Although humans have practiced falconry for thousands of years, it never really caught on in the US. But the expertise and care that American falconers put into their craft has propelled them to the forefront of breeding and bird-based innovation. Now...
Photos courtesy of Anatoly Tokar at Falconry Passion
In 1968, when Lars Sego was eight years old, he decided he wanted to become a falconer. He put a hood and jess on a chicken and let it jump off his arm to catch bugs, and so began an illustrious career in bird training. As a teenager, after finally getting a few falcons of his own, one of the birds he’d raised from a hatchling climbed on top of his head and tried to have sex with it. It was at that moment, while being violated by a bird of prey, that he realized he should start breeding his animals on a larger scale. Today, he runs a New Mexico-based falcon-breeding firm with the no-nonsense title ‘Falcons for Sale.’ They raise only 40 to 60 birds per year, but their animals are so prized by wealthy foreigners that few of them stay in America. Residents from more falcon-friendly countries like the UAE, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia swoop in regularly and pay premiums for birds they’ve reserved years in advance. Lars declined to tell me the going price for one of his falcons, but I think it’s safe to say he’s not getting any runoff business from people who couldn’t find a bird they liked at PetSmart.
His success is the manifestation of a small, unlikely falconry renaissance in America. Although humans have practiced falconry for thousands of years, it never really caught on in the US. Estimates put the number of active falconers in the country somewhere between 3,000 and 5,000 (up from maybe 1,500 in the mid-20th century), whereas in Dubai alone Sego believes there are as many as 20,000. Despite their small numbers, the expertise and care that American falconers put into their craft has propelled them to the forefront of breeding and bird-based innovation. As a result, US birds are in high demand in the world’s more raptorial nations.
In the 1950s increased levels of the pesticide DDT caused the shells of American peregrine falcon eggs to thin. This seemingly trifling detail actually led, within 20 years, to a total crash of the peregrine population. By 1970 only an estimated 39 wild mating pairs remained in the contiguous United States. The few American falconers left during those dark times, a bunch of diehard bird lovers, teamed up with the nascent conservationist movement and succeeded in bringing peregrines back from the brink of extinction by 1999. In the process, they fused the interests of biologists and falconers and put a strong focus on breeding and environmental protection.
It’s that focus that has enabled American falconers to get a toehold in the breeder door despite their small numbers. Americans have become known for their scrupulous, scientific approach to genetic diversity, unlike many of their European counterparts, who are largely concerned with breeding for color and form. Much like in the case of show dogs, the result of that type of operation has been, as Sego puts it, “hard inbreeding and poor quality birds.”
Beyond the breeders and genetics, the conservationists involved in reviving the peregrines have figured out how to monetize the rebounding raptor populations as a green, efficient service with wide-reaching effects. Mark Adam, a biologist involved in the project, got the notion that the falcons he was working with might be a less costly and dangerous solution to bird pests, like pigeons, than poison or gunfire. So in 1989 he started Falconry Environmental Services and almost immediately secured a contract with the Montreal Airport.
Bird pest eradication sounds like a superficial business—keeping airborne shit bags away from nice buildings and bald heads. But for airports, the risk of bird strikes and resultant plane malfunctions (here’s looking at you, Sully) are a big threat. And that threat only increases in places where wilderness rehabilitation and conservation has led to an orgiastic proliferation of birds. So when Mark told airport officials that he could use a resurging population of birds to ward off resurging populations of birds, they were understandably skeptical.
In the first month, Mark and his falcons had reduced bird strikes by 75 percent. Then another 73 percent over the next two months, all without driving onto the tarmac and holding up flights. The Montreal success led to the mildly publicized adaptation of falconry abatement at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport in 2003 in an effort to beat back the birds of the Jamaica Bay Restoration project. At the height of the program, the JFK contract had five falcons going 17 hours per day, and briefly inspired the use of falcons in clearing pigeons out of parks in the city, until an unfortunate incident with a Chihuahua in Bryant Park.
Following the dissolution of the public parks deal, in 2011 JFK terminated their contract in favor of competitively priced (and, Adams says, unfairly favored) Port Authority “wildlife specialists” toting shotguns and firing off shell after shell. (They recently added the snowy owl to their kill-on-site list.) But Adams still has more business than he and his 200 birds can handle, with 50 contracts from Canadian and American civilian and military airports to landfills and farms. And his success has led to a boom in falconry-based abatement services, mainly operating out west where a healthy population of environmentally friendly farmers has given them a steady stream of business.
Most of these abatement services are based in California, giving it, with 563 falconry licenses issued, the state with the largest absolute (although Wyoming has the largest per capita) population of falconers. Although most falconers, and Adams as well, wouldn’t necessarily call the folks he hires “falconers.” The notion of training birds and sending them out with set tasks, or even breeding selectively for financial gain and ideal pairs, doesn’t always gel with the sensibility amongst the old-school falconers who helped jumpstart the American falcon recovery. They got into the effort out of a love for and urge to nurture the natural behavior of birds, not to goad them into tricks and careers.
Even if the breeders and abatement folks don’t always live up to the lofty and abstract ideals of falconry purists, there is something familiar in the commodification of America’s rebounding falconry culture. It’s an almost patriotic realization of capitalism, playing on the old passion, X, profit model. And the new utilitarian, economically viable falconry services are, if small, a niche and enduring industry employing nature lovers and incentivizing the long lives of breeds like the peregrine, gyr, and saker. And if you’re looking for some straightforward symbolism, there are even eagles involved from time to time. The revival of falconry couldn’t get more American if it tried.