There was a time when the peregrine falcon was considered a natural resource and a beloved partner to falconers. We trapped young birds on the beach during their first migration, flew them and hunted with them for a season, releasing them to return on the migration, just as wild as before. I have been told that there is nothing to compare to a beach bird and I have throughout my falconry career lamented that I would never know this for sure.
Helen, the woman I would want to be were I in the UK, wrote a beautiful post about the history of beach birds, complete with a link to the LIFE photos (bless Google for making these available). And Isaac writes of the very real possibility of passage take returning to Florida (other states are following) but with the brutal opposition with which it is being met. Please read his post and consider the arguments. (And HT to Rachel Dickinson who also linked to Helen and has a great blog.)
I am just a baby falconer, pushing 40 and a Master, but a youngster in our continuum. Yet I have always lamented the loss of the passage peregrine.
From my memoir, LIFT:
“Falconry is a religion and at the center of falconry is a holy war for the peregrine.
“Fifty years ago peregrines were considered vermin, to be shot on sight. Many states had bounties that made sighting the gun on narrow wings profitable. Hawks and falcons were thieves that robbed humans of fine game, fattened chickens and lofted pigeons. There were few groups of people who valued the raptor. Yet the falconers valued them more than anyone. To the falconers there was nothing more perfect than a peregrine. Then the sea change came.
“In the years before I was born falconry was nearly eradicated for the sake of the peregrine. The cosmopolitan falcon had remained a stead-fast beloved to the falconer for more than three thousand years, but during the years of my childhood these birds nearly disappeared from North America. The falconers were just as mystified as the conservationists and then horrified when the blame was placed on their sport, on the few that loved them the most. Falconers were named nest-robbing soulless pirates.
“The North American Falconers Association formed a committee “for the preservation of falconry” and waged a war for their rights. The falconers saved their art, keeping it legal, but lost the right to trap a peregrine. In order to preserve the privilege to hunt with raptors, we forfeited the wild take of Falco peregrinus.
“Birds were no longer trapped on the beach to fly a single season and released on the migration. Eyasses were no longer tenderly tucked in a jacket pocket to be rappelled down the sheer face of cliff eyeries. Yet the falconers were determined. If they couldn’t borrow them from the wild, then they would breed them. And the falconers succeeded where the scientists did not. I didn’t know it when I was eight years-old, but the falcon on my roof was a miracle of desire.
“Then the peregrine began to resurge as a wild population and burgeon as a captive-bred resource.
“When I was in high school the long-wingers, falconers who preferred the flights of the long-winged falcons had their choice of flighted companions from many different breeding projects even if they weren’t allowed to borrow them from the wild. As the captive-bred peregrine became more accessible, surprisingly, the war resurged as well.
“Scientists didn’t believe that falconers could be successful breeding the falcons when others had failed. Surely, the falconers were laundering wild birds through fake breeding projects that couldn’t possibly be producing young.
“Across the United States Fish and Wildlife Agents knocked on the doors of 60 falconers. Search warrants in hand they tore through homes, interrogated falconers, and confiscated their falcons. Described as “clumsy, clueless, ham-fisted jack-booted storm troopers” They turned the falconry community upside-down and heralded the beginning of Operation Falcon.
“Some of the falcons confiscated were returned after lengthy arduous and expensive court battles. Others perished. Our government was convinced that falconers must be passing off wild birds as captive bred young in their breeding projects despite the lack of proof. Tried in the media, we were all dubbed international falcon smugglers.
“There was little truth to the accusations. In fact the trial revealed that the main perpetrator was an undercover agent supplied with illegal birds by the government. He had set about entrapping whomever he could snare. Again the falconers fought for their rights, for the sake of their love of the peregrine. Again they won, but the damage was done. Federal agents, state authorities and worse, the public had tried the falconers in the media and proclaimed them wildlife criminals.
“The peregrine is off the endangered list. Young wild birds are now abundant and pester our trained falcons in the field. We long for the short-term company of a truly wild peregrine but wonder if we’ll ever be allowed to trap them again. It’s doubtful.”
I was wrong to be doubtful, the possibility of the peregrine again being considered a resource is real and upon us but met with fantastic opposition. To touch, to engage, to understand is the future of our wildlife resources. There is no reason, scientific or even emotional, that the peregrine should not be a partner again to those of the mere 4,000 of us licensed falconers (a fraction of whom fly peregrines), falconers who wish to worship peregrines as their humble servants once again.
This level of passion inspires, it spreads, it is the passion of the few who make the difference. Please support us. Florida is a new beginning.
Please send comments by April 15th to: peregrine@MyFWC.com