Hunting for survival
West Coast Falconry, near Marysville, employs threatened birds of prey as teachers
One recent May morning, as the grass covering the rolling hills of rural Yuba County was just beginning to brown, a Sonoran Harris’s 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 Earth and 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—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 organizations 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.
The latter charge is indeed a rare opportunity, 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. That’s 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 amounts of birds via various means including oil spills, waste oil pits, rodenticides, communication towers or wind farms can’t be penalized for large-scale bird carnage that often results from such practices.
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 precent of oil-company prosecutions based on the MTBA. 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,” David O’Neill, Audubon’s chief conservation officer, said 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 of environmental groups, including Audubon, American Bird Conservancy, and the Center for Biological Diversity, sued the Department of the Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service and the Interior Department’s principal deputy solicitor, Daniel Jorjani, over the changes. And in February, California Assemblymember Ash Kalra (D-San Jose) introduced legislation—Assembly Bill 2627—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.
Raptors and their allies
Marden, WCF’s owner, 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”) frolicked in nearby bottlebrush 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—rested, uncaged, in the shade. 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 current changes in 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 raptors often do not pass along adequate hunting skills. She said starvation is a common cause of death for young birds.
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, watch presentations and can sign up for more in-depth experiences.
Those experiences include “hawk walks,” in which small groups handle hawks while hiking through oak woodlands, 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 several 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. Information about WCF’s birds, staff, regular offerings and special events are available on their website at west coast-falconry.com.
Marden and the WCF staff are strong proponents of continuing the tradition of hunting with raptors, which she admits 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 time, 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.”
Marden and other 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.
“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 peoples’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.”