About 2 1/2 years ago, I was birding on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands in South Dakota, having a wonderful data shooting photos of the huge numbers of raptors that are found there in the winter. Towards the end of the day, I came across a gorgeous young Gyrfalcon, always a wonderful find, and stopped to take photos. Soon, a pickup came screaming over the hill and pulled up right beside me. It turns out they were 2 falconers who were trying to capture that bird, and had set up a live pigeon under a net nearby to try to entice it (and tangle it). They told (DEFINITELY not nicely at first) that I needed to leave, so they could capture the bird. To make a long story short, I told them I had EVERY right to stay there and photograph this wild bird, so I stayed and took more photos, then left, not knowing what ever happened to that bird. Here’s a photo of the bird, and more of the story from that day.
Well, yesterday I got an email, presumably from the 2 falconers. They said the story had a “happy ending”. Turns out the falcon WAS indeed captured, and was used by the falconers for a year. According to the falconers, it was a “happy ending” because after a year, the falcon was released back into the wild.
“Happy ending”? Not so much for me. First of all, as I stated back then…Gyrfalcons are VERY rare birds in the lower 48 states. Only a handful make the winter trek down from the Arctic and make it all the way to the lower 48. The central part of South Dakota is one of the best places to go in winter to see them. I once had a very, very remarkable day were I saw 5 in one day, but despite all the trips I take to the area in winter, on MOST days you don’t see them at all (despite seeing 100+ other raptors), and I go entire WINTERS without ever seeing them. And this in the proverbial “hotspot” for them in the lower 48. I don’t think you should be allowed to capture them, PERIOD, given their rarity in the lower 48.
As for the “happy ending”…is it really? That bird was captured and kept by falconers for a year. There’s no doubt that this bird was a first-winter bird when captured, a very young and inexperienced animal. Then it’s captured, and spends a year in captivity, as falconers teach it, well, whatever the hell falconers teach it. Given its young age when captured, after being held for a year, that bird had thus spent more time in captivity than it ever had in the wild.
And then it’s released back into the wild. Is that a “happy ending”? How will that bird behave, compared to a bird that was always wild? It went an entire year in captivity. It had come down from the Arctic that winter it was captured, but had never made the return trip. After being in captivity and missing a winter cycle, would it even try to migrate back north? It had never had the chance to do so, before being captured. What about other behavior? How might that have changed after a year in captivity? When released, just how different might that bird act, than a gyrfalcon that had been in the wild its entire life? Especially since it was captured so young?
When I posted this 2 1/2 years ago, one falconer responded that they’re “better hunters” after being used by a falconer…as if a human falconer is a better “trainer” of a falcon than is nature and thousands of years of evolution. Other falconers were more direct, stating the birds are a “resource” to be used…a phrase I really hate, given that for people like this, ALL of nature is there for one purpose, and one purpose only…for the exploitation and use by human beings, no matter the consequences.
I have no doubt the vast majority of falconers love and respect their birds, just as they love their hobby. I’m really not against falconry in general. But…Gyrfalcons have a special place in my heart, given their rarity, their tie to South Dakota, and the memories I have of my very first winter when I started birding, where seeing my first wild Gyrfalcon was an experience I’ll never forget. They’re such a rare, rare sight in the United States, outside of Alaska. No matter how well a falconer treats his birds, you’ll never convince me that the behavior of that bird isn’t forever changed, once it’s released back into the wild.