Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Passage Peregrines

Thanks to Rebecca for sending news from the USFWS on their final decision–a long time coming–to allow a limited take of first-year migrant (a.k.a. in falconry, "passage") peregrines.

From the Service memo:

"...American peregrine falcon populations continue to grow in the U.S.,especially in the West. The northern, or Arctic, peregrine falcon was delisted in 1995, and recent migration counts (2003-2006) indicate that the population remains healthy," according to Service Director H. Dale Hall.

"By allowing falconers to capture birds only in specific areas and at specific times, the Service can guarantee their removal would have no significant impact on the population. The majority of peregrine falcons that migrate from North America to Central and South America (mostly Arctic and northern American peregrines) migrate along the Atlantic coast and over the Gulf of Mexico. However, many other peregrines in the eastern U.S. and southeastern Canada do not migrate far south. The FEA concludes that any take allowed is unlikely to negatively affect populations of peregrine falcons in North America or Greenland."

On the heels of recent moves to liberalize some aspects of the federal falconry regulations, this brings us further into a very interesting time to be a falconer in the US.

These not-unrelated developments stem from the hard work of many people over several decades and reflect two important facts recognized by the Service and documented in the scientific literature: the practice of falconry has no significant impact on raptor populations, and those populations are healthy, being either stable or increasing across their ranges.

Of course, most of the species used in American falconry were never threatened (common birds such as red-tailed hawks and prairie falcons), but the peregrine was a special case, both highly regarded as a trained hawk and, by the middle of the 20th century, vanishing in the wild. Its story of alarming decline and carefully charted recovery has iconic status. As an example of how widespread use of an environmentally persistent pesticide can affect animals far removed from its target, the peregrine's story will be textbook fodder for years to come.

That US falconers will have some opportunity to resume this age-old (but usually brief) relationship with the passage peregrine is a source of great excitement for many. There are numerous falconers still practicing who remember trapping young peregrines on beaches along the Eastern seaboard and the Gulf Coast. These birds were almost all "borrowed" for a single season, flown at snipe, dove and ducks through their first winter of life and then released or simply lost by springtime.

Today's commonplace use of radio telemetry will allow more of these birds to be kept for subsequent seasons. How this will affect the annual harvest of passage peregrines by the very small number of qualified falconers remains to be seen.

While in my personal falconry I admire the way hawks mature over several seasons, and I tend to retain the same bird from year to year, I would like to know some falconers will continue to pursue the traditional (that is, rather fleeting and tenuous) relationship between human and the bird called "wandering falcon."

My friend Eric will certainly try his hand at flying a passage peregrine someday. He usually flies his passage merlins for a single season, enjoying both their fall trapping and spring release, as well as their wintertime cooperation in the field.

In the weeks immediately following their release, Eric's merlins typically stay in the vicinity of his home fields, continuing to hunt with him while at complete liberty; he calls this special period "the post season." I consider it a remarkable example of cross species trust and understanding, and a testament to the mutual benefit of the falconer/raptor relationship. But at some point, usually when the winds have shifted to the south and avifauna of all kinds have begun to move north to their breeding grounds, Eric's passage falcons depart for good.

I think my friend would be satisfied, and honored, to share the same sort of life with a long series of first-time migrant peregrines. I'm looking forward to hearing his stories.

(Eric with passage female merlin, 2008)


Ken Chiacchia said...

Fascinating. I have a request for what may be an unusual reason -- can you point me to sources on passage birds and their relationships with people?

And here's the reason: I write science fiction, and one of my alien worlds contains an intelligent species that has developed a co-hunting relationship with a (non-flying) predator. I'd been using humans and dogs as a model, but now that I read your post I realize that passage birds would be a much more interesting and maybe more apt model -- in addition to the fact that both species are more bird-like than human-like (think what a Velociraptor would be if it developed intelligence), I always had the idea of the predator being more semi-feral than domesticated.

Ken Chiacchia

batwrangler said...

The pair of peregrines that nests at the Brady Sullivan Tower in Manchester, NH are year-round residents, fwiw.

Matt Mullenix said...


There is a lot of good writing about the relationships between falconers and their semi-wild raptor partners. But not a lot of it reaches into the "mainstream" literature. Steve's writing (some of it available in the navigation bar to the left) contains a lot of good stuff along these lines, and you might want to start with Eagle Dreams for descriptions of man/eagle/horse/dog partnerships that have survived thousands of years in central Asia.

More specific to passage peregrines, there is the book The Rites of Autumn by Dan O'Brien. I'm not sure it's still in print but was widely available not too many years ago. In Rites, Dan describes his season-long quest to hunt with and rehabilitate an injured passage peregrine, travelling with the bird south across the continent over the fall and winter months to mimic the bird's natural migratory route.

Matt Mullenix said...


Several populations of peregrines are traditioanlly non-migratory in the US. The population most likely to be migrating along the US eastern and southern coasts are Arctic peregrines (F.p.tundrius), a population of falcons that was by many estimates never endangered and has been down-listed for years now.

The USFWS plan for a passage peregrine harvest will target these birds in particular by restricting take to places and times of the year when these birds are most likely to be encountered. It is (purposefully) unlikely that any year-round resident falcons will be taken during a passage peregrine harvest as it's constructed.

Heather Houlahan said...

Ken should ask his wife first. This is a general rule never followed.

Ken, we have one of Steve's books on this subject (falconry, not passage birds in particular) here now. Which is your incentive for unpacking your office so I can find it.

Good little SAR dog handlers might find a book by TH White in their stockings, if they play their cards right.

Matt Mullenix said...

Ken you better talk to your wife!

(Correction: Dan's peregrine, Dolly, in Rites was not technically a passage bird but rather one injured while being raised for release in a hacking project. But otherwise the recommendation stands.)

mdmnm said...

For those of us who know nothing about falconry, "Rites of Autumn" is a great book and has lots of information about the handling of passage peregrines. I'm glad to read that it sat well with a falconer like Matt.

Steve Bodio said...

Ken: email me at "ebodio at gilanet dot com" for more thoughts.

Passagers are better mannered and better hunters but wary. As Libby says they know how to be birds.

Matt Mullenix said...

Mike, I admire O'Brien's writing ("Equinox" was also enjoyable) for its quality, and also the fact that he is among few falconers (Steve being another one) whose writing on the sport has reached a wide, general audience.

Mark Churchill said...

I heartily second the endorsements of Dan's writing—Steve's, too. We might also point Ken toward some accounts of coursing with cheetahs. Others here probably know that literature better, but the Craighead brothers' Life With an Indian Prince (Archives of Falconry edition) springs to mind. Also David Quammen's essay "The Beautiful and Damned" in The Flight of the Iguana.

Rachel Dickinson said...

Dan O'Brien's books were my first introduction to falconry. They're beautifully written and really got me to understand what the relationship might be like between a falconer and a bird.

Rachel Dickinson