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Falconers and Falcons: Birds of a Feather

February 20, 1986|ANN JAPENGA | Times Staff Writer

LOS BANOS, Calif. — Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the center cannot hold . . . .

--William Butler Yeats

Ed Ng and his goshawk, Shadow, had gone out on a bunny hunt just before dinnertime. When she heard Ng's signal--"Hi! Hi! Hi!"--Shadow took off from the man's forearm and gave chase to a fur target.

Now it was nearly dark and no sign of Shadow. The falcon could not hear the falconer--or vice versa.

Ng and his three companions formed a grid search pattern and combed a quarter-mile of plowed field, listening for the jingle of Shadow's bell. The mud collected on their rubber boots till it felt like they were wearing ankle weights.

Shadow finally appeared silhouetted against the cloudy sky atop a bush.

"Oh come on, bird," Ng said, exasperated, as he went to retrieve her.

Some people judge the ancient sport of falconry--practiced today by about 600 licensed falconers in the state--to be a violent pastime, with its goal the bloody capture of game. But those interested only in gore soon drop out of the sport, say its practitioners. Those who stay with it find that keeping a bird of prey requires more patience at times than raising a strong-willed child.

Disappeared for Six Days

Many is the time Ng, 48, has had to chase after Shadow in a cold field after dark. Once Shadow disappeared for six days, recalled Ng, who owns an ice cream store in Berkeley. (When he got her back on the sixth day, he said she was "dirty, muddy, bloody and heavy," meaning she had dined splendidly while on her own.)

He must take her out for daily flights, and feed her fresh meat every day. In order to go on vacation, he has to find another falconer who is willing to care for the bird.

"It's not like having a gun that you just put away and take out now and then, or like owning a set of golf clubs," said Brad Felger, a horseshoer from Atascadero. The bird, he said, becomes a primary partner in the falconer's life.

"If it is a slave-master relationship, we (the bird owners) are the slaves," said Larry Baines, a maintenance worker at a chemical plant in Pittsburg, Calif. Baines said he once had $2.50 in his pocket on a Thursday--a sum that had to last until payday on the following Monday. He opted to buy gas for the car so that he could take his bird out flying rather than purchase food for himself.

Baines is president of the California Hawking Club, whose members gathered recently in Los Banos for their annual get-together and field trials.

"It's not the killing of the game at all (that attracts people to hawking)," Baines said. "What we're after is the flight."

Felger agreed, saying that more often than not a falconer will release his bird's prey if it's not injured so badly that it could not survive. "There's no reason to kill everything," he said. "It's not how much game you've taken, it's the flight."

Falconers are not so different from remote-control airplane buffs in that they like the feeling of identification with an object that twists and turns so beautifully in the sky. Unlike the plane operators, they have no control over the flight. But because the bird is a living thing, they feel a connection to the vessel that no remote-control pilot can. Baines said that the thrill of watching his bird make a perfect flight is like seeing his son hit a home run in a ballgame.

Those falconers who came to Los Banos said that their animals are supremely well taken care of, so much so that they're better off than they would be in the wild. Young raptors confront numerous hazards such as predators, insecticides and falls from the nest. In the wild, mortality is as high as 70% for birds of prey in their first year of life; in captivity, that figure drops to less than 10%.

Dedicated to Birds

State Department of Fish and Game spokesman Andy Cortez said that strict regulations help ensure that, "The people that do finally get through all the obstacles are very dedicated to their birds."

Applicants for a falconry license must take a written exam covering raptor biology, care, literature and laws and regulations. They must find a falconer at the master or general level (one with at least two years' experience) who will sponsor them. The beginning falconer also must provide a cage, or mew, that meets federal standards.

Those who disregard regulations are subject to a $1,000 fine, six months' in jail, or both. The rules are intended first of all to protect the wild raptor population from depletion by falconers. "The second concern is the bird itself," Cortez said. "They're not easy to care for, they require a lot of time."

A wild hawk perched on a telephone pole beside Box Car Road near the Central California town of Los Banos. Crunching on the fresh kill in its beak, the hawk didn't seem to notice the procession passing on the muddy road beneath him.

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