Tim Gallagher has been a falconer since the 7th grade and after referencing that Kennedy was in the White House, he admits it’s been about 49 years. His first bird, Rowdy (named after the Clint Eastwood character in Rawhide), was an eyas tiercel American Kestrel he flew in Orange County, California. (Although every thing else in Orange County is named after John Wayne…) He points to Jeff Sipple as a falconry “big brother” since his early teens –even though Tim’s about a foot taller. Tim makes a living editing Living Bird magazine, the flagship publication of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, but many of us know him from his books and freelance writing. His writing has taken him on varied adventures, most recently to Mexico in search of the imperial woodpecker, and has introduced him to many interesting people, including Chris Carter of X Files fame.(Although Tim won’t admit to having an “I Want to Believe” poster in his office.) During the moult Tim might be found fly-fishing, fencing or trying to decide whether he should relax with red wine, Scotch, a Negra Modelo or a Guinness… chances are though, that he is drinking coffee.
1) So first up as per my standard, partial disclosure: We have mutual friends, but I mainly know you from your memoir, Falcon Fever: A Falconer in the 21st Century, which I loved. The book details how falconry changed and shaped your life, but there is always a journey in the writing as well. How did writing the book shape your recent life or your views about yourself and your falconry?
Writing Falcon Fever was an interesting process and in many ways very therapeutic for me. I think I had a lot of demons plaguing me, and the writing process was like a self-exorcism of sorts. So many things came out that I’d forgotten about or had repressed for decades. I came away from writing that book feeling like a huge weight had been lifted from me, and I still feel great. I’m also happy that I was able to focus on some of the people I knew growing up—people who did great things in falconry that no one knew about. I’ve had several East Coast falconers tell me that they had no idea what a hotbed of falconry innovation California was in the 1960s and ’70s, and I was glad I was able to document that time and place.
2) I have always thought there is a desire if not an overwhelming need in all falconers for adventure and the exploration of things undiscovered. Your involvement in the search for an iconic bird thought to be extinct and the subsequent book, The Grail Bird: The Rediscovery of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker was surely that sort of adventure. What is it about falconry and thrill-seeking in the wilderness?
Actually, I don’t see falconry as a monolithic culture that attracts only people who are very similar. There are all kinds of different people in this sport. I think that’s part of its appeal to me. In terms of the love of adventure scale, I’d say that falconers range all the way from shy, timid, danger-adverse dweebs to the most over-the-top, death-defying, adrenaline junkies. I’m probably somewhere in the middle. I really never go looking for dangerous things to do. I started doing things like climbing around on high cliffs and cruising along the coast of Greenland in small boats because that’s where the falcons I wanted to study lived. I’ve never had a desire to climb up the face of El Capitan or something like that just for a kick. There has to be an added reason, like an interesting bird that I can’t see any other way. Same thing with the ivory-billed woodpecker. The only way I had a chance of finding one was to spend a lot of time in their habitat. It’s funny, I used to think floating down the bayou among the crackers and the cottonmouths seemed a little scary—mostly because I hadn’t spent much time in the South (and I’d seen “Deliverance” and “Easy Rider” when I was growing up!). But the danger level took such a quantum leap upward in my recent imperial woodpecker project in Mexico that everything else now seems tame by comparison. I was traveling through the high country of the Sierra Madre, interviewing people in remote villages who might have seen the bird or remembered it from when they were young. So little is known about the species that anything I can find out about it adds significantly to the scientific record. And, of course, if I did happen to find a living one, it would be one of the most incredible ornithological discoveries I can think of. But the danger level is very high. An incredible wave of violence and lawlessness has been sweeping across Mexico, and it’s now reaching well into the mountains. The last time I was in the Sierra, it seemed more like Afghanistan than Mexico. A couple of people in a nearby Tepehuan village had been murdered, another had been abducted for ransom, and three houses had been deliberately burned. People were walking around with AK-47s. The villagers were fleeing into the woods. And the “friendly” drug lord who had gotten us up there and was supposed to escort us out didn’t show up at our rendezvous point, so we had to drive out alone and unarmed on a dirt road that was in such bad shape you could only drive three or four miles an hour in some places—a perfect situation for an ambush. Anyway, there’s no way I would get into a situation like that just for the thrill of it. I’d like nothing more than for the Sierra Madre to be as safe to travel in as the Adirondacks, so I could do my research in peace.
3) Cornell University, where you work, is where the Peregrine Fund was born. (Literally. Initially it was a fund, money set aside for peregrine research in the dismal years of DDT.) Falconers played a huge role in that success story. Where do you see the importance of the “passionate few” in modern conservation?
Well, the passionate few are always the ones that make things happen. They’re like society’s conscience. Most people go along day by day, earning a living, trying to get by, and not paying attention to what’s going on outside them. You need to have passionate people raising their voices and pointing out the problems affecting the world environment. I’m so glad that falconers did so much to help the peregrine falcon—writing to congressmen, contributing money, and sometimes giving their birds to captive-breeding projects to help the species. These are things I always point out emphatically whenever someone says anything negative about falconry. We have paid our dues for raptor conservation.
4) You are also, of course, an avid bird watcher. While all falconers are “bird watchers” most don’t take it to the level of say, pursuing a “big year”. What are the parallels and differences between the rabid bird watcher and life-long falconer?
Well, that’s an interesting question, because most hard-core falconers and rabid birders probably see themselves as polar opposites, but it’s just not true. They are very much cut from the same cloth. I’ve been involved with both falconers and birders for decades, and I think I have a unique perspective on this. I don’t, however, consider myself at all a typical birder. I think most birders are primarily interested in the outer bird—they are masters at learning how to identify as many birds as possible through visual characteristics, behavior, and sound. It’s what they live for. Avid birders also love to amass lists of what they see, and seeing species new to them is one of their greatest joys. I’m not like that. I’d say I’m much more interested in the inner bird—I want to know everything about the natural history and behavior of the birds that interest me. I guess I really want to know them—and I also at some level want them to know me, hence the falconry. I’m very interested in individual birds, the differences that exist between them in terms of intelligence and adaptability, and yes—though it’s anthropomorphic—their personalities. There are huge differences between individuals of a single species.
But to go back to your question, the similarity between hard-core falconers and birders is that they share the same level of intensity about their given passions. I guess the difference between them is that birders are lookers and falconers are doers.
5) You have travelled just about everywhere between your job and your joys. Let’s say you have to settle down in one place for the rest of your life to fly hawks and enjoy the view. Where am I sending you?
You know, I spent so many of my early years moving to different places, always being the new kid in school and having to make new friends and build a new life for myself, that I never felt like I had a home. I used to envy people who still had friends they’d met in kindergarten. Now I’ve been living in the Ithaca area for 20 years, and I think for the first time in my life I feel rooted, in a good way. I like the fact that my wife and all of my children were born in Ithaca. Although it may not be as great for longwing falconry as many other places in North America, it’s definitely a nice place to live. I think the ideal setup for me if I ever get to retire—and that’s a big if; I’ve got one daughter starting at Cornell next year and a couple more kids waiting in the wings—would be to migrate to Nebraska and other parts west for a few months a year with a cadgeful of falcons and get my falconry fix that way. Then, like Odysseus, I’d come home to Ithaca.
This was great, Tim! I love the idea of the “inner bird” and “outer bird” obsession. I think from now on in a varied group of bird lovers I’m going to start conversations asking, “Are you an inny or an outty?”
In all seriousness, thank you for such thoughtful and interesting answers. I’m really looking forward to next spring’s release of your book documenting your search through Mexico for the imperial woodpecker! Let us know when Simon & Schuster has decided on a title and a release date.