Returning one of the fastest animals on the planet to her freedom in the sky
It has been a life-long fascination and dream of mine to apprentice to a falconer. These Peregrine falcons and the incredible relationships they have with their falconer activate my curiosity, which is born of wanting to fly, of wanting to know what it is like to be of service to a wild creature and perhaps it would offer insight into the philosophical quandary of what freedom really means and whether it can exist within the confines of captivity; much like being alive in the 21st century.
On Saturday 12th March 2016 this dream became a reality when I was invited to attend the flying of the peregrine falcons of Dr Adrian Lombard and members of the Boland Falconry Club.The biggest event on the flying agenda was the returning of a wild peregrine falcon to freedom after she had been rehabilitated under the care of Fancois Breed with the help of Johan Botes. Johan has been a falconer for 28 years and can identify any raptor in the air up to a distance of 1km. I asked him how. “You first need to look at their wings; are they short winged, broad winged or long winged and do they hover,” were his clues to me.
The falcon had been named Florence. She was rescued from a garden as a result of a phone call to Eagle Encounters. Severe bruising to her wing (the impact turned it green; so much so they thought it was gangrenous) meant she could not fly. The injury was a result of smashing into a fence. One can only imagine the cellular damage of colliding with a fence at approximately 100 miles an hour to a bird that weighs no more than 800 grammes: the fact she was sitting patiently on her perch, hooded and alert, was nothing short of a miracle.
It has taken three months for her wing to heal and during the process she was given “falconry” training to restore her ability to fly and get her to hunting fitness again. Fully recovered she was now able to hunt for herself and today she would be set free. I was a guest of Dr Adrian Lombard, President of the International Association for Falconry and Conservation of Birds of Prey (Belgium) and who features in the extraordinary book:
The Art of Falconry by Patrick Morel. Published by Medina Publishing https://medinapublishing.com/product/the-art-of-falconry/ , this wonderfully-illustrated reference book sums up the global picture of falconry throughout history and across continents, documenting the diverse cultural styles of falconry and the falconers who have been captivated by these birds and who dedicate their time to being with them as they hunt and hack (play) in the skies.
Dr Lombard told me he had been apprenticed to a falconer when he was still a boy growing up in Zimbabwe and, over his lifetime, his knowledge and instinctual insight into their world has enabled him to read the nuances of these birds; each one individual in their nature and sharing a solitary existence of exceptional beauty and grace.
During our journey towards the farmlands and mono-culture nightmare that is South Africa’s wheat producing Swartland, he talked about how peregrines have an enormous attrition rate – 70 to 80% in their first year of life; one of the major causes of death – electrocution and collisions with power lines. Then there is starvation to contend with as the use of insecticides and poisons and the removal of biodiversity corridors kill off insect populations that the smaller birds depend on for food. If they starve it is self-evident that the birds of prey starve too. Everything is connected.
Poison is not necessary to control vermin when apex predators are there to do the job. Dr Lombard told me of the research that proves owl boxes on farms help reduce the spend on poisons by notable amounts. Some big supermarket chains in the Eastern Cape have worked this out and now ‘employ’ owls to keep the vermin out of the storage factories, with great success.
Due to the lethal impact of power lines on birds of prey which has been documented and well researched there is a Motion for a “Recommendation”, led by the International Association for Falconry and the Conservation of Birds of Prey, that will be tabled at the September 2016 IUCN World Conservation Congress to be held in Hawai’i. It will call upon “governments and power companies to ensure that all new power infrastructure complies with measures to prevent bird electrocution and collision”. It will recommend “adequate Environmental Assessments (SEA, EIA) for any planned electricity infrastructure to identify, and minimise through location, bird safe design and construction measures, potential electrocution and collision impacts on birds” and further call upon “responsible financial institutions to adopt appropriate policies to ensure that power companies are required to minimise impacts on birds through planning, select appropriate location, to implement adequate EIAs, to utilise safe designs and employ effective monitoring as part of the terms of funding”.
There is also a call for collaboration amongst stakeholders: “relevant governments, power companies, financial institutions and others to liaise with each other and with the Secretariat and Energy Task Force of the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS) to ensure that existing and planned infrastructure which is harmful to birds is identified and is subject to urgent remediation”.
In South Africa, there was once a time when there not enough peregrine falcon chicks to validate permit applications and there was a time when it was out of the question to even get a permit. But today the results of the efforts to rebuild the population are taking effect and the release of Florence is a testament to these efforts and the skill of falconers who want to see these birds live on.
One of the ways they help the species is by knowing what to do with an injured bird; fitness is key. It is no good returning a sickly or unfit bird to freedom for they will die within days.
Florence was in the company of the three other birds, Halo, Cutex and Stitch, and they had had many practice rounds together flying after the lure attached to a radio controlled plane. The plane is a highly effective device to help activate the primal chase mechanism within them. Halo flew first and as she took off after the bait I found myself craning my neck to focus on a spot way away in the distance, up in the clear aquamarine morning sky. She took the lure after a good few minutes of soaring and swooping, demonstrating a laser beam precision in catching her target.
I was reminded of a cheetah kill I had witnessed, and watching the cheetah take off from her seated position to bring down an impala at breakneck speed. But Halo’s feat would have made the cheetah look like a static image; it was off the charts in terms of a physical feat as this small bird flew almost languidly off the glove, beating her wings into a version of a gallop until she was in sight to footing (catching) her prey.
But not everyone is amazed by falcons; some pigeon fanciers will shoot them out of the sky with air guns and around 50 hawks were brought to the rescue centre last year for those injuries alone. And those were the ones that were found.
Johan Botes joked with me that keeping a falcon is like having an extra child in your house. This is not a part-time hobby. This is a vocation based on thousands of years of craft; but a true falconer will admit they remain “amateurs in the best sense of the word”. Dr Lombard remarked that “because of their love of raptors and their engagement with nature, they are keen observers of nature and of changes in the environment. They are also able to interact with the general public and advocate the protection of raptors and good conservation practices, both in the urban and agricultural environments. Within the urban environment, hunting falconers target invasive species such as minahs, starlings and feral pigeons. Falconers in South Africa and around the world contribute in a variety of ways including pest control (birds and rats), aircraft-bird strike mitigation and, particularly, in a wide range of projects aimed at raptor conservation.”
I was learning so much so quickly on this early Saturday morning. I heard horror stories of how a peregrine was crushed in front of her falconer when a taxi swerved to run her over as she settled on her prey; a tragic unforeseen accident. Another was smashed mid-flight by a passing truck. I also heard how the Lanner falcon is so clever that it trains its falconer, not the other way around.
It was time now; all the other birds had flown and were resting. Graham (who had been apprenticed to Dr Lombard as an adolescent) raised Florence on his glove as Frans (a fellow falconer) began to cut the jesses. She flexed her yellow talons as if sensing she would not return to this glove that helped her heal again. They readied the plane and the last offering of prey she would take from them. Her hood was removed and she looked around her as the plane steadily rose in height. Then, unexpectedly, she flew off and sat on a fence pole, ignoring the call for the last dance. I was told this was because she had already set up her own ways of hunting. But as we watched, waiting expectantly, she soon clocked the plane and flew up in pursuit of the lure.
As her wings beat the air and took her high into the sky, I felt I was looking into the depths of the ocean instead of the sky above. As above so below. I never knew my eyes could focus to a thousand feet, nor did I know the peregrine falcon is the fastest creature on the planet, reaching speeds of up to 180 miles an hour. She twisted her wings and in one darting swoop made contact with the prey and then settled in the wheat stubble to eat. We were watchful and thoughtful – and I am left wondering just how long she has out there.
I am conflicted – freedom versus captivity? Yet what freedom does our polluted and mindless world offer a bird whose domain is the sky with no boundaries, and yet who hardly stands a chance because of what we put in its environment and likewise, take away. We have lost our wildness to the modern consumer age and are removing the last vestiges of wildness for commercial ‘reasons’. You may get a token experience with a ‘wild’ animal but you will never experience its wildness.
This art form is a whole other story about conservation and survival. I experienced the fine line between ownership and custodianship. I felt the powerful surge of wonder course through me as I watched first Halo fly, then Cutex, then Stitch, and finally Florence’s flight to freedom.
On the drive back with Dr Lombard, his feisty dogs in the back and Halo on her perch I reflected on what I had seen and heard and my shouting, gleeful-glee each time I witnessed the bird’s wild skill in the sky. I thought of fragile power and what humans are doing in their collective and conscious and unconscious acts to destroy the miraculous creatures that make up our natural world. In the parting comment by Frans’s eleven-year-old daughter (who is already an experienced apprentice) she told me she thinks “nature is amazing” and had full faith Florence would catch her next meal by lunch time. I truly hope she did.
With thanks to Dr Lombard and his fellow falconers. What is a collective of falconers I asked – an ‘asylum’ they laughed; by the end of the day we agreed it was a ‘humour’. Although for me it was a jingle and a flurry.
For assistance with an injured raptor, contact Hank Chalmers of Eagle Encounters. 0824625463