a few. Falconers are required to fly hybrids with two transmitters, which helps to reduce the losses due to failed transmitters.

I don’t have a solution for this issue.

There are lots of well documented natural hybrids, especially between Gyrs and Sakers in Asia, and Prairies and Peregrines in the US, but this is no excuse for contaminating the natural breeding stock.

Hybrid falcons are excellent falconry birds, but we need to find a way to keep them available for falconry, but to protect the wild breeding population. Requiring hybrids to be hard imprints, or surgically sterilized in no way reduced their value as falconry birds, but was an effective protection against introducing hybrid genes into the natural gene pool.

 

Mark Runnels wrote:

On to #5…

You asked: “5. You say that you love “drastically improving their quality of life”. I’m unconvinced that you improve their life quality. In my judgement, a full stomach and being relatively free of parasites does not balance out a life in captivity and tolerating hoods and jesses for a freedom loving bird. Prison inmates get plenty to eat and medical care but would much rather be elsewhere. Seems to me that just because a bird has been deeply conditioned by training to return to the handler after a flight doesn’t mean that doing so is the best thing for the bird or that it’s really what it “wants” to do. You say that it’s “strictly up to her” if Jet chooses to return home with you or go on her way after a flight. Don’t you think that after all the conditioning she’s been through that it’s a more complicated equation than that?”

This is a tough one because it is based on human emotion applied to a non-human creature. While you are a biologist, and therefore a scientist, you also used the term “freedom loving bird”. As a biologist and a scientist, you know that birds are not capable of an emotion such as “freedom loving”. That is a human trait. We assume that because WE would like to be able to soar over the mountains… and WE would like to be capable of flight, that the bird must feel the same way. This type of anthropomorphism makes is difficult to have a non-emotional conversation.

I had a lady knock on my door once and threaten to call the SPCA on me for “…keeping that wild bird from being free”. I told her that I saw her point and invited her to go with me to release the bird. She told me “….you are a good person after all”. We went to the mews and took out my Red Tail hawk. I pulled his jesses and launched him into the sky. He made a large circle around the yard and………went right back into his mews. I explained to the lady that if the hawk could lock the door behind him, he would. He had food, shelter and protection. The only thing I asked in return is what he was genetically programmed to do anyway….hunt. She left a little bewildered, but understood more than when she came.

Like all birds, falconry or otherwise, Jet has basic needs. She needs food and water; she needs medical care (although she probably doesn’t know it); she needs a place to get out of bad weather; and she needs protection from predators. She does not love freedom, or soaring, or any of the things that we would love about being a bird. I provide her with all of these things plus, I make it easier for her to hunt.

You speak of “…deeply conditioned”. After living with me for a year now, I can accept the Jet is deeply conditioned, but when you see a wild bird being trained, you begin to realize that there is much more to it than that (or maybe much less would be the appropriate term). We don’t really train them, we simply have to convince them that we are not going to eat them (manning). I can catch a wild, immature Red Tail and spend a day or two manning it, and then fly it free on the fourth or fifth day. At this point, they haven’t been captive long enough to be deeply conditioned, and yet they (usually!) come back with us when the hunt is over. Once they figure out that we are not going to hurt them, we are going to move rabbits for them, and we are going to protect them from predators; the rest is just an extension of the bird’s nature. It is natural for Red Tails to follow a tractor plowing a field because it makes the rats run, this is very little difference. The bird chooses to stay with us because we make life easy for them. As soon as we fail to make life easy, they are gone!

You mentioned “…tolerating hoods and jesses”. Jesses are there to control the bird and keep it safe, but you may have somewhat of a point with jesses. The hood, however, is a different matter. Jet loves her hood. Remember that there isn’t much brain behind those eyes, and almost all of it is dedicated to visual input. She has no sense of smell, very little sense of taste, and fair hearing, but as a biologist you know that the vast majority of her brain is dedicated to her sense of vision. When that hood goes on, everything around her that she might have had to worry about disappears. She doesn’t know enough to ask where it went, she just knows that it is gone. This is clearly evident as, once she is hooded, she fluffs up her feathers, preens, and tucks her head under her wing and goes to sleep. The hood is not uncomfortable or inconvenient for her in any way.

I lost Jet for two days last year. She followed a flock of ducks over the horizon and we got separated. Two days later, I found her over 90 miles away, sitting in a tree. I am not sure what happened while she was gone, but she had two broken feathers, a bad scrape on the inside of her leg, and based on her weight, she had eaten something, but not enough, in two days. Life in the wild is cruel and unforgiving! When I found her, she came to me eagerly, ate the food I had brought for her, and promptly tucked one leg up and went to sleep on the way home. It is impossible to know what is really going on in that little head, but I had the distinct impression she was glad to be back where she “belonged”.

Bottom line: I doubt I have changed your (or anyone else’s) mind. It is simply too emotional an issue. Please accept that as falconers, we are absolutely not doing the birds any harm, we are doing everything possible to make their lives more comfortable and pleasant, and for whatever reason it happens, they are released into complete freedom almost every day and make a conscious decision to come back.

 

My Response:

“While you are a biologist, and therefore a scientist, you also used the term “freedom loving bird”. As a biologist and a scientist, you know that birds are not capable of an emotion such as “freedom loving”. That is a human trait” “This type of anthropomorphism makes it difficult to have a non-emotional conversation”

Mark, I’m very aware of the potential pitfalls of anthropomorphism. That possiblilty crossed my mind as I was about to use the phrase “freedom loving bird” but I still chose to go with it to get my point across to a broader audience since others read this too. We all do it, including you. In this very same comment, you make the statement that your falcon Jet “loves her hood”. So, I have to ask – if she can’t be a freedom loving bird, how can she love her hood? And how could she be “glad” to be back to where she belonged after she left you for a few days? Sorry Mark, couldn’t resist…

“The bird chooses to stay with us because we make life easy for them. As soon as we fail to make life easy, they are gone!”

I have serious doubts about the wisdom of “making life easy” for raptors or any other wild species. Interference with natural selection can’t be a good thing for the species in the long run.

“Bottom line: I doubt I have changed your (or anyone else’s) mind. It is simply too emotional an issue”

Actually, Mark – what you’ve said in these comments might not have changed my mind but that’s because it wasn’t set in the first place. I wanted reliable input before making some decisions about how I felt about falconry. You’ve been providing that and have relieved many of my concerns to some degree, some more and some less. But overall, I’m feeling significantly better about falconry, thanks to your efforts to enlighten me (and others). Thanks for that, big time!

 

On Oct 24, Mark Runnels wrote:

Finally! The last question (sorry this has taken me so long) :

You asked: “One final question. In another post (link below) another falconer claimed that “wild birds are generally released that following spring to go back into the breeding population”. I asked him to please document that claim because I’m skeptical that they’re “generally” (meaning more often than not) released after the first year but I’ve never had a response from him. It is my guess that it’s much less often than “generally”. Do you have any info on that? I’d really like to know”.

This is an easy one. The answer is a resounding yes. Far more wild caught birds are released at the end of the season rather than keeping them over the molt. It isn’t even close.

Obviously, we are only talking about wild caught, passage birds. I would guess that 75% of the birds flown today in falconry are captive bred. All types of falcons, hybrids, and Harris’ Hawks are bred in large numbers for falconry. Most of the wild birds that are caught are by apprentice falconers who are limited to wild caught Red Tails and, to a lesser extent, Kestrels. A few of us older falconers prefer wild caught birds, but we are the rare exception.

The most common bird taken from the wild by far is the Red Tail hawk. Probably 100:1 compared with any other bird of prey. We are blessed with large numbers of this unique Buteo. It is easy to trap, trains easily, and is one of the most capable hunting hawks in the world. My son and daughter are both apprentice falconers and currently each have immature Red Tails. I have known a few people that keep them over the molt, but very few. It is a lot of work to keep a bird over the molt, and requires a serious commitment of time at a time of year where people want to travel, fish, etc. Most people opt for releasing their Red Tails at the end of the season and trapping a new one the next year. This is really too bad as there are few birds more beautiful than a fully mature Red Tail hawk, and they get better and better at hunting every year.

There are some people that trap and fly wild Prairie falcons, Cooper’s hawks, etc. but they are very few and again there is very little incentive to keep them over the summer either. They are too common, and it is too easy to simply trap another.

Peregrines are a little different story. The only sub-species that we are allowed to take are the Tundra Peregrines (which have never been endangered) and they have a huge drawback. Due to their highly migratory nature, they do not begin molting until mid July, and are not ready to fly the second season until well into December. I know! I am chomping at the bit to get training, but Jet still has one primary on each wing to molt out! Most of my friends are already hunting and I am waiting for two more feathers to molt! Due to this inconvenient molting pattern, most people do not keep Tundra Peregrines over the molt. If Jet had not been such an exceptional bird, I probably wouldn’t have kept her over the molt either.

In summary, there are only a few of us that prefer wild caught birds, and even fewer still that keep them over the molt. The Feds could provide you with hard data as we have to report every capture, transfer, loss, and release, but my estimation would be that somewhere around 5-10% of the wild caught falconry birds are kept for more than one season. As much as I would like to say that this was for altruistic reasons, the fact is that it is simply easier to release them and catch another the next year.

Thank you for the opportunity to address some of your questions about falconry. We are a very diverse group with falconers at each end of the conservation spectrum. I don’t presume to speak for anyone but myself, but I hope to impress upon you that falconry is a way of life; it is a great deal of work and effort; and that the vast majority of us are fanatics about the care and welfare of both our birds and the wild breeding stock in North America.

If I can ever answer another question for you, please do not hesitate to ask. I will answer as honestly as possible.

And if you ever find yourself in Northeast Oklahoma, please look me up. I will introduce you to “birdwatching” on a scale that most birders can only dream of!

Respectfully,

J. Mark Runnels, PE Bartlesville OK

 

My Response:

I’m much relieved by what you’ve said here Mark – knowing that the majority of wild caught birds are kept for less than a year is a vast improvement on what my assumption was. And your treatise on the various species of falconry birds (here and in a previous comment) has been fascinating and enlightening.

I’m very much appreciative of your extensive efforts to answer my questions. Personally, many (though not all) of my concerns about falconry have been significantly reduced and I now have more confidence that my opinions on the subject are well informed.

Thank you very much. Ron

 

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17 comments to Falconry – A Detriment To The Birds?

  • That’s quite a correspondance. I think it’s difficult to look at the “sport” from the outside, as you can only view it from the limited knowledge you have. Similarly, someone who has been involved in falconry for 25 years has the opposite problem, they know too much and have almost been conditioned to like it. That said I do like Mark’s comments about the procedures in place to ensure falcons are cared for, such as a falconer losing their licence should they be negligent or lose their bird. It seems like it was an educational exchange and it’s nice to see you learnt something from the discussion with Mark.

  • Ron, thank you for re-posting this link again, from your current photo series on the escaped Kestrel. I did miss this original exchange.

    I have mixed feelings about falconry which I know won’t surprise you. On the one hand, having volunteered in a wildlife hospital, I’ve seen the invaluable work that a committed falconer can do with an injured animal. In fact, in the Bay Area, a Peregrine that was shot last year and rehabilitated at my affiliated hospital, was just released after considerable work with a Peregrine researcher who is also a falconer.

    On the flip side, I agree that Mark’s explanation of a dramatically-improved quality of life is still unconvincing to me. I see his point, but I feel he undermines his case by stating as fact that “birds are not capable of an emotion such as ‘freedom loving’.” By resorting to the dismissive label of anthropomorphism, he suggests that to even entertain a wild animal’s psychological complexity is flawed. A more considered reply would be that we honestly don’t know what a bird’s experience is. And, new science indicates that it might be much more intelligent and conscious than what we’ve previously granted them. I’m not arguing that I personally know this. I am not a biologist like Ron, nor do I pretend to be. I’m just saying that Mark’s comment is a questionable assertion, stated as fact. My personal (and yes, sometimes emotional) experience working with wild animals suggests that I’d prefer to err on the side of overestimating birds and other animals, rather than underestimating.

    I think I would be more at peace with falconry if it was more generally applied toward rehabilitative endeavors. Because it is, at heart, self-serving in the way of the hunt, I think falconry, for me, will always carry the burden of that ambivalence.

    • Ingrid, For most of my teaching career I was very careful to avoid assigning emotions to any animal, based on what I was taught in my college courses in the late 60’s. All of my students learned what anthropomorphism was and why it should generally be avoided. But my view on the subject has evolved.

      I don’t think emotions in some of the higher mammals can be disputed – many primates and canids, for example. Who knows at what level cetaceans and some others feel them? It’s my suspicion that the ability to feel “emotion” (something that’s potentially much more complex than this one word can define) on some level likely tends to descend with the evolutionary scale and birds are only one step “down” from mammals.

      I think you’re right – we just don’t know.

  • I echo the comments of the others. Your post was fascinating and enlightening. I read it yesterday and have reflected upon it many times today. Your questions were fabulous as were Mark’s answers.

    You are clearly a gifted educator (I’ve read the comments from your previous students that mention you were their favorite or that they are making a career out of wildlife biology because of your influence). Although you write that you are a retired teacher, it seems to me that you have not retired from teaching at all. You’ve just moved your classroom to the internet. I know I am not alone when I say that I am grateful.

  • Thank you Ron for bringing this information together into one post for us. Thank you Mark for the way in which you answered Ron’s question and the detailed responses you gave.
    I have learnt a lot today – which makes for a good day in my book.

  • Ron:
    Very interesting discussion. It’s a topic that I could write all I knew about before reading this in large print on parchment and it would still fit in a thimble. But it’s an impressive dispassionate discussion between intelligent individuals. One of my delusions of grandeur is that during the lifetime of my grandchildren, similar discussions will become commonplace in the U.S. Congress.
    Dave

  • Tana Hunter

    This is an interesting discussion. If observing and training the birds is the main reason that they are caught, perhaps the falconers can become rehab experts and help train injured, releasable birds to return to the wild. I suppose that would take additional licensing and education for the falconers, but I bet they would have a good impact on the work that the overloaded wildlife rehab people do.

    • I’m glad you liked the discussion Tana – so did I. A lot. I can’t speak for the falconers but it’s my impression that one of their major motivations is the hunt, in addition to training and observing the birds.

      • Susan

        Tana,

        Here on the Central Coast and SF Bay Area, at the behest of our regional wildlife rescue people, master falconers often take on wild raptors, healed after veterinary care, to rehab and exercise before being released. They all know each other…it’s a partnership. I am thinking that Mark might confirm…

  • Susan

    Greetings Ron and Mark,

    I appreciated your thoughtful questions and for Mark’s dispassionate responses about falconry.

    In the last ten years I have known several falconers and Mark’s portrayal jibes with my own observations of their devotion and responsibility (even though, for me, there is a certain melancholy seeing a captive wild animal.)

    Had it not been for observant falconers who noticed the declining wild peregrine population which had been decimated due to eggshell thinning caused by DDT, the peregrine falcon might still be on the Endangered Species List. In Northern California and elsewhere, volunteer falconers have partnered with avian wildlife biologists and thousands of other interested volunteers like me in the restoration of the peregrine population.

    It’s really nice to read an intelligent dialog that’s unemotional as well as informative, so thanks for posting this Ron!

    • Susan, I have the same “melancholy” about seeing captive wild animals but in many ways I sure feel better about falconry than I did before.

      You’re absolutely correct about the positive influence falconers had on declining peregrines and in their other raptor conservation efforts.

      And thank you very much for your comment about “intelligent dialogue”, which is largely thanks to Mark.

  • Spuzzcat

    Ron-

    I have had 13 different birds taken from the wild as a falconer over the last 20+ years. All of them were released to the wild 9 months or less from the date they were captured, all in good health. Granted, that is my personal experience but I find my experience to be pretty typical of the falconers that I associate with, which may also be a limited sample, I understand. However, I have seen nothing that supports the idea that falconry birds taken from the wild represent permanent losses to wild populations or pose any threat to wild populations. That’s my take based on 20+ years of experience.

    Regards,

    Brad