Hunting for survival
Falconers and environmentalists say Trump’s rollbacks to century-old law endanger raptors and other birds
On a recent morning in the rolling hills of rural Yuba County, a Sonoran Harris’ hawk named Mariposa perched patiently in a cluster of oak trees, her gaze fixed on a young woman circled by a half-dozen other people in the meadow below. The hawk stood, unflinching, as the woman counted slowly, raising and lowering her arm in an exaggerated fashion until—on “Three!”—she tossed the partial carcass of a quail chick straight into the air.
Mariposa launched and closed the roughly 20 feet between the perch and her “prey” in an instant, well before the tidbit reached its apex. In a flash of feathers against a clear blue sky, the hawk executed a flawless 270-degree backflip, snatched the morsel in its left talon, dropped to ground and devoured her catch faster than her human onlookers could finish releasing a collective “Whoaaaa!”
About 30 minutes earlier, the woman—like most other visitors to West Coast Falconry (WCF)—had never come nose-to-beak with a bird of prey, and certainly never worn one of the gauntlet-like leather falconer’s gloves covering the left hands of everyone in the group.
WCF, located east of Marysville, is one of about a dozen groups in the United States granted permits from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to allow unlicensed people to handle birds of prey under the guidance of a master falconer. Its motto is “Preservation through education,” and its objective, according to owner/founder Kate Marden, is to teach people about raptors and their importance to the environment and the many human-caused and natural threats they face. WCF does so by offering a glimpse into the art of falconry.
Such an opportunity is indeed rare, as there are only about 700 licensed falconers in California, and 4,000 nationwide.
Trump attacks hawks
Raptors, and indeed all wild birds, face a new threat: changes to the century-old Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) enacted by the Trump administration last December, when the Interior Department released a legal opinion stating “the take [killing] of birds resulting from an activity is not prohibited by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act when the underlying purpose of that activity is not to take birds.” That means companies and individuals who “unintentionally” or “incidentally” kill large numbers of birds via various means including oil spills, waste oil pits, rodenticides, communication towers, wind farms or other financial pursuits can’t be penalized.
According to the National Audubon Society—which, paradoxically, slated 2018 as a celebration of the MBTA’s centennial anniversary—the White House’s recent rollback on protection will benefit oil companies more than any other industry. Those companies are responsible for more than 90 percent of prosecutions for illegal takes, with 2010’s Deepwater Horizon and 1989’s Exxon Valdez spills accounting for 97 percent of oil-company prosecutions based on the MBTA. The new White House guidelines would protect corporations responsible for such cataclysmic disasters from litigation.
“Gutting the MBTA runs counter to decades of legal precedent, as well as basic conservative principles,” said David O’Neill, Audubon’s chief conservation officer, in response to the rollbacks. “For generations Republicans and Democrats have embraced both conservation and economic growth and now this administration is pitting them against each other.”
Environmental groups aren’t letting the changes go unchallenged: On May 27, a consortium including Audubon, American Bird Conservancy and the Center for Biological Diversity sued the Department of the Interior; its principal deputy solicitor, Daniel Jorjani; and the Fish and Wildlife Service. And in February, California Assemblyman Ash Kalra (D-San Jose) introduced Assembly Bill 2627, which is aimed at allowing the state’s Fish and Game Commission to protect birds from such threats in spite of the federal government’s new directives. The bill is currently winding its way through the legislative process.
Raptors and their allies
Marden, owner of West Coast Falconry, is driven by old-fashioned conservationist values. “That’s so Trump,” she said of the MBTA changes. “I hope we survive this, I really do. The whole administration freaks me out, and so does the amount of support he gets for crap like that. I sometimes want to tell people, ‘You guys, take your heads out of your backsides, it’s scientifically proven that our planet can’t survive the way we’re going.’”
Marden spoke on the back patio of WCF, which she describes as a “practical zoo.” The ranch-like property serves as home to her and roughly two-dozen raptors, as well as cats, dogs, chickens, canaries and a cow.
A 13-year-old Eurasian eagle-owl named Cailleach (pronounced Kay-leesh, the Gaelic word for “wise woman”) rested beneath a nearby bottlebrush bush and a 35-year-old Finnish goshawk—the species that serves as the primary avatar in Helen Macdonald’s best-selling 2015 memoir H Is for Hawk—wandered around the yard before settling down in a patch of shade; both birds were unfettered and uncaged. Cailleach was on deck for an upcoming “owl encounter” program, and Marden referred to the foliage as “her green room.” Zephyr, the goshawk, is a former hunting and breeding bird that developed arthritis and cataracts, and is spending her golden years relaxing and receiving care at WCF.
Marden is a master falconer who received her license in 1998, but began working with raptors several years earlier at renaissance fairs. She said she’d become enthralled with birds of prey when a falconer visited her classroom when she was 9 years old.
She started WCF in her native Marin County with her then-husband in 2005, but the business didn’t really develop into its current form until 2010—after she moved outside of Marysville, divorced and enlisted the help of longtime friend and fellow master falconer Jana Barkley. Barkley acts as WCF’s manager, and also wrote a novel based on falconry called The Apprentice.
Marden offered a rundown of threats to raptors other than recent changes to protective legislation. Those include diseases like West Nile virus and aspergillosis—a fungal infection that is devastating to birds’ respiratory systems. Man-made threats include loss of habitat, poaching, structures like power lines and communication towers, and rodenticides. “Farmers use poison to kill vermin; a bird snatches up a slow-moving mouse to take home to the wife and kids and everyone gets killed,” she explained.
Furthermore, nature is harsh on the birds: Marden said studies indicate only a small fraction of wild raptors survive to sexual maturity (which averages around three years for most species), due largely to the fact that they often do not pass along adequate hunting skills. She said starvation is a common cause of death for young birds.
The white-tailed kite, a raptor covered in snowy feathers with gray-and-black trimmings, holds a special place in the heart of members of the Altacal Audubon Society, the local chapter of the national organization. The bird is the namesake of the group’s regular newsletter and graces its logo, and many of its members believe the kite, though currently not officially threatened or especially rare, is disappearing from the area.
“In Butte County, you can ask any birder that’s studied local bird populations for any length of time and they’ll tell you that the white-tailed kite’s numbers have gone down drastically,” said Scott Huber, Altacal’s conservation chair and a past president of the group. “This is an issue that involves the No. 1 threat to birds, in our area and elsewhere, which is loss of habitat, as local grasslands are developed [for human use].”
Statistics from the Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count—a census of bird populations in the Western Hemisphere conducted each holiday season since 1900—show a steady decline in this state’s white-tailed kite numbers since 2011 (with just a slight increase in 2017). Local birders said that more studies need to be done in the North State, as they believe the decline is even more dramatic here. Furthermore, the national Audubon’s climate change models predict massive losses to the species’ habitat range—which currently spans from California to Chile—in coming years.
Changes to the MBTA could manifest in developers making less effort to mitigate damage due to loss of habitat. Huber said that weakened restrictions could benefit many industries—locally, he pointed to agriculture—while harming conservation efforts.
“It gives the ability of commerce and industry to not be penalized for the accidental take of migratory birds and birds of prey,” Huber said. “That translates to making them not have to try very hard to assure that they’re not accidentally killing birds in whatever their business pursuit is. We believe there needs to be significantly more attention to detail to ensure that’s not happening, rather than less.
“Changes to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act basically amount to letting companies off the hook so that they don’t have to concern themselves with practices that minimize harm to bird species.”
Huber also spoke about bird issues related to wind energy generation, particularly due to improper siting of such operations. In the Bay Area’s Altamont Pass, for example, wind turbines kill an estimated 4,700 birds a year, including 1,127 raptors, according to a 2010 study published in the Journal of Wildlife Management. Of special concern in that area are golden eagles, and the Audubon Society estimates between 75 and 110 of that species are killed there each year.
“The amount of golden eagles that dies in the Altamont Pass is staggering,” Huber said. “It’s a migration corridor for eagles that are leaving fledgling areas in the Northwest Territories and Alaska. They love that path, and it ends up being a really sad choice for them.”
Marden said she modeled WCF after falconry centers common throughout Europe, and that her eventual goal is to further develop based on that model—where visitors pay a small fee to view the birds and watch presentations, and can sign up for more in-depth experiences.
The business offers “hawk walks,” in which small groups handle hawks while hiking through oak woodlands, as well as owl encounters, falconry lessons and more. Each begins with a rundown of the history of falconry and information about raptor anatomy and behavior. Then, visitors “glove up” and get to handle the birds as they run through a series of extraordinary exercises.
Additionally, WCF birds and staff make regular appearances at public events and visit North State classrooms throughout the school year. This summer, WCF is offering special classes at Bouchaine Winery in Napa, and kids and teen falconry classes in addition to its regular experiences.
Though WCF is not a rehabilitation center, Marden and her staff sometimes use their skills to assist in rescuing and transporting distressed raptors.
“A lot of people find injured birds and don’t know what to do,” Marden said. She noted that the California Department of Fish and Wildlife maintains a list of official wildlife rehabilitation centers on its website, but her business is easier to find on the internet. “When you look for birds of prey [in the North State], we tend to pop up.” Also, one of her neighbors is a game warden, and she said he often calls WCF for assistance with the birds.
In the month of June alone, Marden and her staff assisted in rescuing eight raptors: “One week there was a red-shouldered hawk that had to go to rehab and a barn owl that we helped get out of a warehouse,” Marden said. “The next week there was an injured red-tailed hawk out in a wildlife area and four baby barn owls that had come out of a nest in a warehouse and gotten some oil on them. Then there was another barn owl at the pound in Roseville who’d been shot in the wing, so we picked up that bird and took it in as well.”
WCF staff takes the birds first to the Bird and Pet Clinic of Roseville for immediate veterinary help, and then to the California Foundation for Birds of Prey, in Lincoln, for rehabilitation. Marden praised Dr. Vickie Joseph, a veterinarian at the foundation, as one of the nation’s top raptor experts.
Why so many bird rescues lately?
“It’s that time of year,” Marden said. “The young birds—we [falconers] call them branchers but most birders call them fledglings—are just learning to fly. The body temperature of most of these birds is around 102 degrees, and with the heat they tend to leave the nest early.”
Such was the case with the oily baby barn owls, she said: “They’d been running around between these barrels full of oil and there was some residue on their feathers, and they were also dehydrated from the heat.
“There was dead voles on the ground, so I was concerned about poison in the food chain, which is a huge problem, but the warehouse owners said they don’t use poison,” she continued. “I realized the mama had been throwing food on the ground for them.”
Marden said she plans to call the Lincoln facility soon to see if the baby owls are rehabbed and ready to be re-released to the wild. “If so, I’ll take them back up to the same area and let them go,” she said.
Marden and the WCF staff are strong proponents of continuing the tradition of hunting with raptors, which she acknowledges rubs some people she meets the wrong way.
“People get offended when I explain I’m hunting with the birds, but that’s what they do; they’re obligate carnivores,” she said. “A lot of times, those people aren’t vegetarians and don’t really care where their meat comes from, or what kind of torture it went through to produce their meal. We live on a carbon-based planet where something has to die so other things can live, so I prefer to honor my prey.”
WCF staff explained that falconry goes back at least 10,000 years, as indicated by Mongolian petroglyphs depicting men hunting snow leopards with raptors. The sport also figures prominently in the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the earliest examples of literature.
Altacal’s Huber said he counts several falconers among his friends and that the annual Snow Goose Festival, which his organization sponsors, often includes falconry exhibits. As for hunting with raptors, Huber said, “Birds eat birds … that’s a fact of life.
“There are some birders and bird people who are anti-falconry, but for the most part I don’t think it’s something most of them spend a lot of time thinking about,” he said. “Personally, the falconers I have worked with are responsible and ethical. They care very much about their birds and have a close relationship with them.”
Marden said helping people understand that special connection is the primary goal at WCF.
“I don’t really care if visitors choose to become falconers, but I want people to understand the relationships between these birds and people,” she said. “Every time we take them out, we let them go, and they come back, even though every bird here—except old Zephyr there—is capable of surviving in the wild.
“The best way to understand that connection is to have a bird fly to your glove … it’s an amazing thing that most people never get to experience. Seeing people’s reactions when that happens reminds me of how it felt for me 20 years ago when I first started working with a bird. It’s magical, and I love to be able to share that gift.”