Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Photo Essay: Falcon Flight

"I'm spending the night in Lancaster," I said, explaining why I couldn't attend rehearsal for the Fringe musical I'm working on. "I have to be up at 5 a.m. for a falconry demonstration." I am a sleepyhead and needed to crash in a motel 20 minutes away from the falcon field.

"Now that's just stupid," one of the actresses said, "Unless there are drugs involved."

"No, just falcons."

"The football team?" she asked, with a glimmer in her eye, imagining me watching the sun rise with the Falcons.

I slumped further into myself. "No, just...birds."



I acknowledge that I'm a weirdo sometimes. But this time, I wasn't the only one: I was joined by nearly 30 other eccentrics to witness falcon flying at dawn.



Getting up early, when the Friday night partiers were just getting to bed late, was not just something to do. It was an excuse to return to the Mojave Desert, an excursion for which I usually don't need much of an excuse. It also turned out to be damn fascinating.



We were hosted on the falcon field by master falconer Vahe' Alaverdian of Falcon Force, a private bird abatement team that gets commissioned to shoo away avian pests from places like vineyards and berry farms, where delicious grapes and cherries are too easily accessible to, say, starlings, even through protective netting.



Vahe' developed a love for the sport of falconry when he was seven years old, and has pursued it ever since.



He has a team of 17 falcons - some hybrids, some pure peregrine or Aplomado or Barbary.



We got to watch four of them, all very different raptors, demonstrate their sunrise hunt. Sensitive to heat, they need the early morning cool breeze and lack of sunlight to really build up some flight speed and dive-bomb with the full power of which they are capable, especially on a day whose temperature would peak in the triple digits.



Vahe' has taught them - and continues to train them - with a simple contraption comprised of a rope with a tennis ball on either end, and some white pigeon feathers attached to one of the balls. Vahe' whips it through the air...



...mimicking the flight of prey...



...and rewards them with food if they catch it. But...



...in this intricate dance...



...both the falcon and the falconer having their own choreography...



...the falconer does not allow the falcon to catch the prey.



At least, not until they have really worked for it.



That includes swooping over our crowd of spectators sitting on the ground, forcing us to duck and squeal.



We cheered on Little East Texas Red, Shaman...



...Pepper (a female)...



...and Genghis in their air trials as the sun came up over the Mojave.



When they're not hunting (for example, whilst being transported together), these birds of prey wear custom handmade hoods that are intricately stitched, a marvelous example of leatherworking. They seem to be calmed with their eyes covered. Once you remove those dandy little hats, those birds are ready to fly, regardless of what they may be tethered to at the time.



They're cute, but don't pet them. It's condescending. They are not domesticated. They are wild animals.

And their wild instincts are being exploited as a sustainable (and less violent) alternative to poisons / pesticides, human hunting techniques (e.g. guns), and other less desirable deterrents. Of course, falconry has been effective for thousands of years, dating back to Mesopotamia, before gunpowder and firearms were ever invented.

In modern times, the falcons are protected by the federal government. You cannot shoot, capture, or otherwise take a falcon. Possession of even a feather (unless you're part of a Native American tribe) is a misdemeanor. And possession of a falcon - or, say, an eagle - without the proper paperwork (and ankle ring matching it) is a felony.

Sometimes, the falcons fly away - chasing something - and don't come back. With radio transmitters attached to the back or the wings or the tail, and sometimes a bell on the foot, they can be tracked and called back down. If they can't be tracked for some reason and never come back, Vahe' says they were probably stolen, their radios turned off manually by the thief.

I got to hold one of the males for a few minutes while we were photographed together, he perched on my gloved wrist. We faced each other for a moment, but he, hooded, couldn't see me. And as much as I liked having him and holding him, all he wanted to do was fly off my arm, and chase, hunt, encircle, swoop, dive, swirl - all those things he is meant to do.

And so, after a short while, I let him go.

Related Post:
Elegy for the Flightless Bird

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