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Outdoors/Adventure

Falconry has a small but devoted Alaska following

MACLAREN RIVER — The Alaska Falconers Association held its annual meeting last weekend at Tangle Lakes Lodge. Campers and motorhomes pulling the ATVs of caribou and moose hunters rumbled by on the highway in droves, but inside the lodge the talk was all about birds.

Most of the 30-odd members of the association were present — as well as a half-dozen hawks and falcons. Most association members have gyrfalcons, the elite bird of choice. Gyrs are big, fast and aggressive. They capture prey in an impressive stoop, or dive, achieving speeds in excess of 150 mph.

Peregrine falcons, a smaller bird, can dive faster, but lack the body weight of a gyrfalcon. Goshawks and red-tailed hawks are also popular. Many beginning falconers choose red-tails. Red-tails are slower birds that primarily hunt rabbits. Goshawks are slower than the falcons, but more aggressive and quite versatile. Goshawks will hunt almost anything they can catch, including geese and cranes.

In Alaska, captive hawks and falcons are mostly captured in the wild. State regulations no longer allow taking young from the nest. The ideal time to take the young is shortly after they are on their own. Juveniles are still learning hunting techniques and are always hungry, thus relatively easy to catch. About four dozen falconers live in Alaska (not all are association members), so there are usually only a half-dozen new captures each year. Nonresidents can also get capture permits.

Food-oriented birds

To obtain a permit to catch and keep a hawk or falcon, one must pass a stringent state exam. Budding falconers must have adequate housing for their bird, understand feeding techniques, medicinal care, and have the knowledge to spot potential disease. Falcons and hawks are big eaters, and captive birds are often fed quail, mostly purchased frozen from Lower 48 breeders. Large hawks will eat a quail a day.

No surprise then that hawks are food-oriented birds. A new capture can be trained to hunt and return to fist in less than two months. The birds are monitored closely to achieve their ideal response and hunting weight. A bird that is too heavy will not hunt well, and birds that "hunt hungry" typically achieve the most success.

Many falconers also have hunting dogs that they use to flush grouse, ptarmigan and ducks. Birds are carried into the field hooded. When the ranging dog indicates birds and (hopefully) is on point, the hood is removed and the gyrfalcon is sent into the air. The dog flushes and the circling bird makes the catch. Goshawks are sometimes released from the fist at the flush.

This is far from foolproof. Should the grouse spot the circling predator, they will not flush. Sometimes the falcons miss their target, too.

Longer life in captivity

Lest other hunters worry about regulating falcon hunters further, be assured that one reasonably dedicated shotgun hunter may take more birds in a day than an Alaska falconer will take in total for the year. In part, that's because a falcon is going to take one bird per day. When your bird makes a kill, you have to feed him. Then he can't or won't hunt until the next day.

A well-trained and pampered falcon may live in captivity for a dozen years — much longer than wild birds that are lucky to manage six years. In fact, 80 percent of wild youngsters don't survive their first season, due to accidents and starvation.

Alaska isn't the only place with falconers. Hawks are available everywhere, and the Washington Falconers Association, for instance, has a couple hundred members.

Goshawks and peregrine falcons are circumpolar. None of the hawks and falcons are endangered. Peregrines were nearly eradicated from North America by pesticide poisoning in the middle of the 20th century, but have made an incredible rebound and are now common in many large cities.

The peregrine rebound extends to Alaska, where, by the 1970s, the birds occupied only about a dozen nesting sites along a 165-mile stretch of the Yukon River. Now, decades after DDT nationwide, the number of nest sites has increased fivefold to about 60 and stabilized.

Impressive numbers of gyrfalcons are now successfully raised in captivity. Alaska is home to some 2,500 breeding pair. Canada and northern Russia also have substantial populations, but Saudi Arabia has more falcons than anywhere, an estimated 100,000.

Peregrines may occur naturally in Saudi Arabia, or at least they did in the past. Today, most of the falcons in that part of the world are hand-raised captives, and some are hybrids between gyrfalcons and peregrines. These sterile birds are raced from a release point to a lure on enclosed courses, with substantial prizes to the fastest birds. Falcons are valuable and often fly within air-conditioned domes

In Alaska, by contrast, falconry is a tiny but fascinating sport. Participants achieve a rare view into the life of an ultimate predator.

John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives with his family near Paxson.  He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and two-time winner of the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race.

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