A passion for peregrines

A falconer explains why his life has gone to the birds

GETTING MEDIEVAL Steve Kasprzyk with a hooded Peaches the falcon.

GETTING MEDIEVAL Steve Kasprzyk with a hooded Peaches the falcon.

Photo By Tom Angel

The fastest animal in the world is named Peaches, and she lives with Steve Kasprzyk (KAS-per-zik) in Chico. OK, Peaches isn’t necessarily the fastest, but her species, Falcon peregrinus anatum, a.k.a. the peregrine falcon, sure is. Called “bullet hawks,” peregrines have been clocked at speeds higher than 200 miles per hour.

But right now Peaches is very still, her compact, two-pound body comfortably perched atop the leathered glove of Kasprzyk, who himself is clad in a leather jacket. With his sandy-blond hair and aquiline features, Kasprzyk resembles the bird on his arm. And the two of them, like a matching set, seem perfectly at home in the bitter cold of this winter day.

Kasprzyk is one of a handful of falconers here in Chico who are passionate about this 4,000-year-old “sport of kings” that involves hunting using birds of prey. He has revolved his entire life—from where he lives to his line of work—around these raptors.

But as we talk, I cannot help but ogle Peaches. Occasionally she scratches herself awkwardly like a cat, but more often she balances, humorless and cool. Her head is covered by a medieval-looking leather hood.

Peaches’ head.

Photo By Tom Angel

The hood is what allows me to eye her so closely. As Kasprzyk explains, “It’s for her own good, because now I can travel with this bird, and she’s calm, just like when you put blinders on a horse.” This is important, as any upset could cause Peaches to damage her feathers. And, as Kasprzyk points out, “their feathers have to be totally perfect to enable them to pursue their food.”

Peregrines use dramatic spurts of speed to disable their prey. Imagine Peaches, if you will, patrolling the skies 500 or even 1,000 feet above you, projecting that shape characteristic of falcons, bent wings sharpened to points. She ambles along at a cool 60 mph. On the ground, Kasprzyk prepares to flush out her “quarry,” wild birds like ducks or pheasants.

At his signal, Peaches then “folds up and dives like a rocket, just comes straight down, even pumps down” to achieve maximum speed. During this rocketed flight, she will attempt to use her gathering inertia to knock down her prey. “This peregrine is trying to disable [the prey] in any way that it can; it’s trying to get its foot on it, hit it with its feet, it’s trying to slow it down.”

So her feathers aren’t the only things that Peaches has to keep in top condition—her enormous reptilian feet must provide an initial “punch.” Most of the time, this stuns her prey, or she will bind to it. Back on the ground, her black talons hold on to the stunned prey, and the peregrine utilizes another adaptation, its specialized beak, to finish the job.

“Do you see this notched [part] right here?” Kasprzyk points to Peaches’ impressively sharp beak. “That is designed to go right in the spot of the neck bones, and you can see they feel around and they position it right in between, and they just give it a pop and it disables them.”

Peaches’ talons.

Photo By Tom Angel

Then the bird proceeds to eat. That’s one thing that makes falconry different from traditional hunting: The hunter doesn’t get the spoils, the bird does. This is what it is all about—participating in an experience that we earth-bound humans only dream of.

“I don’t hunt to eat. If they catch something, they get to eat it, unless we release it or I have quail that I buy frozen and this bird eats whole quail. That’s the difference between a wild bird and a trained bird: This bird is gonna get fed. It gets top-quality food and gets well taken care of.”

It hasn’t always been easy for these birds. You may recall that peregrine falcons were on the endangered-species list up until 1999, their eggs’ shells thinned as a result of their bittersweet place at the top of the food chain, accumulating high levels of DDT.

Peaches herself is born of a breeding project, something that came about because of the species near disappearance. By 1970, there were just over three dozen breeding pairs of peregrines in the whole of the continental U.S. In response, Dr. Tom Cade of Cornell University made a plea to American falconers: Send his project the few remaining captive falcons, so that an attempt could be made to breed them and release them in the wild.

This became known as the Peregrine Fund, and through its efforts and the work of such organizations as the UC Cruz Predatory Bird Research Group and the World Center for Birds of Prey, peregrines are on their way back.

Peaches at home in her mews, or “hawk house.”

Photo By Tom Angel

“If you look historically, in California, going back as far as records have been kept, there were probably somewhere around 150 nest sites in California,” recalls Kasprzyk. “Now there are probably over 300 nest sites due to captive breeding and release. So nowadays I see a peregrine in the wild maybe once or even twice a month, hunting, flying, doing something. When I first got into falconry in the mid-'70s, I didn’t see a peregrine for six years. Never saw one. Now, they’re fairly common.”

So now you’re wondering how you can become a falconer. Hate to say, it’s nothing like owning a dog. Kasprzyk breaks it down.

“There’s a three-stage program to falconry. First, you have to be 16 years of age. Then, you find a sponsor. Then you have to study and take the test, a 100-question test, and then if you pass the test, then you build your mews.” It sounds like he’s saying “muse.” In French, the word means a “hawk-house.”

The mews must be built and inspected and secure enough so that your bird can perch in it outdoors.

Now you can get your apprentice license, which allows you to obtain your first bird, either an American kestrel or a red-tailed hawk. It also must be a “passager,” a young bird that retains its first-year plumage.

OF A FEATHER Peaches and Kasprzyk ready for the hunt.

Photo By Tom Angel

I ask how one obtains such a bird. He laughs. “You’ve gotta look up. You’ve got to go trap your bird. That’s half of the fun.” Once you’ve trapped your bird, then you’ve got to train it and apply for all the necessary permits, of which there are many—falconry is the most heavily regulated sport in America.

Licensing is through the California Department of Fish and Game as well as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. You’ll need hunting licenses, too.

“After two years, if you’ve been successful, then you can move on to the next class of falconry, called the ‘general class,’ “ he continues. “That enables you to—not that I recommend it—get a falcon, and you can have other types of hawks. But you wouldn’t know what to do with a falcon. There’s a progression in falconry, and you start out with a red-tail, and then you would move on and trap a Cooper’s hawk or a goshawk, and then you would move on to another level.”

Kasprzyk belongs to the “master” level, which requires an additional five years of experience. But this enabled him to obtain Peaches, who was captive-bred.

Most birds are kept for three to four seasons. Then, depending on where they got their start in life, they are either released to the wild or returned to a breeding project. This is, of course, barring the kinds of accidents that often befall birds in the wild.

“The sad part is they can be gone from you in just an instant. It’s traumatic. I’ve had two peregrines hit fences, and I’ve had one bird get electrocuted off a telephone pole. And you talk about crying. … You know, when you’re all exhilarated. … There’s no tomorrow, once your bird’s gone.”

Kasprzyk has been a falconer for 30 years, since 1975, when he lived in Southern California. He still flies birds with his original sponsor, Randy Fiskas. “I moved to Chico to fly falcons; that’s why I came here. I came here in ‘79 and have been flying birds on and off here ever since. Not all the time; I had to take some breaks.”

But his choice of careers, from contractor to real-estate agent, has allowed him to hunt five days a week. “I’ve always been able to arrange my work schedule around my birds. If you can’t do justice to this bird, there’s no reason to have it. They make crummy pets—they’re mean, they get cranky, they bust their feathers up, they need to be fed every day, you can’t just leave and throw food at them. It’s like a baby.”

He reiterates that point. “It’s not a pet—it’s a lifestyle. It’s all about the birds. It’s what your life is all about. Everything else radiates, including your girlfriend.” He laughs.

“If you have a passion, that’s really what makes the world go round. And this is definitely a passion. You become passionate about it. You follow your dreams."