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San Diego Reader


They know how to fly. They know how to hunt.

It was during one of my forays down the YouTube rabbit hole that I happened upon a “parahawking” video. In the two-minute clip, a hawk soars alongside a man as he paraglides over the oceanfront cliffs of Torrey Pines. The bird lands on the man’s outstretched, gloved arm, then takes off again to ride the same thermals as the parasail. I watched with fascination as the wild bird repeatedly landed on the moving perch — several cameras affixed to the parasail offered tight shots of the hawk in action.

After seeing this marvel of human/bird collaboration, I took notice of a red-tailed hawk I’d seen drifting around my neighborhood. My living-room window is eye-level with the tops of a few trees and telephone poles upon which the bird likes to perch. One day, I paused from my work to watch a nature show-like scene play out — two crows harassed and dive-bombed the hawk until it flew away. Curious about this behavior, I returned to the internet for answers — the term falconry kept cropping up.

Falconry, or “taking wild quarry in its natural state with a trained raptor,” is an ancient practice. Evidence of using trained birds of prey to hunt can be found dating back 5000 years in China and (according to a few historians) up to 12,000 years in what is now the Middle East. But the prestige of the practice peaked in the Middle Ages, when laws surrounding which stations of the nobility could own certain birds led to its being referred to as “the sport of kings.”

Despite an abundance of native North American raptors, Native Americans did not practice any sort of falconry. Colonizing Europeans in the New World did very little. But the sport has quietly grown in popularity over the past century, and San Diego is one of its hot spots.

One of four falconry schools in the United States, San Diego’s Sky Falconry was founded by Kirk Sellinger and Denise Disharoon in May 2013 as a satellite school of West Coast Falconry near Sacramento. Sellinger was the man I’d seen in the parahawking video. Prior to creating the video (which is now approaching 6.5 million views), Sellinger had been a videographer for National Geographic. After growing up in Seattle, where the urban-dwelling birds are wary of humans, he went to work filming in the Galapagos, where indigenous creatures are not instinctually averse to people, or as he puts it, “are right in your face.” Sellinger estimates his total Galapagos filming time to be around two years spread over many visits. In that time he developed a fascination with birds. It was after he saw a video of a man parahawking in Nepal that he decided to take up falconry.

On the way to Sky Falconry’s remote setting, I swerved around house-sized rocks and chasm-like rifts in the steep and winding dirt road, and then breathed a sigh of relief when, after nearly two miles, we finally reached the flat parking area.

“Probably not the best idea to have gotten the car washed yesterday,” I quipped to my husband, David. We shrugged at the layer of dust obscuring my Mini’s red paint and walked around a rocky hill to join the growing crowd of people in a nearby clearing.

It was a cool and breezy morning, but plenty warm in the sun, which wasn’t hard to find on this hillside in Alpine, where low-lying chaparral reigns. Approximately a dozen people had converged here to see a hawk up close.

Sellinger and Disharoon were easy to pick out from the small crowd of falconry fledglings, both because of their lithe and fit, I-chase-after-birds-for-a-living physiques, and their falconry-appropriate attire (brimmed hats, sunglasses, and multi-pocketed vests). It was 9:45 a.m., and they were wrapping up the early morning Hawk Walk ($140 per participant, $70 per observer), which is a more in-depth version of the Basic Falconry Lesson ($70 per participant, $35 per observer) that was set to begin at 10 a.m.

As we waited for our class to begin, a handful of us killed time by repeatedly commenting on the pastoral view. “Yes, it is breathtaking,” I agreed more than once. At least four newbie falconers were cashing in on gifts. For two 20-something brothers, this was a “random, unexpected” gift from their parents. From their demeanor, I surmised the brothers shared an ironic amusement at their parents’ idiosyncratic present, but their girlfriends appeared excited to be there. One man, who had attended before, was returning with his 12-year-old grandson. Then there was Gary, for whom this class was a birthday gift.

Gary — a stocky man with a snowy white goatee and shiny bald head — wore a U.S. Navy warship ball cap, orange Harley-Davidson shirt, khaki shorts, and white sneakers. Gary’s wife, Nancy, explained how her husband had been reluctant to come.

“I found out about the class online and thought it would be a cool gift,” she said. Because he was “iffy” about attending, Nancy had offered Gary’s ticket to their 18-year-old granddaughter. But in the end, Gary ended up wanting it back. “The more I thought about it, the cooler it got,” he said, and then went on to reminisce about his close encounter with an eagle during a recent cruise to Anchorage, Alaska.

“He loves eagles,” Nancy said, which came as no surprise: loving eagles was as American as everything else about this charming couple, down to the collection of “God and Country” bumper stickers coating the back of their truck, which I’d followed up the twisty road.

Disharoon, a willowy woman with shoulder-length blond hair, greeted everyone and determined who was there to participate and who was there to observe. While she checked off names and collected payments, Sellinger — a sporty outdoorsman type whose prominent nose is reminiscent of his feathered friends — retrieved two birds from their “giant hoods,” or the individual boxes in which they travel.

He introduced us to the birds: a Lanner falcon named Habibi (which means “friend and beloved” in Arabic); and a Harris’s hawk named Shanti Maria. Shanti means “peace” in Hindi, and Maria was for his late stepmother Mary. Sellinger and Disharoon currently keep six birds — three Harris’s hawks, the Lanner falcon, a yellow-headed vulture, and a red-tailed hawk: all their names have been appropriated from foreign languages, most of them evocative of peace, love, and energy.

I wondered if all falconers had significant and worldly names for their birds, but Sellinger says this isn’t the case. “I know one guy who names every bird Fred. We [chose these names] because we have fun with it, and these birds are extremely meaningful to us; they need to have meaningful names.”

By trade, Disharoon is an artist and metalsmith whose custom-designed jewelry can be found in around 80 boutique stores around the country. Her latest collection, inspired by her “deep passion for feathered creatures and falconry,” is called Take Flight. But it wasn’t until she met Sellinger that she adopted falconry.

“I went with my girlfriend to share a glass of wine and watch the sunset, and Kirk was there, flying with Shanti,” Disharoon remembers. “And of course, I’m a yoga teacher and yoga practitioner, so when he called out, ‘Om, Shanti!’ and this hawk came soaring out and lands on his glove, I’m, like, ‘Oh, who’s that guy?’” Shortly after they met, Disharoon accompanied Sellinger on a hunting excursion. That was the day Shanti caught her first rabbit and the day Sellinger graduated to become a general falconer. It takes at least seven years to become a master falconer, which is the top tier of falconry’s three ranks. Sellinger is still a general, and Disharoon is an apprentice.

Falconry is the most highly regulated hunting sport in the United States, and all native raptors are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. By law, all falconry apprentices must work with a sponsor, or someone who is willing to teach the art of falconry, free of charge, for two years.

“It can be hard to find somebody that will sponsor you,” says master falconer Kim Caldwell. “Many falconers have little time to do what they do, and for some people, that’s their time alone.” Caldwell — an athletic, fresh-faced blonde with the sort of perma-tan one can only get from years spent outdoors — has been an animal training supervisor at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park since 2002. Before that, she trained and managed the free-flight bird show at SeaWorld. As a young girl, she volunteered at a pet store near her Northern California home. “If I cleaned the cages, they let me play with the puppies,” she remembers. “By the time I was nine, I was helping to run the store.”

Caldwell’s father, who worked for IBM at the time, recognized his daughter’s dedication to animals and helped her obtain a volunteer gig at a bird show.

“I wasn’t into birds of prey, per se, I was just into anything animal. I remember the first day I walked in and looked at the turkey vulture and golden eagle. It was not what I was expecting and I just fell in love with raptors.” It was then, at 12 years of age, that Caldwell first learned about falconry.

“To see these animals hunt and do what they do — the physical nature of it — is just beautiful,” she says. “To see a peregrine falcon chase and catch a duck, it’s amazing; and to see it up close, it’s like extreme bird-watching.”

There are 32 pages of federal regulations specific to falconry. Among them are stipulations regarding educational programs. The laws serve to protect the birds and prevent unethical practices. When changes are made, it is usually after rounds of consulting with practicing falconers. Caldwell says it’s because of amendments to the act in 2008 that schools such as Sky Falconry can exist, and mentions a similar new program at the park, called Birds of Prey. “It includes a Harris’s hawk, a milky eagle owl, a Lanner falcon, and an East African crowned crane,” she explains. “People can go off into a quiet corner and interact with the birds and watch them fly, throw food up in the air and watch them catch it.” The two-hour program costs $80, not including admission to the park.

Falconers can make money with their sport, within a strict set of rule. “We can’t just do picture time; we have to have a minimum of 30 to 35 minutes of educational program,” Sellinger explains. Without rules, he adds, “A lot of people would be, ‘Hey, I’ll charge five dollars for a picture.’”

To prevent such enterprisers from using the animals for entertainment or easy profit, the law requires instructors to address conservation and include information about the birds’ biology and ecological roles.

One little-known but valuable service provided by some falconers is abatement. Falconry-based bird abatement is an eco-friendly way to rid farms, landfills, and airports of nuisance bird species, such as pigeons or seagulls. The Hotel del Coronado has been known to use falconers to keep pesky birds away from guests. At the zoo’s Safari Park, bothersome birds include crows, ravens, herons, and egrets. “They come into our restaurant areas, but it’s a pretty low-level issue; we can mitigate it by encouraging guests not to feed them,” Caldwell says. She’s just happy she no longer has to deal with seagulls, as she did when she managed the bird show at SeaWorld. “SeaWorld doesn’t sell hot dogs specifically because the seagulls were so aggressive, they’d pull them right out of people’s mouths.”

The presence of a raptor is enough to keep most other birds away. But with gulls, falconers need to work harder. “Seagulls are really smart — they can tell time,” Caldwell says. “They would figure out that the falconer comes at 9 a.m., is there for an hour or so, and then doesn’t come back all day.”

In the wild, raptors fly an average of 20 minutes a day (and up to four hours during mating season). “You may be able to have your bird flying for half an hour, but you’re not going to be out there for eight hours flying your bird,” Caldwell says. “To do [bird abatement] right is quite an investment — you need a team of sometimes up to 20 raptors, and rotate the birds all day long.” Daunting as it may seem, she adds, “It’s a great thing for a falconer to be able to do — to make a living flying his birds.”

But, as I witnessed from my living room, raptors aren’t the only aggressors in the air. Crows and hawks dislike each other a great deal. This is especially true during mating season, when there are nests to protect.

Sellinger remembers one summer when he was parahawking with Shanti near Torrey Pines. “She got chased, no joke, by 100 crows and gulls; they chased her back to UCSD, and I had to land to go back and get her,” he says. “Even when I had her on the glove, 50 crows escorted us off campus. They went from rooftop to rooftop, it was very Hitchcock — pretty crazy.”

Sellinger was able to locate Shanti thanks to the transmitter around her leg (some transmitters have a range of up to 40 miles). For those times when Shanti is nearby, she can also be located by the sound of a bell she wears attached to her other leg by a strip of leather.

The first half of Sky Falconry’s class was a lecture, during which Sellinger and Disharoon shared falconry history, biology and behavior, and raptor facts. They took turns speaking, switching back and forth with the ease of longtime collaborators.

As a word-lover, I was most interested to learn that William Shakespeare was a falconer and that we have him to thank for appropriating what were previously only falconry-specific words, such as “taming, haggard, bated,” and “gentleman.” Sellinger explains, “Gentleman means a man that can handle a female falcon. Why? Because these birds do not need you. They know how to fly, they know how to hunt; if you do not have a good working relationship with them, it’s hasta luego, buddy.”

“Fed up” is another expression derived from the sport. “Once a hawk’s ‘fed up,’” meaning she’s had enough to eat, “she doesn’t want to have anything to do with you.”

After, we learned about the major differences between falcons and hawks. Falcons fly higher, and instead of a brow ridge to shield the sun, they have dark feathers beneath their eyes that help deflect the light. Habibi was then put back in his box, leaving Shanti the hawk to star in the interactive portion of the class.

All of the birds at Sky Falconry were captive-bred. “Most sponsors require you to trap a bird in the wild,” Sellinger says. “That bird can be released back into the wild at any time. When we harvest a bird from the wild, it does not have a negative impact on the population.”

As with every aspect of falconry, the number of birds that can be trapped is regulated. Because all her time is spent with birds in captivity at the Safari Park, Caldwell keeps no birds of her own, but she is familiar with the process of trapping.

“You don’t go get a baby,” she explains. “You get a bird in the fall that has been raised by its parents, taught how to hunt, and has successfully hunted for at least a couple of weeks. If a red-tailed hawk or kestrel is alive in the trapping season, you know it’s fledged from its parents.” In the wild, only around 25 percent of raptors survive their first year. “What we’re doing by saying you can trap these two species is ensuring that these birds getting trapped are going to actually survive.”

Apprentices must possess a bird prior to applying for a falconry permit. A sponsor almost always assists if an apprentice plans to trap one. “Sponsors tend to know where the nests are,” Caldwell says. “Say it’s at Lake Hodges — a sponsor might say, I’ve been watching that nest all year, and there were four offspring, and now there are only two left. If you trap one, you’ll likely find it covered in mites and parasites and feather lice. Then you take it to the vet — I don’t know a single falconer who would throw that bird back into the wild and try to get a better one. They’d spend a week feeding the bird, cleaning it, using mite spray.” Worst-case scenario, she continues, is that the bird flies off during training and ends up back in the wild, but much healthier.

Sellinger and Disharoon live together in a house that is just a short walk from the outdoor instructional arena they fashioned. The birdhouses, or mews, are located outside near the back entrance. U.S. Fish and Wildlife regulates the kind of falconry equipment each bird handler must have. Items such as perches, leashes, bells, hoods, gloves, jesses, lures, telemetry, and housing must meet certain size and quality requirements. Sellinger estimates the initial investment per bird to be around $2000, but some falconers spend up to $9000 to set up each bird.

When I first saw the mews, I made a comment about the “bird cages,” which seemed to ruffle some feathers.

“People say, ‘Oh, they’re tethered, that’s mean,’” Sellinger tells me. “A lot of people think that we starve our birds to motivate them to hunt. No, we treat them like athletes.”

Sellinger and Disharoon weigh their birds every morning. “We want them to be on top of their game,” he says. “So that they’re not too fat to fly and not too hungry where they don’t have the energy reserves to go out to fly.”

Disharoon says they catch some flak when flying Shanti at Torrey Pines. People will say something like, “‘Oh, that’s so mean, you have a raptor tethered.’ I really think the biggest misconception is that people may interpret it as cruelty to keep a live bird in captivity, but what they don’t understand is that for us as falconers, and how falconry is practiced, is it’s your bird’s choice to continue the relationship. If they want to leave you, they’re going to.”

When it was time for Shanti to fly for us, Disharoon handed a glove to each participant. The thick leather coverings were more like gauntlets, as their primary function was to protect the hand and arm from a raptor’s sharp and strong talons (hawks have up to 500 pounds per square inch gripping power). “Not muscle power,” Sellinger clarifies. “These are ratcheting tendons, operating like zip-ties — when they land on their prey, they ratchet into them, and this will suffocate their prey as well. Sometimes the prey just simply dies out of shock.”

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Posted on

December 15, 2015