Brigitte Bowers: From insurance lackey to master falconer

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a three-part series.

George Pena didn’t exactly dislike his job with a life insurance company. It’s just that his heart was elsewhere. Each day, as he sat at his desk analyzing statistics and tallying numbers, he couldn’t help looking out the window as the afternoon passed by. He couldn’t stop wondering what might be going on out there, beyond the city limits.

“I wanted to be involved with something that happens naturally. I knew that things were happening out there millions of times every day, and I was missing it.”

Pena tells me this while we watch his falcon Sonic wing his way around the UC Merced campus. Sonic is the university bird abatement crew. His job is to keep pigeons away.

About 50 yards from where we stand, Pena’s truck, with a camper shell over the bed, is parked in the shade of the library. Inside the camper are four more falcons, sitting on a perch and wearing hoods, waiting for their turns to fly at dairies and processing plants around Merced.

All of those years ago, as Pena sat in his office and looked out the window wishing he could be somewhere else, he didn’t believe that he could make a living doing what he had loved most since early childhood.

Pena believes he is the victim of an errant gene, some recessive trait that goes back to ancestors long forgotten. No one else in his family cared much about the outdoors, and he had never met anyone involved in falconry. But by the age of 19, Pena had become an official apprentice to Aldo Stanzoni, a master falconer from Stevinson.

The process was not simple. To become an apprentice, the only way by which he could eventually graduate to licensed falconer, Pena first had to pass a written test. He had to obtain a hunter’s license and then build a to house his falcons, which had to be inspected by the regional Department of Fish and Game.

Fish and Game had to also approve Pena’s equipment, including leashes and a scale that could weigh the birds in half ounces. Pena made all of his leather gear, a habit he continues today.

Of course, an apprentice must also procure a falcon. Trapping season runs from October through January, and falconers must submit maps showing where they catch their falcons.

Today, Pena has one prairie falcon he caught in the wild, but he purchased his other birds, including a peregrine, from a breeder in Watsonville. Prices range from $800 to $1,500.

Now the owner of Fowl Play Bird Abatement and a master falconer himself, Pena has taught five apprentices, including a woman in her 40s. Even though an apprenticeship lasts two years, he said it is impossible to learn everything there is to know about falconry in such a short time.

“You can’t even learn everything in five years,” he says, before going on to mention that he still learns new things every day. “And it’s not for everybody. Some people think it’s cool, but they’re not prepared for the carnage. There’s a lot of carnage in falconry.”

And falconry is time consuming. Falcons must fly every day and should go on regular hunting expeditions.

Falconers need to maintain equipment and clean the muse – no small task, as anyone who has ever owned a parakeet can imagine. Falconers also weigh their birds every day to predict how they’ll respond to rewards. Feeding is an involved process, too. Pena cannot simply buy dead pigeons at PetSmart.

Perhaps the most cumbersome responsibilities, though, are the unexpected ones. Falcons are sensitive to heat, and so they are in danger when temperatures top 100 degrees in summer. In the wild, they fly to cooler locations, but Pena’s falcons are, like many of us, stuck in the Valley during the summer.

“What do you do when that happens?” I ask.

“I bring them inside,” he answers.

“In your house?”

“Yeah. I lay down a tarp and put their perches in the hallway.”

“Your wife must really like that,” I say, imagining five falcons perched outside the door to my bedroom.

“Well,” he says, smiling, “she knew she was marrying a falconer.”