Dinner on the fly

Falconing in Alaska poses some unusual challenges

Posted: Sunday, April 27, 2003

Falconers in Alaska face some unusual perils. Falconers hunt with trained raptors, but in Alaska, sometimes the hunter becomes the prey.

"In one case a bald eagle caught, killed and ate one of my birds, a peregrine falcon," said Juneau falconer Ron Clarke.

Clarke is one of about 45 people in Alaska who practice the ancient sport of falconry, a hunting partnership between a human and a raptor. It combines the birds' natural abilities and instincts with taming and training. Raptors are born to hunt, but their prowess improves tremendously with experience.

Clarke started training and hunting with falcons in 1973 when he was in high school in Minnesota. He's had dozens of birds during the past 30 years, and lived and hunted in Montana, Fairbanks and Juneau. In Southeast Alaska he hunts on the open tide flats, targeting ducks in the fall and crows in the spring.

"It's different every time you go out," he said. "Sometimes they chase gulls and sometimes gulls chase them. Any time you put a bird up, there's 80 different variables at work. It's an endlessly fascinating subject."

Clarke has a gyrfalcon (pronounced "geer-falcon") and a peregrine falcon, two of the most popular birds among falconers in Alaska. Training a raptor to come to a whistle and perch on your arm or gloved fist starts with conditioning, he said. Hand-feeding the bird when it's very young teaches it to associate the falconer with food.

"They respond to reward," Clarke said. "They don't really understand punishment. You reward them for doing the right thing."

When Clarke hunts, he fastens a tiny radio transmitter to the bird to help him locate it if they get separated. Usually, the bird hunts within sight and calling distance.

When a falcon spots a duck, it typically will try to climb above it and then descend in a powerful dive. Striking a bird mid-air at speeds in excess of 100 miles an hour is a very precise, high-stakes, intense process, Clarke said.

"For a wild bird, there's a fine line between getting your dinner and getting hurt, losing a bunch of feathers, maybe getting so messed up you die," he said. "The whole sport comes down to the point: Can your bird close that 18 inches between it and the quarry? That's the whole crux of the game."

If the aerial strike doesn't kill the prey outright, the falcon rides it the ground and breaks its neck. With the prey on the ground, it's up to the falconer to retrieve it because the birds don't deliver.

"As soon as I have a bird on the ground, I'm running over there as fast as I can," Clarke said. "Eagles don't miss much - they see a kill and think, 'I can beat that guy up and steal his duck, and maybe take him too.' "

Alaska is a tough place to be a falconer, said state wildlife biologist Kim Titus. Before he moved to Juneau, Titus was an avid falconer and flew red-tailed and Harris' hawks, which hunted cottontails, jackrabbits, pheasants and ducks.

Titus said up north, daylight declines rapidly in the fall, so the season is short. In Southeast, rain, snow, wind and fog can make it hard to fly and keep track of birds.

"In Southeast, bald eagles will nail your birds," Titus said. "Trained hawks and falcons are somewhat tame, which makes them especially vulnerable."

He said there's an important distinction between falconers and folks who keep and rehabilitate injured birds. Falconers hunt with their birds, so they need a hunting license and must follow game seasons and regulations.

In Alaska, falconers are permitted to hunt with 12 species of raptors, ranging from tiny merlins and kestrels to big golden eagles and red-tailed hawks. Beginning falconers are restricted to just one of four species of raptors. As a falconer gains experience and skill, he or she is permitted a wider variety of raptors and may keep up to three birds.

The state Department of Fish and Game and the federal Fish and Wildlife Service work together to regulate falconry and issue permits for capturing, raising and keeping birds of prey in Alaska. State biologists inspect the mews - the housing where raptors are kept - and test and qualify falconers.

Clarke said gyrfalcons are prized because they are smart, powerful and successful hunters.

"Golden eagles also learn fast," Clarke said. "Gyrs live 25, 30, maybe 35 years, and goldens may live 50 years, so it's not surprising they can be pretty bright."

In traditional falconry, gyrfalcons and golden eagles were reserved for the highest nobility. Falconry dates to about 700 B.C. in Japan, China and the Middle East. It spread to Europe around 400 A.D. Subarctic raptors such as gyrfalcons were captured in Norway, Greenland and Iceland and sold for fantastic sums to Asian emperors and European nobility.

Falconry was widely practiced in Europe between 500 and 1600 A.D., but strict laws regulated who could own different species. Peregrine falcons were for kings, earls and dukes, goshawks for mid-level nobility and clergy, and the small sparrow hawks and kestrels for low-ranking clergy and commoners.

Clarke obtained his gyrfalcon from a licensed breeder in Fairbanks. His peregrine falcon was captured in the wild on the Sagavanirktok River on Alaska's North Slope.

A few years ago, Clarke watched in horror as an eagle chased his gyrfalcon down to the ice on Mendenhall Lake. Clarke raced onto the frozen lake and successfully rescued his traumatized but uninjured bird.

Another time a flock of ravens near Sunny Point turned the tables on his peregrine falcon.

"He saw a couple ravens and headed toward them," Clarke said. "The peregrine's a little guy, and suddenly all these ravens started rising up out the weeds. They can be dangerous. If they could've driven him to the ground, they could've killed him."

"That's how it goes out there - everybody eats somebody. If it's smaller than you, you eat it. If you're smaller, you run from it," Clarke said.

Former Empire reporter Riley Woodford works for the Division of Wildlife Conservation at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. For comments or questions, e-mail riley_woodford@fishgame.state.ak.us.

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