World's Fastest Creature Trained to Hunt for Man ...Ancient Art of Falconry Continues to Soar

The art of falconry dates back more than 4,000 years, but as Paul Juergens readies his peregrine for flight in the ranch country north of Raymondville, he adds a touch of modernity in the form of a satellite tracking device. Juergens, who lives in San Antonio, has been flying the falcon for nearly two years, but the first free flight did not go quite as planned.

"Apparently, I didn't have her quite tuned in to me, and I found her 12 miles from where I released her," Paul says with a grin as he finishes attaching the super lightweight device snugly around one leg. "That's part of it. They can take off anytime once you cut them loose."

Juergens, who is 30 years old, began working with birds of prey while in college. He had always had an interest in raptors but never really considered falconry until he began spending time with master falconer John Karger at Last Chance Forever, a raptor rehabilitation facility in San Antonio. "Within a week after seeing a demonstration of falconry, I said okay, I have to do that."

The transmitter Juergens has attached is used in the event the falcon flies away so he can track her down and reclaim her. "If she is in the air, with fresh batteries in my receiver, I can get a signal 30 miles away."

In America, the peregrine falcon became endangered due to the use of DDT during the 1950's and 60's, but once the harmful pesticide which caused eggshell thinning was banned, the falcons began to recover. Captive breeding and reintroduction efforts led by the Peregrine Fund and other organizations were so successful that the peregrine falcon was removed from the U.S. Threatened and Endangered Species list in 1999.

Juergen's falcon was very dark in coloration when first obtained, and he named her Leila, which refers to nightfall in Arabic. "She is a captive bred peregrine falcon, and I got here when she was approximately three months old. I have been flying her ever since. She is about two years old now."

In addition to the satellite tracking device on her left leg, Leila also has a small brass bell attached by a snug leather strap to her right leg. The bell is a throwback to the venerable practice of falconry. Centuries ago falconers affixed a bell to each of their bird's legs so they could locate the raptor by the distinctive tinkling sounds. In particular the bells made it much easier to find a falcon in high grass after it landed with prey. "Back then they were not doing it for fun or the sheer joy of watching the birds fly. They were hunting to feed themselves as well as the birds."

"Man has emerged from the shadows of antiquity with a peregrine on his wrist," wrote the famous avian artist and author, Roger Tory Peterson. The earliest record of the ancient art of falconry comes from an Assyrian bas-relief dated in the early part of the seventh century, B.C. However, there are even earlier references to falconry in China and Japan.

Falconry may have originated in Persia and Arabia, and one Arabic account asserts that the first falconer was a King of Persia. Being captivated by the spectacle of a wild falcon taking a passing bird, the king is said to have ordered his men to capture the raptor. The majestic bird of prey was then trained to hunt for the ruler who grew to greatly admire its strength and beauty.

With a backup transmitter worn like a necklace, Leila is almost set for take off. Paul loosens the jesses or leather straps that hold her feet to his gloved hand. "You have to respect those feet. She has grabbed me a couple of times just accidentally. I got in the way of what she wanted, and it's not the greatest feeling."

He leans in as if to bestow a kiss on the falcon. With his teeth he deftly removes her leather hood, and in a flash of powerful wings and tinkling brass bell, she is airborne.

She climbs into a cloudless South Texas sky, and soon is a mere speck thousands of feet up in the brilliant blue infinity. "She is taking a pitch. She is trying to get as high as she can, and then she'll come over and wait for her quarry to flush."

Paul has released Leila in a vast open area over a large pond where earlier in the year ducks and geese resided. However, the season for hunting waterfowl with a falcon has recently closed, so Leila will feed from a lure that Paul will soon present.

Peregrines are sometimes referred to as the duck hawk. They are a medium sized falcon about the size of a large crow. Peregrines typically soar to great heights and then dive at tremendous speeds usually striking the wing of their prey.

The peregrine falcon is the fastest creature on the planet, and in its hunting dive or stoop the raptor has been clocked in excess of 240 miles per hour. "Typically, they are hitting 150 to 180 miles per hour when they dive on a duck," Juergens says as he shades his eyes to watch Leila soar high above the pond. "However, a falconer in Washington State has trained his peregrine to sky dive with him, and they are using special telemetry. They are able to clock the bird in a dive, which he releases after jumping out of the plane, and I think the latest was 243 or 244 miles per hour in the stoops."

The peregrine has learned to associate food with Paul. "You win their hearts thru their stomachs," Paul says as he removes a long line with lure attached from a leather pouch slung over his shoulder. The lure consists of a leather body replete with bird wings, and he presents it by swinging it in a circle around his body. The falcon is trained to come when the lure is presented, and soon she begins descending. With a whoosh of wings she swiftly darts at the lure making her first pass.

Paul expertly presents the lure for several more minutes, keeping it just out of reach of Leila's sharp talons, and then he offers it for capture. After landing on the ground, with the lure firmly clutched in her talons, Paul approaches Leila. She perches on his gloved hand begins to consume a meaty reward.

Falconry is both an art and a sport, and it demands tremendous devotion. Countless hours are required to train a bird to fly free, hunt for its master and then willingly accept a return to captivity.

Watching the bird tear the meat with her sharp beak, Paul explains the arduous path to becoming a falconer. "You have to undergo an apprenticeship of a minimum of two years so the first step is to find a sponsor." As an apprentice, an aspiring falconer is allowed to work with red-tailed hawks and American kestrels. Once the apprenticeship is successfully completed a graduate is eligible to apply for a falconry permit. Upon receiving a federal and state license one can graduate to what many falconers consider the ultimate hunting companion, the peregrine falcon.

"It is very time consuming. The training that goes into these birds you can't put a price on it. It is a 365 day a year responsibility. These birds are tremendous athletes, and if you don't fly them daily they really suffer. The more you can fly them the better off they will be."

Peregrines can live for 20 years and Paul and Leila have many flights in their future. "These falcons are just so unique and so specialized in what they do. As athletes they are incredible. There is just something about their stoicism and courage. Every time I release here there is the thrill of the unknown. How high will she go? How will she strike her prey? Every hunt is different."

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Copyright 2007 Richard Moore