ARCO, Idaho — A young falcon circled around a sagebrush and cheatgrass field when a few sage grouse burst from the ground. The chase was on. The falcon closed the gap and hit one of the grouse, but not hard enough to do any damage. The grouse flew away.
“That was exciting,” a bystander said. “The falcon was not high enough to hit the bird hard enough.”
Watching a falcon close on a game bird is quite a sight. Peregrine falcons are the world’s fastest birds with some being clocked diving at more than 220 mph.
Recently, a couple of dozen falconers gathered in Arco for the Idaho Falconers Association’s annual fall meeting. They met in the morning for breakfast at Pickle’s Place to talk shop and exchange notes on where to hunt, then headed out to various places to test their birds against rabbits, grouse and waterfowl.
In the case of the unsuccessful falcon, the owner was pleased with what he saw.
“He’s just a young bird,” said Rick Guritzky of Weston, Idaho. “They get beat, beat and beat until they figure it out. It’s good for them. I like his enthusiasm. It shows he’s enjoying it.”
The gathering of Idaho falconers takes place every fall in the Arco area. This year’s was organized by Idaho Falls falconer Stephen Buffat. The casual affair sees people from across the West sharing meals and swapping gear. Idaho Falconers president Brad Smoot lives in Arco, mostly for the area’s opportunities to fly his birds.
“I met my wife out on the desert hawkin’ grouse,” he said. “It’s a lifestyle for us.”
Smoot said he changed careers from a construction manager to a nurse at the Arco hospital “so I could do this.”
While falconers are a small group — Smoot estimates perhaps 150 people are active in the sport in Idaho and about 5,000 nationwide — they are passionate. Many also run bird dogs to aid their birds’ success. The falconers’ birds take the place of a gun for a typical hunter, but instead of putting the gun away at the end of the season, birds must be cared for year-round.
“Look at the size of the Big Desert and you’ll see why you want to run a dog (to hunt with birds),” Guritzky said.
In the case of the recent morning’s hunt, the falconers released their bird dogs to flush out more sage grouse, but once again, the falcon was out of place and unable to take advantage of another half-dozen birds flying up.
“It’s OK,” Guritzky said. “The bird will eventually learn to work with the dogs and he’ll have success.”
The craft of falconry is centuries old. Across the nation and in Idaho, falconers hunt with the birds under strict guidelines and purchase a license just like other hunters. The Idaho Department of Fish and Game annually inspects a falconer’s home setup to make sure everything is up to snuff. Buffat and Smoot emphasized that falconers were instrumental in bringing the endangered birds back from the brink of extinction. The birds were federally protected in the United States in the 1970s due to use of the pesticide DDT. Peregrine falcons, Idaho’s state bird, were removed from the Endangered Species List in 1999. Now the birds are common again.
Kelly Smoot said she gathered falcons from a nest where birds were typically killed each year by predators. “If I didn’t, none would have survived,” she said.
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The birds often are kept for one season and released in the spring after the hunting season is over and the bird can join the normal migration.
“By doing that, you gave that bird a huge advantage,” Buffat said. “Now it has hunting skills and ability, it has made it through the hardest part of its life being well fed and taken care of and it can take those skills back into the wild with it and be a success.”
Buffat said only about 20 percent of raptors in the wild survive their first winter, but if they survive they generally live for several years.
Prior to the recent flight, falconers weighed their birds before releasing them for the hunt. They know each bird’s optimum weight. Too heavy and it won’t be interested; too light and it might fly away looking for a meal and never return, or not have the energy to fly.
Jason Bosen, of Utah, was flying Harris hawks in pursuit of rabbits. The hawks stay close to their handlers, often launching off of poles carried above the owners head.
“I don’t like falcons,” Bosen said. “They fly off and you spend all day chasing after them. A good day is when you return with your dog and your bird. When you also get some game, that’s a bonus.”
When Bosen was done hunting, he put on a leather glove and called to his hawks. The birds flew to his hand and he returned them to his truck.
Most falconers attach a tiny GPS radio transmitter to their birds. A few years ago they used radio transmitters, often with limited success. New GPS trackers link with smartphones and iPads to pinpoint a bird on a map.
“Compared to GPS, the (old radio system) was crap,” Brad Smoot said. “Now I can see exactly where my bird is.”
Buffat said he wished he had GPS years ago, while hunting for sage grouse.
“My falcon came down and smacked a sage grouse and knocked it to the ground, but sage grouse that time of the year are particularly tough and the bird got up and took off flying and my falcon took off after it,” he said. “That was 9 in the morning. I looked all day long using the conventional radio telemetry with no avail. It was getting dark and I had basically gone several hundred miles looking for my bird and couldn’t find it. I checked one last spot up by Terreton, 15 miles away, and got a really strong signal. I found my bird. It had been grabbed by an eagle and killed and carried 15 miles and dropped in the bushes. The eagle wasn’t even hungry, it was being territorial. But I was able to find it and get some closure.”
Falconers sometimes fly eagles. The big birds are brought to them for rehabilitation after injury or illness. Falconers must take care to keep the birds apart to prevent fatalities.
“You can’t believe how powerful eagles are,” Guritzky said. “I believe two men with vise grips couldn’t pull those talons off your arm.”
Falconers also use other high-tech gear to aid their hobby. Smoot attached a dangling lure from a drone that he flew to a specific height over the Arco desert. With each drone session, the bird is urged to fly a little higher — getting the bird in flying shape and teaching it to get up high enough to zoom back to earth with enough speed and force to take out a real target.
One thing falconers can do that other hunters can’t is operate close to urban areas. They are often hired to patrol airports, orchards and vineyards to keep pesky birds away.
“A bird through a jet engine is gonna cost $100,000,” said one falconer who had been hired to chase seagulls from an airport in California.