NO MATTER HOW MANY TIMES HE FLIES IT, STEVE Gellman, 45, still marvels at the spectacle of the peregrine falcon, a predatory bird once revered by aristocrats and feared near extinction because of pesticide use.
"It's a bird of royalty. There's a reason for that," Gellman said.
One of three master falconers in Humboldt County, the Kneeland resident has spent countless hours with his 5-year-old hunting bird and companion, name undisclosed. But all along he's maintained his role as more of a passing keeper or caretaker than one who possesses the majestic creature. Like the other two locals, the bird biologist and woodworker by trade takes his stewardship very seriously calling it a "lifestyle," not a hobby.
When he lived in the Arcata Bottom where he hunts, there were times he'd even come home and greet his bird before his family to get in their every-other-day workouts, he recalled.
"The whole thing is to get these birds to their peak athletic ability," he said, explaining his commitment to the bird's flying and hunting frequency. Besides the exercise, he also routinely weighs the falcon to monitor its health.
Before its morning flight one recent, windy Sunday, the bird on hand rested with its signature talons on Gellman's glove, wearing its leather hood. The headpiece is intended to cover its eyes so it's not distracted.
Gellman grinned sheepishly standing alongside his truck, as he thought of how his wife has grown "tolerant" of his all-consuming passion as old as his marriage. A friend from Willits got him interested in falconry 20 years ago.
Knowing patience is a virtue in this "sport of kings," as it's called, Gellman waited for the 30 mph wind gusts to die down that morning. Though the wind often stimulates his bird's performance, he said he usually tries to fly the bird in winds between 10 and 20 mph.
Admirers of the regal bird have pointed to the bird's flying power as adding to its mystique and awe. The peregrine falcon averages about 60 mph in flight and can clock up to 200 mph from a stoop, experts say.
"It's a thing to behold," Gellman said. "Peregrines are very aerial."
Upon its swift descent, the peregrine falcon most often hits the prey with its feet during the kill. Snipes, pheasants and ducks are often the target for Gellman and his bird. To reward the falcon's return to Gellman's glove, the training veteran uses small, frozen quail he orders in bulk with the other falconers. It's thawed because eating frozen meat could kill it, he said. To get the bird's attention, he spins a cord with a lure attached.
Classic falconry combines bird and dog, in which the latter is used to point out the game, Gellman said, calling to his 8-month old pointer puppy, Jarrah. The hunting dog has so much pent-up energy, Gellman said he sometimes lets her run alongside his truck for a few miles to get her own athletic dose.
Gellman has flown several birds. But it's the peregrine's dance with its prey he calls a "beautiful painting."
"It's pretty spectacular the way the prey uses evasive maneuvers," he said, citing the science of the sport. Contrary to what human nature dictates, ducks often stay put in a group when encountering a bird in prey such as this one.
When Gellman takes out the peregrine falcon, known to nest on cliff edges and breed on the West Coast, he usually scouts out the area for other birds of prey that may pose as distractions or hazards.
Power lines, vehicles passing by or even larger predators have killed many falcons, their keepers say. So, with the rancher's permission, Gellman usually heads for the wide open fields to hunt.
They're especially vulnerable when they land on their prey, so falconers should rush over to their birds, Gellman advised. Though ponds where waterfowl are found represent ideal places to go, there's also a real danger flying them near the slough, for example.
"If it lands on the other side (with its kill), you go swimming," he said, expressing the urgency of the situation.
Gellman takes advantage of the latest technology to help track his bird, which at 14-inches from head to tail, may reduce down to a dot in the sky when released.
A transmitter attached to a bracelet on one of its legs tells Gellman where it is. Falconers can spend half the time "looking for" their birds, he said, retrieving his binoculars that windy morning.
As a flock of pigeons over a barn scrambled out of the area, Gellman felt he had a good idea of where his bird was flying.
Suddenly, he yelled, "There's my bird," with the glee of a young boy. Then, a dot in the sky swooped into view and down to his master.
"I don't like that term," Gellman said. He considers his interaction with the falcon more of a relationship based on respect, nurturance and the appreciation of the natural world, he said.
"You've got to be committed to have a good bird," he said.
FALCONRY'S SPECIAL LANGUAGE.
Needless to say, the demands of falconry weed out many wannabes. The California Hawking Club reports 800 members, and Gellman is one of them. More than 2,500 falconers are licensed in the United States and Canada, though as little as half this number are active, a published report indicates.
To get licensed, a falconer starts with a state written exam as an apprentice. California Fish and Game also inspects a facility the falconer must build to house and care for a bird for two years. A general falconer may handle two birds in the five-year period before eventually becoming a master falconer. Then, there are the falconry and hunting fees. Gellman figured he spends about $200 annually in permits.
Modest but knowledgeable, Gellman said he's always learning, honing his scouting ability he calls the "search image."
As a hunter, Gellman equates the falconer's joy in the sheer experience with the gun-toting elk hunter that tracks his target for three days and never gets in a shot. In the quiet peace of a calm morning or in contrast the pouring rain, the sport heightens his senses like no other, he explained.
IT WAS THE ADVENT OF THE FIREARM IN THE 17TH CENTURY THAT LOWERED the popularity of this ancient sport of kings dating back as far as 2000 B.C. in China.
During the early years, falconry inspired knights, soldiers, aristocrats and even Shakespeare in Macbeth.
Its rich tradition has lasted through the ages. Socially, hawking parties entertained aristocrats. Religiously, the peregrine falcon was thought to be sacred to the God of Apollo. Culturally, the unique bird of prey was revered in Japan as a symbol of victory to soldiers receiving medals of honor.
Historically, the predators have been estimated to number 8,700 pairs. But in modern times, the harsh reality of their decline and concern for their extinction from mainly pesticides now banned placed them on the Endangered Species Act list in 1973 and prompted a movement to recover their numbers.
More than 25 years later, the long-term effort has been hailed a success. Now, the federal government is preparing to "delist" them.
Soaring way beyond their recovery yardstick of 631 pairs, peregrine falcons numbered more than 1,600 breeding pairs in 1997 with thousands released in the nation's wildlands, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
That's a far cry from a population that dropped over 80 percent with dramatic declines in the 1940s and 1950s and was totally wiped out east of the Mississippi River, the agency reported. The experts also believe the birds fell to 324 nesting pairs in all of North America.
By far the universal assessment, it's the widespread restriction of the pesticide DDT "dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane" and PCB "polychlorinated bipheny" poisoning that saved the peregrine falcon. But they also had help from some old friends.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokeswoman Cindy Hoffman in Arlington, Va., singled out the nation's falconers as chief contributors to the birds' return from near extinction. If anything, falconers shared their extensive captive breeding techniques to reintroduce the species to the wild, she added.
"These people should feel so proud of themselves for their effort," Hoffman said. She points to all the falconers who relinquished their birds to programs developing breeding stocks, in the interest of their survival.
"There's no question, many people contributed to the recovery," said Brian Walton, a field biologist with the Santa Cruz Predatory Bird Research Group.
Walton, a falconer himself, said he realizes that critics may have a beef with both the bird's delisting and the falconer's relationship with the bird. Some conservationists may call falconry a "bloodsport" and captivity wrong, but Walton argues the predator behaves the same way in the natural course of its survival. Walton went on to say some biologists in some states may also object to the bird's delisting because in some isolated regions their return is not as strong.
But overall, the support has been favorable to the falconers, the delisting proposition and the efforts spurred by organizations like his.
The California-based group has cared for and released more than 800 birds into the wild using a "hacking" technique that weans birds by offering them the safety and security of an enclosure stocked with food. Walton said this process requires six weeks for a peregrine falcon to completely adapt to the wild, which takes place as far north as the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest south to San Diego and as far east as Nevada.
On a larger scale, the World Center for Birds of Prey adopted the Peregrine Fund to manage the bird's reintroduction to the wild. The Boise, Idaho-based organization has released more than 4,500 birds in its over two-decade effort.
It touted its first successful hatching with 20 young chicks in 1973, a year following the DDT ban. It's believed exposure to the pesticide caused eggshell thinning, in which many shells broke. Contributing to their demise, falcons died when they ate contaminated prey, a published report indicates.
"The significant contribution to the resurgence of the peregrine falcon was, in the early '70s, the restriction of DDT," said Robert Mesta, U.S. Fish and Wildlife endangered species biologist in Ventura, Calif. The agency has been assigned to handle the delisting come August.
Mesta said the delisting process involves developing a harvest plan that will outline new "take" guidelines for user groups like falconers. Currently, a falconer cannot take a peregrine falcon from the wild, while it sits on the endangered species list.
Plus, a 5-year monitoring program will go into affect to safeguard the falcon's unlisted status. "If we see a significant downward trend, then we could put them on an emergency list that can take place in less than a month," Mesta said.
The delisting rule will also take into account the more than 1,400 responses the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service received from all over the nation, Canada and Mexico regarding the bird's removed protection.
"They ran the gamut," Mesta said. Hundreds came from children. More complex were those brought forth by conservationist groups.
Defenders of Wildlife, a national conservationist group, calls the peregrine falcon's road to recovery a "great success story" and endorses its delisting. However, the 300,000-member organization strongly recommends the monitoring program remain "rigorous" and fully funded.
The public comment period for the peregrine falcon's removal from the ESA list ended in January, a month after the environmental legislation's 25th anniversary.
The Endangered Species Act was passed in Congress, 92-0 in the Senate and 355-4 by the House, and signed by President Nixon at a time he was ironically fending off a threat of impeachment for his role in the Watergate scandal.
The ESA assignment was nothing less than the reversal of an animal and plant extinction rate that had grown for centuries and threatened to leave future generations with a biologically impoverished world, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials stated in a report.
Some in the federal agency have referred to the peregrine falcon's delisting task as a fitting, cyclical tribute to a long-term responsibility considered monumental with the passage of one of the most aggressive pieces of environmental legislation.
At the time, the seemingly larger-than-life accomplishment with a U.S. Congress trying to balance property rights and the environment may have been as "breathtaking" as the peregrine falcon's flight.
Granted, it's a rough world for humans and animals, lawmakers and the eco-conscious have argued over the years. A majority of the birds, which can live to a ripe 20 years, die in the first year, Walton said. Still, keeping people at work during a teetering economical climate remained a top priority to lawmakers.
No matter how risky it appears to mandate permanent protection in a rough world, there are consequences in belittling the ESA, one Humboldt State University ornithology professor noted. How does one do that? If, regardless of an overwhelming recovery, species are never removed from the endangered status, the ESA list becomes arbitrary, HSU Professor and birder Luke George said.
"If the species does meet its recovery goals, we have to be honest and take them off," George said.
Like many others, George thinks the peregrine falcon is a true comeback story. He's also convinced the falconers' efforts led to the birds' "rapid" recovery, on top of the DDT restriction.
"They were one of the first groups to point out the decline," he said.
In agreement is Dave Wadsworth, one of three falconers in the county. The 43-year-old Eureka resident has recalled hearing of several "backyard" breeding projects at falconers' homes that contributed to the predator's recovery. Wadsworth goes to Ferndale with his two falcons, one black, the other all white. He took up the sport as a teenager.
"I can't imagine not doing it," he said.
Ditto, said the third falconer in the county Dan Wake of Arcata. Like Gellman, the 32-year-old likes to go to the Arcata Bottom to fly "Chance," a prairie falcon. This falcon thrives on desert terrain.
"I can't see my life without a falcon in it," Wake said, also characterizing the sport as a relationship. More than 16 years later, he said he devotes 100 percent to the "art form."
"It still amazes me how fast these birds fly," he said.
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