Monday, July 27, 2015

Falcons, Hawks, and Wildlife Rescue

Last week I shared the experience of going on a “hunt” with falconer Matt Mitchell. Now here's insight into the life of someone who works with birds of prey.

Matt has always loved animals. When he was a teenager living in Albuquerque, a neighbor had a Swainson’s hawk. “I thought that was the coolest thing,” Matt says. He did the necessary training and apprenticeship, eventually working up to a master falconry license, and at the time of this writing had 13 birds.

Matt also nurses birds that have been injured by hunters or in accidents. He says, “Having birds, people started bringing me injured birds, and of course you have to be covered by a permit, so I joined wildlife rescue. Most hunters now tend to be more conscientious, but I still get injured birds in every year.”

Matt considers education the most important part of wildlife rescue. He talks to school children and other groups, letting people see the beauty of falcons and hawks. This kind of education “gives wildlife value, because it says somebody cares.”

Falconers play an active role in conservation, working with environmental groups on projects such as protecting habitat. “The biggest threat to falconry today is loss of habitat,” Matt says. “Falconers are very aware of keeping places wild, keeping lots of birds and bird breeding habitat protected. We’d like to see the sky full of birds.”

He sometimes gets birds passed along by well-meaning but inexperienced people who have tried to raise a wild chick or injured bird. The bird has almost always suffered from poor care. People must have a permit to keep falcons, and getting one requires a two-year apprenticeship and inspection of facilities. Matt’s facilities include two stucco buildings, each with separate 8x8 rooms for individual birds, plus a large, net-covered flight pen.

Chicks at 3 weeks and 2 days
“Falconry is an addiction in a way,” Matt says. “In the summertime, when the hunting seasons are closed and the birds are molting, it was just a natural thing to keep working with the birds and breed them. I think it’s good for their state of health, to pair up. I started breeding birds in 1989.”

In late spring, he may have two or three newborn chicks in his house at any time, carefully tending them to strengthen their immune system. The day-old chicks are floppy balls of fluff greeting the world with tiny squeaks and squawks. After a few days, they’ll go back to a mother bird. When they’re old enough, they’re moved to the flight pen. At that point, “They are basically wild birds,” Matt says. “They’ll tolerate you, but they are in no way tame.”

One day when I visit, he has a hybrid falcon chick—part peregrine and part gyrfalcon, bred through artificial insemination—he’s raising for a client in Florida. In the United States, hybrids must be raised as human imprints, meaning a human raises the bird by hand rather than giving it back to a mother bird. This helps ensure the imprints won’t escape into the wild and mix with native species. 

At three weeks old, the bird is a fat, wobbly ball of white fluff whose screeches sometimes trail off into a goose-like honk.

On my next visit, three weeks later, the bird is sleek and graceful, with only a few stray tufts of down to show he’s not fully grown. As the falcon poses on Matt’s arm, he beats his wings, practicing for the day – very soon – when he’ll soar.

“I like imprints,” Matt says. “You’re like a team. Now some falconers hate imprints, because they’re real quick to show their moods. If they’re angry at you, they don’t hold anything back. If they’re hungry, they’ll scream. They don’t have this aloof nobility of a wild-trapped bird. But I love to see these behaviors, and have them do courtship or aggression or whatever. It’s what birds do to each other, and it gives me a window on that. In the wild, you’re lucky if you can watch feeding from across a canyon with binoculars, but I can go into the chamber with a piece of meat and we can feed the babies together.”

Stop back next week for part three of this series. This was excerpted from an article first published in the enchantment magazine by NMRECA, July 2012.

What We Found is a mystery with romantic elements about a young woman who finds a murder victim in the woods. It features falconry as a subplot.

Kris Bock writes novels of suspense and romance involving outdoor adventures and Southwestern landscapes. In Counterfeits, stolen Rembrandt paintings bring danger to a small New Mexico town. Whispers in the Dark features archaeology and intrigue among ancient Southwest ruins. The Mad Monk’s Treasure follows the hunt for a long-lost treasure in the New Mexico desert. In The Dead Man’s Treasure, estranged relatives compete to reach a buried treasure by following a series of complex clues. Read excerpts at or visit her Amazon page

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