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The Falconer

Hunting the skies with Kate Davis

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When Sibley the peregrine falcon perches atop my hand, the whole world melts away. Only this striking bird is left, with her speckled chest of salmon, cream and russet feathers and her muted brown back. She stands there, digging her talons into the rough leather glove, shifting her weight, anticipating the hunt. At 2 pounds, Sibley would feel dainty if not for the wild power that radiates from her every movement. She’s still wearing her hood—a fitted leather cap topped with tassels that covers her eyes—and a leather leash that’s been attached to her leg for the car ride to an open field in the Bitterroot Valley.

For the moment, Sibley thinks I’m falconer Kate Davis, her surrogate mother and hunting partner, and she waits comfortably for the next step. But when Davis lifts the hood, baring Sibley’s dark feathered head, the bird looks first across the brown grass and then turns toward me. Her eyes flash and harden in an instant and then she opens and flaps her wings aggressively toward me, calming only when Davis raises her arm between the two of us. Sibley turns again toward the field, ignoring the stranger, and after a few more seconds she lifts up and off the glove and glides low across the meadow, small bells jingling on her legs with every flap of her wings to help us track her movement.

Davis jumps into action, walking quickly through the grass.

“Sibley, you be good!” she yells out as the bird rises into the gray sky, drawing our gaze with her.

Perhaps Sibley knew then she had no intention of heeding Davis’ instruction, or maybe her mischievous inspiration would come later, after the pigeon got away.

Either way, Sibley rises higher and higher still, until her bells tinkle faintly in the distance. This is the exercise field where Davis and Sibley walk and fly daily for the good of them both, and Davis says Sibley knows this isn’t the time or place for hunting wild game.

Davis pulls a live pigeon, which she raised for Sibley’s training, from the large pocket of her falconry vest. It’s white, with gray and brown speckles and pinkish eyes. Davis holds the pigeon aloft in both hands for just a second, long enough to clue in Sibley, who immediately circles back toward us, soaring over our heads.

“She knows we won’t release it until she gets up higher,” Davis says.

“Hup!” she yells to Sibley, a signal that means “pay attention.” Sibley is up some 300 feet now, and suddenly Davis hurls the pigeon skyward with both hands, and the only sound is the jingle of Sibley’s bells as she dives.

She dips dramatically but the pigeon veers away, and Sibley instantly reverses course and again narrows the gap between them. The pigeon flutters up, toward the trees, and eluding Sibley’s swerving speed it disappears from sight. This pigeon, Davis says, has escaped Sibley’s grasp more than once with its evasive tactics. She predicts the pigeon will beat us home, driven by its homing instincts.

“It’ll go sit up in the trees and [Sibley] will be ticked off, so we’ll give her a nice reward,” Davis says, pulling a sandwich bag containing a quail leg from her pocket.

“Hup!” she yells up at Sibley again, swinging a leather lure, a pouch stuffed with raw meat, on a cord around her head and flopping it on the ground before her.

Sibley comes in for a landing, cruising past us close to the ground before circling back for her treat. At the last second, just as I think she’s about to land, she lifts back up and snatches the hat cleanly from my head.

She gains both speed and height quickly now, turning a wide circle to flaunt her prize before she rockets up and out of sight.

Laughter and apologies pour from Davis as we rush through the meadow after Sibley, but all I hear is the jingling, exhilarating rush of Sibley’s trick echoing in my ears. I wish it were I, not my hat, soaring aloft with Sibley.

Sibley—5 years old this spring and named for seminal bird guidebook author David Allen Sibley—is not your average bird.

At the age of 3 weeks, Davis bought her from a Bozeman breeder and raised her in a playpen in the living room, feeding her ground-up quail. Sibley is what’s known as an “imprint,” which means she identifies Davis as her mother, since Davis raised her from such a young age. Falconers who don’t have the time or interest for nurturing their birds from the earliest stages instead hunt with “chamber-raised” birds that are brought up by their own parents in an enclosure and then taken to be trained by the falconer once they’re fully grown.

At 45 days old, once adult feathers had replaced her white downy fluff, Davis began training Sibley using the leather lure. After learning to tackle it on the ground while attached to a leash, she learned to bag the lure in the air, and then began flying freely. Next came pheasants Davis bought from a shooting range and released—much like the pigeon—for Sibley to practice aerial attacks.

Davis says the training mimics the ways Sibley would have developed her skills in the wild, with the critical exception being Davis’ involvement and positive reinforcement, which taught Sibley to identify Davis with safety and food. Despite the food, love and daily routine that Davis supplies for Sibley, she still finds it fascinating that an utterly capable and self-sufficient flying and hunting machine returns to her human partner after each flight. The first time she cast Sibley off her glove, Davis says, she was terrified she’d just fly off into the proverbial sunset, but years of partnership have taught Davis that Sibley will return.

Each year she’s flown better, faster, higher, says Davis, as she builds strength and experience.

“It’s just the last few years that she’s been getting 400 feet up in the air,” she says. “This year is when she perfected it.”

Today, Sibley can take down prey three to four times her weight, which requires her to “stoop”—or dive—from heights of 300 or 400 feet to gain the 200-plus miles per hour speeds that peregrine falcons, the world’s fastest bird, reach. Falcons strike large prey, like ducks, at high speed with their talons shut, relying largely on the impact to wound quarry, but augmenting the attack by raking their prey with their rear talon, or hallux, to slice them open. Once an injured duck is knocked to the ground, the falcon assails it there, using their unique notched beak shape to dig under the fowl’s spine and snap it before severing its head. Three years ago, Davis says, Sibley hit a duck so hard it fell to the ground dead. Its head had been knocked off in midair.

“If you took a full-grown mallard duck and tried to pull its head off, you couldn’t do it. But this 2-pound bird knocked the head off the duck,” Davis says in awe.

Smaller prey is even easier.

“With a little bird, they’ll simply grab it in the air and keep going,” Davis says. “They’ll kill it in the air, they’ll pluck it in the air, and they’ll eat it in the air.”

Besides breakneck speed, Sibley is also aided by raptors’ remarkable eyesight, which is thought to be six to eight times keener than humans’, owing in part to the two foveas, or focusing points, they have in each eye, which improves their judgment of speed and distance. Raptors’ brains also perceive movement much more quickly than humans: Human brains can perceive 20 images per second, but raptors see 70 to 80 images per second, which drastically increases their reaction time.

This year Sibley’s bagged about six ducks and a handful of pheasants, which Davis takes home to the kitchen after giving a bit to Sibley. She flies about 100 times a year during Montana’s seven-month falconry season, which begins in September and ends March 31. At season’s end, Davis won’t polish her up and stick her in the gun cabinet like gun hunters do, but she’ll take off Sibley’s bells and let her pig out on half a quail a day to promote healthy molting, which occurs in April through May. She’ll chiefly hang out in her roomy enclosure in Davis’ back yard, but Davis also brings her indoors for a few hours each day and lets her cruise around with her in the car, where she’s installed a perch for Sibley. Come August, Davis will start flying Sibley again to get her down to ideal flying weight—29 ounces in Sibley’s case—and to practice up for the season.

In Montana, 93 people are licensed falconers, 28 of whom fly peregrine falcons. Becoming a licensed falconer is not for people scared of commitment. Tim Feldner, manager of wildlife permitting for Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP), says there are three levels of falconer licenses: apprentice, general and master. Would-be apprentices must be at least 14, pass a written test and find a master falconer to mentor them for two years, during which time they can only keep one bird—a kestrel or red-tailed hawk. A general falconer must be 18 or older, have two years’ experience, and may keep two raptors of any breed. Master falconers, like Davis, must have five years of experience and can have up to three raptors of any species. Besides being licensed with the state, falconers must also gain approval from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Besides peregrine falcons, other birds flown for falconry include goshawks, gyrfalcons, prairie falcons, Harris’s hawks and sharp-shinned hawks. Each bird has a different hunting style. For instance, peregrine falcons hunt in the open and attack other birds only in flight. Harris’s hawks—like Davis’ other hunting partner, Deja—prefer wooded areas, or fly from perches held by the falconers and prey on rabbits and squirrels found on the ground or in trees.

Aside from the telemetry units that falconers attach to their birds’ feet in case they need to track them out of visual range, falconry is essentially the same sport the Chinese and Europeans began practicing 4,000 years ago. Even the names for falconry gear—for instance, jesses, the bands fastened around birds’ legs that connect to a leash, or cadges, containers in which game birds are carried—trace back to antiquity. In Europe, falconry was closely linked to social status, which determined what raptors one could hunt with: only emperors could hunt with eagles; kings and queens were entitled to gyrfalcons; earls had peregrine falcons; yeomen used goshawks; priests had sparrow hawks and poor servants made do with the tiny kestrel.

Falconry declined rapidly with the onset of gunpowder, and today is a relatively rare sport.

Davis says the historical hierarchy in the falconry world hasn’t completely disappeared; falcons, especially peregrines, are considered by many to be superior to hawks.

“I truly think that falconers are snobs—they’re the Macintosh people of the falconry world,” she laughs.

Many birds can be taken from the wild at young ages and trained as hunting partners, but falconers are allowed to possess only captive-bred peregrine falcons in Montana, owing to the species’ dramatic history.

In 1971, the peregrine falcon became one of the first species to be protected by the Endangered Species Act after populations went extinct east of the Great Plains and were found depleted by 90 percent in the western United States. Like the bald eagle, peregrine falcons were decimated throughout the nation from the 1940s through the 1960s by the use of the pesticide DDT, which prevents proper formation of their eggshells.

While banning DDT was a critical component of peregrines’ recovery, another factor was a massive nationwide reintroduction effort led by falconers, biologists and public agencies.

Beginning in the early ’80s, some 6,000 captive-bred peregrines were released throughout the nation. Jay Sumner, president of the Montana Peregrine Institute, says 555 young peregrines were released at 26 sites throughout Montana by 1998, which helped bolster the naturally recovering population.

In 1999, peregrines were federally delisted when national populations reached an estimated 1,800 breeding pairs, up from the 324 found in 1975. In 2006, a national monitoring effort estimated the new number of nesting pairs at about 3,000, including 67 in Montana.

In the wake of peregrines’ rapid recovery and federal delisting, six Western states have begun allowing the “take” of wild peregrine falcon chicks. Montana—which officially delisted peregrines in 2005—has not yet joined their ranks, although FWP recently solicited public comments about the idea in general.

FWP Wildlife Administrator Jeff Herbert says the agency plans to hold a series of statewide public meetings this spring to discuss allowing the take, and a proposal could be forthcoming within the year. He says FWP is cautiously exploring the idea, bearing in mind that peregrines have not yet recovered throughout their entire historical habitat in the state. He also recognizes that some in the state don’t think nestlings should be taken at all.

“First of all, there are folks who just don’t think it’s appropriate to capture wild animals and do this with them, but obviously falconry has a long tradition…I think what we have to do is figure out if it’s appropriate [and if it is] how do we put regulations in place that will still allow our Montana population to grow and expand in distribution,” he says.

Some, like Winifred biologist and falconer Ralph Rogers, fully favor the take.

“I’ve spent 40 years helping these birds recover, and if there was any chance it would hurt [populations] I’d be against it, but it’s time,” he says.

He says taking wild nestlings to raise for falconry is an important part of the sport, which he compares to fly-fishing, in that it isn’t the most efficient or strictly necessary way to hunt the target prey.

“The world doesn’t need falconry; it doesn’t need art; it doesn’t need fly-fishing. Those are just things that mankind does to enrich our lives—that’s essentially what falconry is about,” Rogers says.

The take enriches the falconry experience in the same manner that crafting homemade flies enriches the fly-fishing experience, he says.

“It’s about the experience of finding an aerie [nest], of climbing in, of being scared to death, of deciding which one you want to take and make a lifelong friend of,” Rogers says. “It’s just another touch back to 4,000 years of history.”

Others, including Davis and Sumner, are less eager to support a take proposal due to their concerns that peregrine recovery is a recent development whose stability hasn’t been gauged. Should peregrine populations keep growing the way they have in recent years, they say the take would be appropriate, but they’re cautious about pushing it to happen too soon.

“What’s the rush?” asks Davis. “Let’s relax a little bit and see how the populations do.”

As the end of this year’s falconry season draws near, Davis heads out from her home near Florence to a sprawling ranch along the Bitterroot River to hunt pheasants. With her is Jay Sumner, who is Davis’ hunting partner as well as the Montana Peregrine Institute’s president. He’s brought his peregrine falcon Maia.

Davis prepares Sibley for flight by fastening onto each of Sibley’s legs a tiny radio transmitter. Once Sibley is suited up with the telemetry units, Davis removes her leash, scans the sky for eagles (which can attack and kill falcons, as can owls), takes off her hood and looks Sibley in the eye. That look is part of their hunting ritual and partnership, Davis says, as well as her way of giving Sibley a silent pep talk.

“I just love that look,” Davis says. “That split second where the hood comes off and she looks around and remembers where we are.”

While Davis is confident in Sibley’s skills and training, she’s also aware of the sport’s dangers.

“There are so many things that can happen every time you take that hood off,” she says. “Sometimes we get complacent and forget, and that’s when you find your bird flying under a power line or come around the corner and see a great horned owl.”

Sibley checks out her surroundings for about 15 seconds and then smoothly takes wing, hovering low above the ground at first and then rapidly gaining altitude.

Sumner has brought along Rio, his English setter, who flushes game birds for Sibley. Today, Davis says, Sibley is a few ounces over her ideal flying weight—essentially, she’s not feeling too hungry—which decreases her attentiveness and ambition.

We walk through the field, with Sumner occasionally shouting “Cut ’em up!” to encourage Rio to flush pheasants and Davis yelling “Hup!” or “Ho!,” the signal given to alert Sibley when Davis spots game.

“She can see so much better than we can, but we don’t want her hunting on her own. We want her to rely on us,” says Davis, who’s trying to call Sibley in closer. Ideally, she’ll stay high above our heads so when we spook a bird up from the grass, she’ll be in position to strike. Davis says it’s difficult this late in the season to scare up game when a falcon is overhead.

“If they see one of these in the air, they are not going to fly…it’s easier in the year because the game birds are young and inexperienced, but by this time of year they’re hardened birds that have been preyed upon and know what to do.”

A careful ear can pick out Sibley’s bells chiming hundreds of feet up in a sky that’s overcast with small patches of blue.

And then there’s a flapping behind us, and before Davis can even turn around Rio has flushed a pheasant from deep cattails and Sibley has stooped—but missed—her quarry from 300 feet up. She circles back up and then swoops down toward Davis, who spots an eagle off in the distance and begins calling Sibley back in, swinging the lure and holding a bit of Japanese quail to reward Sibley for her efforts. The extra weight Sibley’s carrying has made her a less precise hunter today, but she’s hungry enough to gobble down the quail, feathers, bones and all. Later she’ll cough them back up in a casting, comparable to an owl’s pellet.

With Sibley perched again on Davis’ hand—beak, talons and glove spattered with blood—we head back to the car and down the road.

Now it’s Sumner’s turn to fly Maia, who’s older than Sibley but still in training.

Sumner says it takes experience and endurance for falcons to reach the required “pitch,” or height, of 300 to 400 feet for catching wild game, and since Maia only makes it up to about 200 feet, she still trains with captive partridges. After taking flight from Sumner’s glove, Maia circles above us and we again set off through the field. When she reaches about 200 feet, Sumner thrusts the partridge into the air and an instant later Maia nails it, producing a loud THWACK! that rings clearly 200 yards off. Sumner says the impact alone likely killed the prey, and we see Maia set upon it instantly in the grass. Walking toward her, we can see her intently plucking the partridge with her beak. When we arrive on the scene, Maia is surrounded by a pile of feathers, the partridge’s head lies dismembered on the ground, and the hunter is digging into her quarry’s flesh eagerly. Facing strangers and a camera near her meal, she bends her body over her kill and spreads her wings while looking feistily up at us, a protective move called “mantling.”

Sumner carefully clips her leash on while she feeds, and then draws her toward him with a piece of meat he’s brought so she doesn’t devour her whole trophy. While she feeds, he carefully holds her foot so I can press her talon into my finger to feel its point. It’s plenty sharp.

As we walk away—leaving behind only a pile of gray feathers (Davis snatched up the head to take home to Deja the hawk as a treat)—we’re taught another lesson of falconry: Just when Sumner pulls Maia’s hood onto her head, a ring-necked pheasant flushes out of the grass not 10 feet from us. Davis says it’s common for prey to sit still until they see a falcon feeding on something else; another trick that ducks pull, she says, is to dive under water, because they know falcons won’t venture into the water after them.

After the hunt, the birds are content but the humans buzz with excitement. Watching a bird that lives with one foot in the world of mankind and one foot in the wild zip at breakneck speed through the ether is uncommonly thrilling, regardless of whether you’re a first-timer or a long-timer.

“I never, ever, ever tire of watching these birds—it’s just so much fun to watch them fly,” Davis says. “They’re allowing us to watch what they would normally do in the wild on their own, and it’s a privilege to be allowed to watch it.”

Sumner says the skills of wild falcons far outstrip their captive counterparts, but there’s a compensating intimacy gained through watching a bird you’ve named and trained.

“You can’t describe what that feeling is until you see it,” he says. “You can watch birds out in the wild but you don’t see them up close like this usually.”

Kate seconds: “And you don’t raise them from being a baby in a playpen to having [Sibley] do that 300 or 400 foot stoop on a duck. I don’t have kids; I have birds and I am so proud.”

Davis has birds all right. In 1988, after graduating with a zoology degree from the University of Montana, Davis founded the nonprofit organization Raptors of the Rockies to rehabilitate injured raptors and educate the public about them. Nearly two decades later, Davis, 47, has taught more than 1,000 programs introducing raptors—including Sibley—to more than 100,000 children and adults throughout Montana. More than 50 percent of the project’s $55,000 annual budget comes from local donations, which go toward the feeding and upkeep of the 17 permanently disabled raptors (ranging from Dotcom the pygmy owl to McCoy the bald eagle) and three falconry birds (Sibley, Deja and Chesty, another Harris’s Hawk) housed in enclosures in her back yard.

“When I say we, I mean me and the birds,” Davis says. “I do everything—the bookkeeping, grant writing, maintenance. I hold all the permits, do the annual reports, answer correspondence, update the website, and do the daily cleaning and flying.”

She’s also an artist, and after the hunt we return to her spread near Florence, where large welded depictions of her birds decorate the yard and her indoor walls are covered with all manner of drawings, etchings and photographs of birds. Chairwoman for the international Raptor Research Foundation’s education committee, Davis is also currently working on a book about falcons—following her 2002 book on raptors in the Rockies—and trying to spend more time painting. Her inspiration is clear and constant.

“I think it’s very humbling to see these birds. This is the pinnacle of perfection in my mind, right here,” she says pointing at Sibley, who’s sitting on her perch in the living room. “We are just peons. Human beings can’t do what these birds do and it’s inspirational for everything I do.”

As we talk, it becomes increasingly apparent that Davis has forged a symbiotic relationship with Sibley and the rest of her raptors. She feeds and flies them and they act as her muse, her brood, her life’s work. Her interest in and ability to talk about birds is boundless, and she loves them all, including the pigeon she unsuccessfully sacrificed to Sibley.

We walk outside, talking of our longing to inhabit birds’ world, to open more fully that window Sibley showed us briefly today.

“Wish I could do that, Sib, I wish I could fly,” Davis says. “I have dreams all the time that I can. I always picture what it’s like flying 400 feet up watching us, these puny little people and a dog marching through a field.”

Just as we turn the corner, Davis spots the white pigeon fluttering back into its enclosure. It returns because that’s what pigeons do, but also because Davis supplies it with a sanctuary for its breeding grounds. Another chase with Sibley, and perhaps another victory, waits in store.

It may be natural impulses driving this unnamed pigeon, as well as Sibley’s skills and her propensity for partnering with Davis to hunt and live. But on top of those instincts, Davis and Sibley have built a relationship that has little to do with practical considerations. And that connection, which brings birds’ enviable experience of the heavens to the earthbound, swells when Sibley takes wing.

jmcquillan@missoulanews.com

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