Unrequited Love : At the Falconry Academy, Birds of Prey Can Be Taught to Soar, but Not to Adore
The first thing a student learns at the Falconry Academy is that you always fly a bird on an empty stomach--its, not yours.
“All the birds are trained by a system of reward only,” Duane Zobrist II explained. “A system of punishment doesn’t work. All they know is that when they come back to you, they’re going to get food or you’re going to flush game for them.”
And if they aren’t hungry, it’s bye-bye birdie.
Zobrist is a son of the academy’s owners, Duane and Sharon Zobrist of Pasadena. It opened in October on a plot of land 30 miles west of Lancaster where California 138 crosses the Los Angeles Aqueduct.
It’s the only falconry school in the country. If that’s surprising, consider the difficulties of getting into the sport and the dedication required to pursue it properly. In California, as in most states, an apprentice must be 14, pass a hunter’s safety course and a falconer’s examination, may own only one of two birds--a first-year redtail hawk or a kestrel--and before he may fly birds on his own must study for a minimum of two years under a sponsor who is a licensed falconer.
General class licensees, who must be 18, may own two birds. It takes seven years to become a master falconer, who may own three birds, which must be cared for like babies. For all of that, they win neither loyalty nor devotion from the creatures.
“Some of the best ones will become tame and you can mistakenly believe they’re like a pet,” said Stuart Russell, the school’s director. “But you take them out two or three ounces overweight and you’ll find out.”
Russell said the school’s peregrine falcon, Rocky, has an optimum flying weight of 1 pound 8 ounces.
“We weigh the birds every day,” he said. “If he’s 1 pound 9 ounces, I won’t fly him because he’ll probably fly away. If he’s 1 pound 7 ounces he’ll probably be too keen and lack energy.”
Russell said he has lost three birds in 17 years.
“A kestrel I lost was a quarter-ounce overweight,” he said.
However, he said, the birds do get to know their handlers.
“Yes, because we feed them every day. (But) they don’t get to like you.”
Russell arrived from England in March and plans to remain in the U.S., teaching falconry. He is engaged to an American, who also is a falconer, which should make their marriage easier.
“I’ve heard many stories of ‘either the birds go or I go,’ ” he said. “Falconers are so dedicated they’ll stay with the birds.”
One recent night the younger Duane was out until midnight tracking a wayward bird. His wife, Darlene--also a falconer--wasn’t concerned.
“She figured, ‘Well, his bird flew away,’ ” Zobrist said.
“Birds are really not very bright,” Russell said. “If they knew what was out there, they’d stay in captivity. In the wild, 75% of the birds die before they’re a year old. In captivity, it’s about 10%.”
The Zobrists met Russell in Scotland, where for the previous six years he had been chief falconer at the British School of Falconry, perhaps the highest regarded of 36 such schools in that country.
Falconry was the first sport of kings, before horse racing. It is still practiced with a passion in Arab countries. Russell said its history in England has been traced to the late Ninth Century.
“They think it started in China or possibly up in the Russian steppes and then spread down to China, and then westward with the Crusades.
“Originally, what falconry was for was to provide food. The goshawk is known in French as the cook’s hawk. Probably what happened is some nomad saw a hawk kill something, chased it off its kill and had the meal for himself. After seeing that once or twice, he thought, ‘Maybe I can teach it to do that for me'--exactly as we’re doing now.”
The sport hasn’t changed much, but the principles have been refined.
“They were flying some of the same species we’re flying now--peregrines, goshawks, saker falcons,” Russell said.
“It doesn’t matter if we catch anything,” Duane II said. “It’s the flight that’s important, to bring the best out of the birds.”
The most practical applications might have been in World War II, when an English falconer, Ronald Stevens, spent most of the war on the south coast, flying peregrines to intercept homing pigeons sent by German spies from England to the European continent. Also, for the first time, trained falcons and hawks were used to keep runways clear of flocks of birds.
Now it’s purely for sport.
The problem is, Russell said, that “you don’t see many young people coming into it because there’s no place for them to learn.”
The elder Zobrist, a lawyer, got hooked on the sport, he said, when he was a Boy Scout and somebody walked into a meeting with a falcon on his fist.
Now, from his 25th-floor office in downtown L.A., he watches a peregrine family that has been roosting on the Union Bank building for several years.
Not everyone in falconry is thrilled with the Zobrists’ endeavor. Last July, Russell received a letter from Williston Shor, editor of Hawk Chalk, the newsletter of the North American Falconers Assn.
Shor wrote: “I do not believe the existence of a falconry school in the U.S. is necessarily good for falconry here, nor do I think it will work.”
Thanking Shor for his thoughtful advice, the Zobrists decided to go ahead anyway.
Russell believes the Falconry Academy might provide a boost to what he sees as the second golden age of falconry, the first having been in the 1800s.
The basic course is five days and costs $350, with a maximum of six students. For someone who only wants to see how it’s done, a “Hawking Day” is $75, including lunch.
The school has 18 birds, in three categories: high-soaring “longwings,” such as peregrine and prairie falcons that usually take prey in flight; “broadwings,” such as redtail and Harris hawks that soar in the wild seeking ground mammals but are trained to hunt from the handler’s fist or a perch, and “shortwings,” such as goshawks, that fly from the fist and take small birds or mammals in short, direct flights in forests where the soaring birds won’t fly.
Three birds, wearing leather hoods to keep them calm, are taken a few miles away to open fields.
Mika, a Lanner falcon, will fly first. Her hood removed, she flies off low to the ground, chasing sparrows, then returns as Russell swings a bird-like lure on a line.
Birds of prey generally have eyesight eight times as sharp as a human’s, but handlers also use whistles to call them back. If they wander too far, they might be tracked by a tiny radio transmitter on one leg or the bells they wear on their talons.
Russell puts a box in the field. The box contains a pigeon--Rocky’s target for today. Rocky, the peregrine, uses thermal updrafts to soar to about 400 feet and “waits on” in circles for a minute until the lid opens by remote control, releasing the pigeon.
Rocky banks into a dive, or “stoop,” that for peregrines has been measured at almost 100 m.p.h.
As the pigeon darts up, down, left and right, Rocky, with his vastly superior speed, maneuvers to keep his quarry upwind, giving himself the tactical advantage. Every time the pigeon tries to turn downwind, Rocky cuts him off. Finally, he makes two passes at the pigeon but--luckily for the pigeon--scores only a pair of near-misses. Russell calls him back.
As small as it is, a peregrine also preys on much larger birds, including pheasants and ducks. It could probably take down large mammals, including a man, if it chose to.
“The good ones will hit (prey) in the head,” Russell said. “Imagine that you were running along as fast as you could go and a pound-and-a-half object hit you on the side of the face at 100 m.p.h. You’re not going to get up from that. Then it’ll come straight back, bite you on the neck and sever your vertebra.”
There is no kill, but the falconers are delighted with Rocky’s performance.
“The usual hunting success is about 30%,” Duane II said. “But that’s secondary to the flight. Rocky was tremendous.”
Information on the Falconry Academy is available by calling (800) 546-1165.