Brigitte Bowers: Falcons at UC Merced preserve an age-old relationship

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

Falconers saved the peregrine in the mid-1970s after DDT had almost wiped them out in the wild. Without falconers, scientists at institutions such as New York’s Cornell University would not have had any stock for their breeding programs, and without falconers, they might not have known how to raise the eyasses, or chicks, that their programs produced.

Falconers banded together at the University of Pennsylvania to form the first falconry club in the United States, the Peregrine Club, sometime in the 1930s. It didn’t last more than a decade or so, but in 1961 the North American Falconers Association was founded, just one year before Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” hit bookstores.

The book detailed the effects of DDT on peregrine populations in North America and created an awareness of the dangers of DDT for wild and human populations. As a result, in 1970 Richard Nixon’s administration established the Environmental Protection Agency. That same year, peregrines were listed as endangered, and in 1972, DDT was banned in the United States.

It would take almost 30 years to restore peregrines in North America. The survival of the species didn’t look good at first – their numbers had declined by about 90 percent since DDT began to appear on American farms in the late 1940s. In the eastern United States, the only places peregrines could be found were in falconers’ mews.

So together, members of clubs like the North American Falconers Association donated their peregrines to recovery programs at Cornell and the Santa Cruz Predatory Bird Research Group, and they helped inform scientists about hacking, a process for raising eyasses (including feeding them from hand-held puppets fashioned to look like adult peregrines) that facilitates their adjustment to wild habitats.

Peregrines were removed from the endangered species list in 1999.

Today’s estimates put the population at 1,650 breeding pairs, up from a low of 324 in 1975. And because peregrines are so adaptable, they have found niches in urban areas. In New York City, the Department of Environmental Conservation monitors man-made nesting boxes placed on top of skyscrapers, and the notorious abundance of pigeons has provided an ample food source for the 16 breeding pairs that have made the city their home.

Which leads us to the University of California, Merced, and George Pena, owner of Fowl Play Bird Abatement. He was hired years ago when pigeons had taken over the middle quad, strutting about as if they owned the place and leaving a mess of feathers and guano in their wake.

The campus is environmentally responsible, so traditional methods of abatement, such as poison, were out of the question. UC Merced turned to what was, in fact, the most traditional method of all – the natural world, where predators take care of pigeons and clean up after themselves, too.

“But why don’t the pigeons come back?” I ask George as we watch his Barbary falcon, Sonic, wing his way through a pigeon-free sky above the quad. George’s peregrine is roosting in the back of George’s truck, waiting for its gig at a processing plant, where it keeps the seagulls away. “It’s not like the falcons are here all of the time, ready to take out wayward pigeons.

“It’s like if you were in the ocean and someone yelled ‘shark,’ ” George said.

I consider this. I would get out, fast, and I wouldn’t go back in for a long time.

“I fly Sonic at different times every day. The pigeons don’t know when he’ll be here. It’s the not knowing that’s really scary.”

“Do you ever take the falcons anywhere else?” I ask.

George tells me he takes his falcons duck hunting. “It’s for my own pleasure, but I want them to have the experience, also,” he said.

They work together, with George flushing the ducks as the falcon circles above.

“The sight of a falcon coming in for the kill is exciting, beautiful, like nothing else. You can’t even imagine the sound. It’s like somebody dropped a 2-liter Pepsi can out of an airplane,” George said. “The duck is immediately dead.”

Falcons know that at any moment another creature might come along and take their prey, and maybe kill them to get it. So they eat the parts of the duck with the most nourishment first. George lets his falcons have the best tidbits – eyes, brain, and neck – and he takes the rest home.

It’s a perfect example of symbiosis, an arrangement that benefits both the falcon and the falconer in a relationship that goes back thousands of years.