What’s it like to have a peregrine for a friend? Ask falconer Hans Peeters.

Hans and friend

Hans and friend

Hans Peeters is the author of Mammals of California (2004), Raptors of California (2005), and Owls of California and the West (2007), as well as American Hawking (1970) and a number of scientific papers. He is a painter as well as an ornithologist, and has contributed illustrations for several well-known field guides to North American birds and Birds of South Asia, The Ripley Guide. His paintings have been exhibited in museums worldwide and have been used for postage stamps promoting conservation. 

At 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, February 10 at CEMEX Auditorium, he is giving a (free) presentation on “Discovering Raptors.” Details and directions here.

We caught up with Hans to ask him a few questions about the raptor that so fascinated J.A. Baker – the peregrine.

Q. Tell me a little about your background with peregrines.

A.  I saw my first captive peregrine at the age of 12 at the house of a falconer in Germany. Since then, the peregrine has always been the pinnacle of falconry for me and is in fact the standard for falcons used in falconry. I flew peregrines almost continually from 1963 until 2003, although I trained other hawks and falcons as well, which of course offered comparisons. I have watched wild peregrines nearly around the world – in India, Africa, Australia, South America, and in the British Isles and Europe.

“Like a very demanding child.”

Q. What’s it like to have a peregrine for a friend?

A. Having a peregrine for a friend is rather like looking after a very demanding child.

Falcons need to be relaxed; otherwise, they damage their plumage, so valuable for flight. Peregrines, unlike other falcons, are by nature calm, but they do expect a decent daily meal. If raised properly, they sit about quietly all day, tethered to a perch, and begin to row their wings as flying time approaches, somewhat as a dog will bark at the door or bring you a leash. Once the hawking season is over – it lasts roughly from September to March, the falcon is usually turned loose in a mews, a special chamber, and allowed to put on some weight, which aids in the growth of new feathers.  Almost all falcons enjoy a bath now and then, and some indulge themselves daily.

Purely from the standpoint of friendship, a peregrine gives one pleasure besides making demands. They are personable enough where they usually recognize their owner and, in the air, will pick him out from among other people, waiting on above him while ignoring others. They also distinguish between the falconer’s dog and other dogs in the field.  As friends, they are reasonably faithful but can be led astray by the urge to migrate, the joys of soaring in warm weather and the hormones of love, as well as by fear of powerful predators – though in the end, they nearly always come back.

You do grow to love them when they perform as desired and when they show some affection towards you in terms of never using their powerful beaks and talons on you.

Q. What do you mean by “waiting on above him”?

A.  Simply put, it is circling overhead at a good “pitch,” or height, to stay in an advantageous position to catch something the falconer kicks up. The falconer waits until the falcon is in position.

Q.  What’s so special about falcons in general, and peregrines, in particular? How are peregrines different from other birds – eagles, for example?

A. Compared to other raptors, such as Red-tailed Hawks, Goshawks, Cooper’s Hawks, and Sharp-shinned Hawks, all of which are trained for falconry, falcons on the whole tend to be calmer and more easily managed – as is the Redtail, an exception among the hawks. All falcons excel at flight and are much more aerial than the other species.

The downside of such flying is that they are relatively short-legged and long-winged, which means in practice, they are less agile on the ground and in cover, where tight turns are important in capturing prey.

If a falconer’s interest lies in catching great numbers of game, he or she is better off with a goshawk or similar bird. What that falconer will miss, however, are sky-spanning stoops, the falcon hurtling down at a speed exceeding 200 mph, and sometimes striking the quarry dead with one blow. Eagles are rather like Red-tailed Hawks in that they are usually calm and deliberate in their movements. They are also very smart, and though they don’t have the aerodynamics of a falcon, they can fly very fast.

As a trained bird, an eagle may get angry, and that is nothing to dismiss. They are also very heavy to carry around in the field, and since Mongol times, eaglers have devised all sorts of braces that ease the load. Of course, I’m talking about Golden Eagles, the most commonly trained species of eagle.

Peregrines appear aloof and intelligent, though that may be a misconception. They are also exceptionally handsome (see photo above). That is not to say that other falcons are not good looking as well, but many of them are a tad more scruffy and less elegant in the hunt.

Q. What is the hardest part of training peregrines for you? What part do you enjoy the most?

A. This is a difficult question, because every peregrine is different. By and large, however, peregrines tend to be accommodating and seem to grasp the benefits derived from human contact very quickly – the constant availability of food, the safety of permanent, protected quarters, and when not flown, protection from potential predators. I get the most enjoyment from seeing a peregrine suddenly realize that circling over my head – which many falcons don’t readily learn – is certain to produce prey.

Q: How does circling over your head produce prey?

Some falcons very readily take to circling overhead – that is, “waiting on” – but many must be carefully taught to do so. Circling overhead will produce either game flushed by the falconer below her or else perhaps a pigeon thrown out by the falconer for her to catch and kill, or he will call her to the lure, an artificial bird body garnished with a piece of meat and tied to a string – the falcon quickly learns to come to this artifact for a meal. In other words, the bird understands that it pays to circle overhead in expectation of some reward. The falconer waits until the falcon has reached a substantial height – usually in excess of 200 feet – before flushing game directly under her, if possible. This gives the falcon the best possible chance of catching the quarry while simultaneously allowing you to get the best view of the flight, which is really what it’s all about.

In general, that’s probably the most difficult part of training a falcon, although almost all species eventually do seem to understand the value of “waiting on,” as it is called.

Q: Okay. I’ve watched a lot of movies. What’s with the little hood? And is it hard to get them to perch on your arm in that photogenic sort of way?

Hoods are used on most falcons and also on some hawks and even eagles to keep the birds quiet so they don’t jump around while being driven about in cars, try to fly away when curious strangers approach, or when a monster dog comes running up.  A falconer takes great care in keeping his or her charge’s plumage in top shape to avoid the breaking of the all-important flight feathers. This is chiefly a falconry neurosis, because raptors can fly very well when a substantial number of their flight feathers have been broken off or removed – for example, by a nest mate in a struggle for food or by another raptor attacking it in the field. So that concern is chiefly cosmetic. Anyway, hoods look really cool, don’t they? And they are so useful!

As to perching on the “arm,” raptors learn rather quickly to stay on the gloved fist – or even on a bare hand. Once they have accepted the handler, staying on the fist always means the possibility of the appearance of food, important to hawks – but I don’t want to imply here that they’re starving. Predation is all about discovering the quickest road to a meal, which, if you are a meat eater, is rarely easy to come by. In contrast to that of a plant eater – rose bushes rarely run from a deer. This of course does not preclude that even experienced peregrines, superb hunters that they are, may pass a day without eating.

Q. Can you recall any “peak experiences” you’ve had with peregrines?

A. I think my peak experiences involved peregrines that were trapped in the wild – not captive-raised ones – and that were willing and able to pursue certain prey up into the clouds, in situations where I could literally lie on my back and watch the contest take place overhead. Wild-caught peregrines have had to work very hard for their food already by the time they are trapped, even as young birds, and captive-raised ones are never tested that way, in the school of hard knocks.

Q. Mankind has always been intrigued by falcons.

A. Yes, and among them, it is peregrines that are extremely well-known. They are probably the most studied species of bird in the world, with the possible exception of the chicken.

Non-specific falcon depictions appear early, in Norse documents, as images on Amerindian earthen mounds, in the imagery left by Genghis Khan and early civilizations of the Middle East. Needless to say, there are many depictions of falcons in Western civilization dating back to the Middle Ages. The Egyptians interred with their dead so many mummies of kestrels, a small species of falcon, that the British used them along with other mummies – cats, for example, and people! – as fuel for their locomotives in Egypt. Early Egyptians venerated Horus, a god with a human body but topped with the head of a Lanner Falcon, a Mediterranean-African species. The Mongols used falcons for obtaining food and likely introduced the sport to the West. Kublai Khan, grandson of Genghis was said to have with him 10,000 falconers. And of course, falconry was known as the sport of kings in Western civilization.

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