Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Stirred-up passions

Yesterday was a crucial day for U.S. falconers, the deadline for comments on the Fish and Wildlife Service's plan for a take of passage peregrines. I would like to think that all American falconers took the time to comment on the plan, but history indicates that is unlikely. Everlasting shame on those who shirked this duty/opportunity.

Falconry, as King James I (yes, the same James who commissioned the KJV) observed centuries ago, is "an extreme stirrer-up of passions". Partly for that reason, falconers have always asked that management decisions be made on an objective, scientific basis. In this case, the science is firmly on our side. By taking a conservative approach every step of the way, FWS came up with a bulletproof argument for the sustainability of passage peregrine take. In one respect, it's the ideal compromise: No one will be completely satisfied with the eventual result. Falconers will clamor (with some justification) for more liberal take limits, while the "antis" will be appalled if even one peregrine is taken from the wild—never mind that peregrine populations are secure and that an individual bird's chances for survival improve dramatically under a falconer's care.

I've been privileged to see several letters sent in by falconers (only a few of whom, incidentally, have plans to fly passage peregrines themselves) and their supporters, and I'm struck—not necessarily surprised, but struck—by the degree to which they go beyond the strictly objective and scientific to include the human and emotional. (See King James again.) I'm impressed with the everyday eloquence of these letters, and thought I'd share a few excerpts from my favorites:

Tony Huston, a well-known falconer and bibliophile, sets the tone here:

The literature of falconry going back to the 13th century is full of the most eloquent descriptions of the superior skills of the passage falcon over those that have been raised in captivity. I realize that, by speaking this way, I am going outside the normal strictly-scientific approach—but you will receive a host of letters in that vein and I don't want to repeat the same stuff ad nauseam!

Instead I will try to give you a sense of what, for me personally, is at stake. Falconry has been the passion of my life, my refuge from all that is stale, boring, monotonous about human existence. Like any vocation, the deeper I have gone into it, the deeper I want to go. If I were a skier, it would be the progression from green runs, to blue, to black, to taking helicopters to the tops of uncharted mountains. Well, the passage peregrine falcon is the mountain that has been forbidden to me—for the soundest of reasons—for almost my entire falconry career. But now those reasons have gone, and I would like to have the poetry of this experience before I am too old or infirm to fully enjoy it and do it justice.

I speak to you not as a bureaucrat but as a fellow human being. Imagine being given the possibility of being able to do the thing that you most love and then some—to play a round of golf at St. Andrews with Tiger Woods, to have a private dinner with your favorite movie star, to fish for marlin with Ernest Hemingway....and you get some idea what being able to take a passage peregrine means to me.

Please, let your objective decision be influenced by the statistics and biological data, but realize that, in the grander scheme, what you are doing is allowing one of the most conscientious and dedicated groups on the planet to fulfill the spiritual ambition of a lifetime, one that will have no negative effect on the wild population of the creature we love most and may even benefit it.

Matt Mullenix over at Querencia, addressing FWS staff:

Many thanks to you and to all those who've worked hard to bring the prospect of a migrant peregrine take to the table. You have done so without the falconer's passion (though some among you were and are falconers) but rather on the strength of the best scientific understanding, and for this reason your effort is more sound and more worthwhile.
I have been a licensed US falconer for more than 20 years and have never flown a peregrine. For me, the bird has always been an icon of a past age and a vague dream of the future. Although I am unlikely to fly a peregrine (passage or otherwise) in the near term, several excellent falconers I know would love such an opportunity and would certainly make the most of it. It would be right and good for them to have that opportunity so long as the peregrine remains in sufficient numbers to allow it.

My good friend and fellow Nebraskan Donna Vorce:

Here it is in a nutshell:

The now recovered resource (peregrines) was banked, in the dry years, by falconers. They learned the techniques of breeding and other husbandry skills when peregrines weren't an environmental poster child and when there was no political gain or agenda. The burdens of time and money were cheerfully shouldered (merely!) for the love of the peregrine. It astounded this body of falconers that these birds and other raptors populations were crashing and falconers reacted by learning the necessary skills to keep these birds from possible extinction.

To deny this resource now to falconers would defy logic. I submitted other comments last year when asked, to this body of USF&WS noting this: That perhaps many of the anti-peregrine [take] people are simply unaware of the relationship between peregrines and falconers. Hence, I don't feel much of the frustration or anger others feel toward this group of well-meaning people. I feel that education is the answer to their feelings against the use of the resource by falconers. They need to know with certain confidence that we might not have peregrines today without those early falconers!

My dad, Paul Churchill:

I am pleased to hear that FWS is considering a proposal to allow peregrine falcons to be trapped on passage for use in falconry by highly qualified and trained individuals. Although not a falconer myself, I have a son who has had a deep interest in that field for several years and has successfully captured and worked with several species. Therefore I have followed with keen interest news of peregrines since my son participated in the last release of peregrine young in Colorado [actually, it was Montana] a few years ago under the aegis of The Peregrine Fund.

Now that the peregrine is off the endangered species list and is increasing its number, I am heartened by the possibility that my son and people of like interest and enthusiasm may have to opportunity to work with this magnificent animal, to teach and to be taught. The fact is that birds who are captured, spend a period of time in a partner-like relationship with a qualified falconer, and are later released actually have a better shot at a prolonged existence, and therefore of reaching the age when they can reproduce.

I urge the FWS to act favorably on the proposal and approve the plan to allow capture of peregrines during migration by trained, qualified and caring individuals.

Those were my favorites. Finally, an excerpt from my own letter, just for completeness' sake:

To end on a more personal note, I would like to write briefly about what the passage peregrine means. Some commenters are bound to note that falconers have access to large numbers of captive-bred peregrines, and more recently to limited numbers of nestling peregrines taken from wild eyries in the western United States. What these commenters may not know, or may not care about, is that these birds, however wonderful, are not the same thing.

Furthermore, the falconers I know are the finest people one could wish to meet: ethical, conscientious, enthusiastic, fully engaged with the natural world in a way that would seem alien to most Americans of this generation. Some of these individuals put their hearts and souls, along with more tangible resources like time and money, into peregrine recovery—beginning in the 1970s when there was no guarantee it would work. Compared with theirs, my contributions were minimal, might even be disparaged as jumping on the bandwagon at the last minute. But falconers as a group have worked, and waited, for this moment for decades.

The point I'm trying to make is that peregrines recovered largely because falconers, with the assistance of other entities including the FWS, made it happen. We should be allowed to renew our long, mutually beneficial hands-on relationship with the birds of our dreams, and in some cases our fondest memories: passage peregrines. Let our history resume where it left off. It is not only biologically feasible, it is simply the right thing to do.

[Thanks to Matt for starting this topic at Querencia. The excerpts from his and Tony's letters, as well as the concept, were borrowed shamelessly but with malice toward none.]


Matt Mullenix said...

A bit of an exchange from yesterday between myself and a biologist involved in this process:

"...The peregrine is so iconic it nearly disappears above all the rhetoric. The truth is hard enough to pin down without throwing a lot of loose opinions and anecdotes into the mix.

"But opinion is important here, I think. You have to factor it in somehow. These birds are great stirrers-up of passion!

"And the actual bird is neat, too--lest anyone forget they exist. I've never flown one, as I mentioned, but I've flushed a lot of ducks and doves for peregrines flown by friends, and I banded a few passage birds in Florida. Holding one of those things on a windy beach at first light, for a falconer who knows what they can do, is absolutely electric. You're reduced to saying things like, 'Whoa,' and 'Damn straight,' and 'Look at those FEET!'

"They pull you in. They're hard to let go..."

Donna said...

Nice folow-up Mark!

Thanks very much for your alert sincere work in posting these comments.