Blue Sky Ballet

By Matt Seek | October 1, 2020
From Missouri Conservationist: October 2020

On her lunch break, Meagan Duffee-Yates practices ballet in a bean field.

At least that’s what it looks like to me.

Her partner in this pas de deux is a merlin, a knife-winged, bullet-headed bird of prey. When Meagan pirouettes in the slippery, half-thawed field, the merlin circles her in a compact orbit, sweeping skyward then slicing down, carving the air like a conductor’s baton.

It’s a moment of magic on a gray winter day, yet the bird cares not about the performance.

Its attention is focused on the starling carcass that is swinging, like a gruesome black kite, from the end of a fishing pole Meagan is holding. The merlin desperately wants to catch the starling, to seize it in its knobby yellow talons and rip the meat from its bones. And for her part, Meagan is managing — just barely — to keep the carcass beyond the bird’s reach.

She counts aloud each rotation, as a dance instructor might tap out beats on a hardwood floor: “One... two... three.” Around and around. “Four... five... six.” Adagio and allegro. “Seven... eight... nine.” Bird and human, spinning and circling like ballerinas.

When she reaches 10, Meagan slows slightly. And with a flurry of wingbeats, the merlin catches the starling, glides to the ground, and the dance ends.

A Partnership Among Hunters

As the merlin furiously plucks feathers from the starling, Meagan offers chunks of fresh meat to the ravenous bird. From the edge of the bean field, I watch a negotiation unfold.

The merlin, who Meagan has named Alice, isn’t ready to give up the starling she worked so hard to catch. She doesn’t want the meat in Meagan’s hand. Couldn’t care less about it. Refuses to even look at it, as if it were an insulting offer slid across a desk during a job negotiation. Alice mantles her wings over the carcass, shielding it from view. And whenever Meagan tries to coax Alice onto her gloved fist, the recalcitrant bird flutters backwards with the carcass defiantly locked in her talons.

In raptor parlance, Alice is screaming, “Back off! This is mine.”

But Meagan is patient, and after 14 years as a falconer, she knows a few tricks. Before their dance began, she used a pair of surgical scissors to remove most of the meat from the starling. Now, the longer Alice picks at gristle from the carcass, the more appealing the meat in Meagan’s hand starts to look.

Eventually, Alice’s hunger overtakes her protective instinct, and Meagan spirits away the carcass. When the merlin hops onto Meagan’s gloved fist, she immediately rewards it with a chunk of meat.

This negotiation, this act of building trust, is the essence of falconry. At its most basic level, the “sport of kings” is nothing more than a partnership between two hunters — one of them human, the other avian. For the partnership to succeed, the bird must trust that life with the falconer is easier than life in the wild.

“Alice isn’t a pet,” Meagan told me earlier that morning. “She’s a wild bird. If she decides to fly away, there’s not much I can do about it.”

To prevent fly-offs, falconers strive to keep their birds at a “flying weight,” the same way trainers strive to keep boxers at a fighting weight. If a bird grows too fat, it has little incentive to return to the falconer for a free meal.

Meagan records Alice’s weight several times a day. She knows how many grams Alice will lose in one hour, two hours, three. These insights help her tease out a tipping point, one that separates the weight at which Alice will return to her fist from the weight at which the call of the wild will grow too sweet to resist.

A (Really) Short History of Falconry

Historians aren’t sure how long falconry has been practiced. Some experts peg its origins at about 4000 B.C. on the steppes of Mongolia. Others wonder if it might have originated around 6000 B.C. in what is now Iran. Whenever and wherever it began, there’s no dispute that falconry was widely practiced in Asia by at least 2000 B.C. And over the following millennia, it migrated westward.

During the Middle Ages, falconry became known as “the sport of kings.” In Europe, stealing a raptor was punishable by death, and strict laws governed who could own particular birds of prey. While nearly anyone could keep a hawk or a kestrel, only a king could fly a gyrfalcon. Falcons needed space for their long, killing dives, and space required wealth.

In the 1800s, as royal land was redistributed and people began hunting with guns, falconry fell out of style. It wasn’t until the 1920s that interest in the sport re-emerged. Today, nearly 10,000 people worldwide practice falconry, and about half of them fly their birds in North America. In Missouri, about 140 people hold falconry permits.

Bird by Bird

Meagan’s fascination with falconry began at a medieval-themed restaurant in Dallas, Texas, when she was a girl. While diners gnawed on turkey legs, a falconer dressed in royal garb circled his peregrine around the arena. It was meant to be an opening act, something to take up time before knights began jousting. But Meagan was mesmerized.

Years later, when she came to Missouri for college, she began studying to take the falconry exam. The test is encyclopedic, covering everything from raptor biology to falconry equipment to basic veterinary care. Meagan studied for months and passed it on her first try.

But the test was the easy part. To become an apprentice falconer, you must enlist the services of an experienced falconer, trap a juvenile red-tailed hawk or American kestrel, and train the bird to your mentor’s satisfaction. After two years as an apprentice, you become a general falconer, which allows you to keep up to three raptors of any kind except golden eagles and protected species. Following five years as a general falconer, you advance to master falconer and may keep five raptors of any kind except protected species.

As Meagan progressed through the ranks, she trained nearly a dozen different birds of prey, each one unique from the next. A red-tailed hawk named Autumn was a fantastic hunter, particularly adept at catching squirrels. Winter, another redtail, was rebellious and ornery, and Meagan returned her to the wild after a single hunting season. Annie, an American kestrel, bagged more than 1,000 starlings over her long career. And Mr. Tiggs, another kestrel, has reached the ripe age of 8 as Meagan’s hunting partner and is with her still.

The Angel of Death

Back in Meagan’s office, she asks if I want to hold Alice. I’m a bit concerned by the bird’s formidable talons, but Meagan assures me there’s nothing to fear. I extend my arm, and Alice steps from her perch onto my bare fist.

She is wearing a hood, which looks like a 1920s-era leather football helmet except it has a little tasseled knot at the top. Meagan explains that the hood keeps Alice calm. Birds of prey see three to ten times better than the average Homo sapiens. The hood allows Alice to hear what’s going on around her, but by acting as a blindfold, it removes her overstimulating sense of sight.

“She doesn’t worry about what she can’t see,” Meagan says. Alice feels weightless and fragile, like blown Venetian glass. But up close, her lethality is evident. She looks like an angel of death, a combination of grace and ferocity framed by airy bones and bound with feathers the color of prairie grasses. She’s a creature built to transform death into energy. “I grew up hunting with my dad,” Meagan says. “Falconry appeals to me because it’s the most primitive way to hunt. You don’t even use a bow or an atlatl.”

For me, the appeal of falconry lies in its contrasts: the beauty of life and the ugliness of death, the freedom of wildness and the safety of captivity, an earthbound falconer and a skybound raptor. With Alice on my fist, I think I would love to take up falconry. But just as quickly, I realize I lack the dogged dedication the sport demands.

Alice in Meaganland

Last fall, after more than a decade of flying hawks and kestrels, Meagan set her sights on something sleeker. She found the bird she was searching for near Bushwhacker Lake Conservation Area. It was a juvenile merlin diving relentlessly into flocks of blackbirds.
As a licensed falconer, Meagan has federal and state permits that allow her to capture wild birds of prey. While the merlin continued to hunt, Meagan set out a raptor trap. Within minutes, the bird who would be known as Alice was caught. Meagan interpreted this as a good sign.

“If a bird doesn’t hit the trap within a few minutes,” Meagan says, “it doesn’t have the hunting drive I want.”

Some may object to taking a bird from the wild. But consider this: The learning curve for a bird of prey is dangerously steep, and nature is an unforgiving teacher. Fifty percent of peregrine falcons, 60 percent of American kestrels, and 70 percent of merlins die before their first birthday. Living with a falconer offers a much better chance for survival than the bird would get otherwise. It’s fed a nutritious meal every day, gets routine veterinary care, and has a safe place to live out of the elements. Should either the bird or the falconer decide to part ways, a wild-caught bird leaves healthy, well-fed, and with its survival instincts intact.

Meagan worked quickly but carefully to free Alice from the trap. She slipped a hood onto the merlin’s head to settle the bird’s nerves. Then she tethered Alice to a special type of perch called a cadge, secured the cadge in the back seat of her car, and drove home.
“Manning” is the first step in establishing a bond between a falconer and a wild raptor. For Meagan, this meant sitting in a dark room for hours on end with Alice perched on her fist like a tiny, feathered gargoyle. At first, when Meagan removed Alice’s hood, the bird tried to escape. Meagan held tightly to the leather straps around the bird’s ankles and waited for Alice to calm down. When she did, Meagan gave her a chunk of meat. This process was repeated, over and over, hour after hour, until Alice lost her fear of Meagan.

First Flight

For a couple weeks, every day holds a new milestone: First the bird quits trying to escape when you take off its hood. Then it bends over to take food, which means it trusts you enough to take its eyes off you. Then it learns to hop from its perch to your fist. Then it flies across the room to your glove. Then it flies outside, farther and farther, while tethered to a long wire called a creance. Then — and only then — do you cut the cord.

The first free flight is maddening for a falconer. Without the creance, there’s nothing to keep the bird from flying away forever. All your efforts, hours and hours of training, could disappear over the horizon like a lost arrow.

When the time was right, Meagan took her young merlin to a rabbit-cropped field a few blocks from her home. She placed Alice on her perch in the grass, removed her hood, walked 50 steps upwind, and held out her fist. In an instant, Alice was on the glove, tearing into offered meat like it was the most natural thing in the world. At that point, Meagan remembered to breathe.

Nowadays, Meagan is working to build up Alice’s stamina. Today during “ballet practice,” they did 10 rotations with the starling carcass. Tomorrow they will do 20. When Alice can make 70 orbits, she’ll be ready for her first hunt. Meagan hopes to use her to control the burgeoning starling and house sparrow populations in her hometown.

Beyond that, Meagan isn’t making plans. Because when your partner is a wild bird of prey, you never know when the dance may end.

Falconers Return Peregrines to the Show-Me State

By the mid-1960s, fewer than 50 nesting pairs of peregrine falcons were left in the United States. The culprit was DDT, a pesticide widely used to control insects. Contaminated bugs were eaten by small birds that were, in turn, eaten by peregrines. As the chemicals accumulated in the falcons’ bodies, females began laying eggs that were thin-shelled and weak. Most wouldn’t support the weight of an incubating parent and crumbled before the young could hatch.

Thanks to pressure from environmentalists, DDT was banned in 1972. Soon after, falconers and biologists swooped in to save peregrines from extinction.

Since medieval times, falconers have used hacking towers to train inexperienced raptors. A young bird is placed on a tower, food is left for it daily, and it is allowed to fly freely to gain hunting experience. When it’s old enough, it’s recaptured and formally trained. Biologists did the same thing with captive-bred peregrines — they just didn’t recapture the young falcons once they could hunt on their own.

In Missouri, many falconers donated their peregrines to captive-breeding programs. The young that were produced were hacked in locations throughout the state, including sites near St. Louis, Kansas City, and Springfield.

Thanks to these efforts, populations rebounded in Missouri and across the country. In 1999, the iconic falcon was removed from the federal Endangered Species List.

Flight Academy

For more information about falconry, check out these resources:

The Missouri Falconer’s Association provides information about becoming a falconer and lists events where you can watch falconers work with their birds.

The North American Falconers Association also offers great information, including the ethics of falconry and a history of the sport in North America.

As you might expect, falconry is one of the most heavily regulated methods of hunting, and both federal and state laws apply. Learn Missouri’s rules in chapters 7 and 9 of the Wildlife Code of Missouri.

H is for Hawk

This beautifully written book by Helen Macdonald gives a firsthand account of training a goshawk while dealing with the death of her father.

Also In This Issue

Purseweb Spider
Purseweb, trapdoor spiders rely on camouflage for survival.

This Issue's Staff

Magazine Manager - Stephanie Thurber

Editor - Angie Daly Morfeld

Associate Editor - Larry Archer

Staff Writer - Bonnie Chasteen
Staff Writer - Heather Feeler
Staff Writer - Kristie Hilgedick
Staff Writer - Joe Jerek

Art Director - Cliff White

Designer - Shawn Carey
Designer - Les Fortenberry
Designer - Marci Porter

Photographer - Noppadol Paothong
Photographer - David Stonner

Circulation - Laura Scheuler