The Falconer

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Published on January 27th, 2009  |  Discuss This Article  

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If you ask me to identify the most effective conservationists around, I’ll answer without hesitation: Falconers.

Falconers? Those fixtures of Renaissance fairs and Saturday Night Live skits?

No, not them. The falconers I’m referring to form a serious, obsessive subculture who train raptors to hunt various game.

Falconry takes anywhere from two to seven years to learn. And keeping a bird of prey is a challenging task requiring constant attention.

You can’t be a casual falconer like, say, you can be a casual bowler.

Naturalist and writer Steve Bodio calls falconry not a passion or obsession but a rage.

I once rode along with a wild-eyed stranger as he enthusiastically described his life’s various addictions and vices—most of them unprintable here. He said he quit them all, without problem. Except falconry. That addiction, he said, had no cure.

Such intensity extends to conservation. For instance, in the 1960s, peregrine falcons were gone from the eastern United States and declining in the West.

Until falconers got involved, that is.

Falconers like Tom Cade initiated and perfected captive breeding of peregrines and reintroduced them to suitable habitat (including cities), a program so successful that the bird was removed from the endangered species list in 1999.

That in turn led to Peregrine Fund recovery efforts for aplomado falcons, California condors, harpy eagles and other species—again often led by falconers.

I was not surprised that one of the key figures in the rediscovery of the ivory-billed woodpecker, Tim Gallagher, is a fanatic devotee of the sport.

In Idaho, a possible endangered species listing for sage grouse has generated predictable contention between environmentalists and wise users. But falconers ignore the controversy and put conservation on the groundpartnering with the Conservancy on some of the West’s most ambitious grouse habitat protection efforts. (And the grouse are prospering there).

Why are falconers—an admittedly small group of folks—so effective at bird conservation?

To me, it’s an obvious answer, yet one I fear is increasingly lost among environmentalists: Nothing instills a conservation ethic like hands-on interaction with wild creatures and wild places.

It is great to teach kids, and adults, about the Amazon rainforest and the plight of polar bears.

But to make the most effective life-long conservationists, the best environmental education is one out in nature, complete with mud and blood and feathers.

(Photo: Falconer at the Conservancy’s Crooked Creek Project. Credit: Sus Danner/TNC)

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Comments: The Falconer

  •  Comment from Rachel Dickinson

    Nice post! It’s great to see falconry mentioned in a mainstream outlet. I just wrote a book about Steve Chindgren, one of the most hardcore of the hardcore falconers (FALCONER ON THE EDGE — Houghton Mifflin, May 2009) who hunts sagegrouse in Wyoming. He is a dedicated conservationist who has a deep understanding of the natural history of his prey and their habitat requirements. Falconers have always had to take a keen interest in their surroundings.

  •  Comment from Ryan Andrus

    Wow. Well written and insightful, Matt. I am a falconer who has been involved in wildlife research and conservation, and I have always attributed the success of conservation efforts by falconers strictly to limitless enthusiasm/fanatic devotion. I think you’re on to something with regard to the added dimension provided by hands on participation in the natural world as opposed to simple observation. Kids (and most adults) get bored in museums because they are so sterile and hands off that they often fail to feel relevant. I love observing the natural world from afar but nothing compares to the connection and education provided by becoming an active participant.

  •  Comment from Tim Gallagher

    This is a great post. It’s nice to see falconers getting some recognition for all their work on behalf of raptor conservation over the years.

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