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Fighting beak and claw

May 16, 1977
May 16, 1977

Table of Contents
May 16, 1977

Slew Flew
Away With Cey
Baseball
Pro Football
Pro Basketball
Rowing
Hockey
Raptors
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over

Fighting beak and claw

Man used to look upon birds of prey as varmints. Now, with the very existence of some of these proud, beautiful creatures threatened, he is working hard, and with a glimmer of hope, to save them

By Donald Dale Jackson

We arrived at the canyon about 20 minutes before sundown. For a few moments there was no sound but the waterfall rush of the wind through the fir trees atop the cliff. We stared west, down the canyon toward the gap where it opened onto the sagebrush plain of western Utah.

This is an article from the May 16, 1977 issue Original Layout

Kent Keller spotted it first. He pointed at a black speck on the orange horizon, heading our way. Ron Joseph, the leader of the pocket safari, clamped his binoculars to his eyes, found the speck and smiled. "Yep, it's a bald," he said happily, "and he's fine, too, really fine." He hunched his shoulders in concentration. "Hey," he cried, "here come two more—wait a minute, there's another one." Joseph was trying to focus and point and make notes all at once.

The first eagle glided through the gap and into the canyon, flapped its great dark wings a few times and lit on a protruding ledge about 500 feet up the cliff. Then it began a slow, rim-to-rim examination of everything on the canyon floor, including us. Through the binoculars, I watched the burning eyes appraise us and move on—Let's see, three men, a pickup truck; nothing there for me.

The pair flying in tandem were an adult and a juvenile, the mature bird recognizable by the snow-white head that bald eagles acquire after four or five years. They scooted around the high cliff like children at a picnic, chasing and brushing each other, nearly locking in the air, then peeling off in sudden sharp turns. Keller squinted and pointed. We saw another half dozen eagles making for their roost on the canyon wall. One by one they flew through the gap, eased up on the throttle and landed, a squadron of jets returning to their carrier. One came in chirping in a peculiar, high-pitched voice. The sound an eagle makes is so startling a contrast to its appearance and manner that it seems a cosmic trick on the bird, a sabotaging of its dignity. It is as if John Wayne opened his mouth to speak and Jerry Lewis' voice came out.

Now, as still more white-crowned eagles soared toward the roost, a new chorus of squeaks came from the cliff. The call seemed to follow a pattern: the same note repeated five times, then a quick four notes down the scale. The eagles already settled were letting the later arrivals know that they were in place and comfortable, thanks. The message was Find another perch, but it didn't always work. Several times a younger bird flapped off, squawking, displaced by an elder with eyes for a particular ledge or branch.

Keller scanned the cliff with his glasses. "Twenty-one," he said. "All balds. Seventeen adults and four immatures." "Great," Joseph said. "This is the best day this winter." The two were gathering eagle data for Joseph's master's thesis in zoology at Brigham Young University.

The sun was about to set beneath the sage and the air was suddenly cold. "They're just about all in now," Joseph said. "They won't go anywhere after dark." Shadows climbed the cliffside, embracing the eagles and shuttering another day of hunting. All of them faced the valley rather than the cliff, ready for first light tomorrow.

We stared at the cliff as the shadows deepened. The birds were silent except for an occasional soft chirp, much less strident than before. "That's just happy talk, conversation," Joseph said. We could hear the waterfall sound of wind again. A few tentative snow drops were falling as we climbed into Keller's pickup for the drive back to Provo.

Joseph was elated. "What a day! What a day!" he exulted. "Who says there's no eagles anymore?"

For the large and growing number of Americans who are worried about wildlife, some of the news from the bird world, raptor division, is heartening. Raptors are birds of prey: eagles, hawks, falcons, owls and a few other species, united by the marvelous weapons they carry at the ends of their legs—and the ability to use them on live prey. Despite a once-dubious reputation, they have become fashionable. Corporations contribute to their well-being. Rewards are offered for information concerning their persecutors. Laws have been written to protect them. It is no longer legal in the U.S. to shoot or otherwise maim any bird of prey. There is even a federal protective area in Idaho for raptors, and there is talk of creating others. Research grants are available for raptor studies; one biologist went West a few years ago to investigate bighorn sheep, but he switched to eagles when he discerned the direction of the cash drift.

The sport of falconry is becoming more and more popular. Falconers, who train raptors to fly at lures or game, are sometimes thought of by orthodox nature lovers as bloodthirsty knaves indulging in weird medieval rites. Some falconers are irresponsible, dishonest and cruel, but most are serious outdoorsmen who have led the fight to help birds of prey. In Colorado the number of licensed falconers rose from 49 in 1966 to 116 in 1971, to 176 in 1975.

The burgeoning popularity of raptors is a new phenomenon. Their historic reputation is found in a description of a goshawk in an 1898 bird book: "Another villain of deepest dye; what good can be said of it beyond that it wears handsome feathers, is a devoted mate and parent, a fearless hunter.... Whitewashing is useless in the case of a bird known to be the most destructive creature on wings. No more daring marauder prowls above the poultry yards than the goshawk that drops like a thunderbolt from a clear sky at the farmer's very feet and carries off his chickens before his eyes." The goshawk's sin was its taste in food. The chickens, rabbits and ducks it preferred were also favored by his brother predator, good old Homo sapiens.

In recent years, however, conservation has become accepted, even chic. But it took disaster to make raptors acceptable. Some species were disappearing, their numbers reduced by itchy-fingered hunters, by golf courses and housing developments that were eating into their once-wild terrain, by power lines that fried their feathers, by pesticides, particularly DDT. Then 20 dead eagles were discovered in Jackson Canyon, Wyo., victims of a particularly venomous trapping poison called thallium sulfate. A Wyoming pilot said he had flown eagle hunters on contracts for sheep ranchers and that the airborne assassins had shot down 770 eagles. In the Eastern U.S. the American peregrine, or duck hawk, had completely vanished, and in the West there were fewer than 60 pairs.

The new, ecologically aware society would take no more. Letters flew. Phones rang. Laws passed. In 1972 the use of DDT in the U.S. was virtually banned and all raptors received federal protection. The raptors, blessedly innocent of man's moralities and pieties, single-mindedly concentrating on the business of snatching rabbits, squirrels, mice, ducks and the occasional lamb, were suddenly objects of public and private affection, recipients of protection, of intense scientific analysis. Several species seem to be making a comeback.

Tom Dunstan's government pickup truck bounced along a barely visible road in a section of southwestern Idaho known to raptor project scientists as Little Baja. The Snake River lay a few hundred yards away, off the end-of-the-world lip of a sage plain that abruptly yielded to a deep canyon.

Dunstan is a university biologist working for the Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management. He studies the habits of golden eagles, prairie falcons and red-tailed hawks in the federal raptor sanctuary, the Birds of Prey Natural Area. One way he does this is to trap the birds and attach tiny transmitters to their backs. He then tracks their movements on a receiver in his truck.

A mile ahead of us, perched on a power pole, was Morlita, a female golden eagle and Dunstan's love object. "Lord, she's on one of the bad poles," he said. The bad poles have three parallel wires the same height above the ground, spaced a few feet apart. Eagles are electrocuted when their wings touch two hot wires simultaneously. "The power company has changed a lot of them," he said. "They elevated the middle wire. There aren't nearly as many fried eagles as there used to be."

Dunstan stopped the truck and put on his earphones. A firm, steady beep came from Morlita's transmitter. He was happy to see her and was not too worried about the power pole. "She's at least 15 and she knows how to fly," he said. "It's the young ones who come in with wings flapping that get electrocuted. She'll just sit there all day and maybe get a rabbit 20 minutes before dusk and that's it for the day." He started the truck and moved toward her. When we were 200 yards away she sailed off and found another, more distant perch.

"That's today's acceptable distance," Dunstan said.

The Snake River Natural Area has the largest known concentration of raptors in North America. An estimated 30 pairs of golden eagles and 200 pairs of prairie falcons nest in the 500-foot-high cliffs and buttes along the river. The main architect of the Natural Area is a 60-year-old raptor expert and falconer named Morley Nelson, who lobbied for the area for years before it came into being in 1971. Nelson is a rugged, charismatic man who is idolized by most American falconers and raptor admirers. "He's rough and scaly and rugged and beautiful like an eagle," Dunstan says of him. "He's not a peregrine—he's not suave and pretty. He's like an eagle. Beautiful, you know, but not pretty."

Dunstan drove down a switchback road to the bottom of the Snake River Canyon. He pointed to splotches of white on the walls. "Each one of those droppings stains marks a nest site," he said, "most of them prairie falcons'." Half a dozen sites were visible. Prairie falcons were spared the decimation suffered by peregrines because of their different habitats and diets. The prairies are desert birds that feed primarily on rodents, while peregrines concentrate on birds that eat DDT-laden insects. The prairies' prey, mainly desert-plant eaters, carry little or no DDT.

We looked at the river crashing over rocks and thundering toward its rendezvous with the Columbia. "On a spring evening you can just sit here and listen to the birds calling," Dunstan said. "What a way to live! They're protected, they're clever and strong, and God, those eyes. They can drill a hole through the back of your head."

The sight of a falcon in flight is one of nature's glorious excesses, a spectacle so compelling that it demands an encore. Falcons are the superjocks of birddom, the Bruce Jenners and Nadia Comanecis of the air. Wary falconers like to pooh-pooh the end result of all that beauty and grace—the kill—and carry on about aerial style. But, in fact, they are inseparable—form and function, flight and kill. The English naturalist J. A. Baker was aware of this when he wrote the following description of a peregrine's "stoop," or attack dive:

"Coming straight down at me, it had not the shape of a bird. It was like a falling head, a shark's head dropping from the sky. It made a faint sighing that quickly hardened to a shrill whining sound, like the wind harping through high wires. A great black-backed gull obscured the peregrine for a second as it passed over towards the shore.... There was a loud slamming bang. The gull buckled like hot metal."

My lone experience with falconry was a day this past winter on the marshy edges of Great Salt Lake. Two friends offered to let me watch their falcons—an Arctic-born gyrfalcon and a prairie falcon—hunt wild game.

We drove for an hour in search of pheasant or ducks. One of the tenets of falconry is that the falconer finds the game first, then releases his bird. He doesn't want to release the bird with no game in sight, lest the bird begin to wonder why he needs this human clown anyway.

Finally we spotted a lone mallard, mysteriously down in the middle of a pasture with no water in sight. The falconer donned his glove and grabbed the prairie, which was hooded to encourage tranquillity. From the bird's legs he disengaged the leather "jesses," a pair of short lines, and removed the hood. The falcon looked all around, taking in everything, then fluttered its wings, signifying readiness. The falconer raised his arm and shouted, and the prairie roared off.

As the falconer loped across the pasture toward the target mallard, the bird began to "ring up," climbing in graceful spirals. The mallard flushed and took off on a low, edgy trajectory. The falcon, 600 feet aloft, spotted the duck and went into its stoop. It looked like an arrow, perfectly aimed and formed, without an ounce of excess. The duck was scrambling but the falcon was closing, dropping at an angle of perhaps 60 degrees and at a speed of maybe 150 mph.

The mallard headed for a small pond. Falcons don't strike a bird sitting on water, so the pond meant deliverance, but when the duck was 20 feet above the pond the falcon hit. The mallard dropped like a sandbag, and when it fell we realized the defect in its escape plan: the pond was frozen. I wondered if, and when, the duck realized that.

We galloped across the field and ran breathlessly around the pond. The falconer knelt beside his bird, which was calmly ripping off chunks of duck. The man removed the heart and liver and fed them to the falcon, coaxing it onto his gloved hand. He murmured constantly to the bird, offering a hum of reassurance, trying to reinforce their alliance.

"She doesn't need me," he explained, "except to the degree that I provide food for her. There's no reward and punishment in our relationship; you don't punish a falcon. If she knows that we work together in hunting, and that she gets game that way, that's all I can ask. She'll stay with me until one day when she decides to leave." He looked affectionately at the falcon on his gloved fist. "Atta bird," he said.

Falconry is ensnarled in an overlapping, tedious and sometimes melodramatic web of law, suspicion, intrigue, money, politics and paranoia. At the moment, everyone involved is a little dubious about everyone else. Federal Fish and Wildlife agents distrust scientists. The state wildlife cops aren't sure about the feds. Scientists feel persecuted. And falconers don't like anybody.

The laws regulate what kind of birds a falconer can have, how many, where he can get them, whether he can take them out of state, how he takes care of them and just about everything else, including the type of equipment he needs. "It takes me a day just to fill out all the papers," one falconer complains. All this has led to the rise of a black market, the buying and selling of protected raptors, particularly prized peregrines and gyrfalcons, although its extent is still unknown to federal authorities.

The black market is complicated by what might be called the Arab Connection, which seeps through falconry like an oil slick. Arabs love to hunt with falcons—"It's their baseball and football," says Morley Nelson—and they have a lot of cash, some of it recently ours. The result is an atmosphere of rumor and skulduggery. Arab sheiks will pay $10,000 for a good peregrine, more than $20,000 for a good gyrfalcon. American smugglers, in league with unscrupulous falconers, are ready to supply this market. A recent case involved a Chicago businessman who made the mistake of buying two peregrines from an undercover federal agent for shipment to a sheik he wanted to impress. The feds busted him on an illegal-sale charge—a misdemeanor—and he paid a $500 fine.

But Fish and Wildlife officers complain that they lack the money and manpower to stop the illegal traffic. "The FBI could do it but it's not their thing," a Fish and Wildlife man says. "We could say to them that if you watch the flights from New York to Europe and Arabia for two weeks you'll find falcons being transported illegally, and they'd say 'big deal.' " The evacuation of London's Heathrow Airport during a bomb scare led to the discovery of a box in a men's room containing six young gyrfalcons.

Because of its athletic ability and relatively placid temperament, the most prized bird for falconry in the U.S. is the peregrine, of which there are three North American subspecies. Two of the three have been radically depleted. The survival of the subspecies closest to extinction, the American peregrine, has been virtually assured—at least in captivity—by a new technique developed by Cornell ornithologist Tom Cade, who breeds peregrines in a big barn and releases them to the wild. Cade's taste for raptors was nurtured on his grandfather's farm in Texas. He had a Cooper's hawk as a boy, later graduated to falcons and became a master falconer. Ten years ago, with the American peregrine plunging to disaster, he began accumulating peregrines at his upstate New York laboratory. Some he trapped in Alaska, others were borrowed from falconers. Cade and his crew, improvising as they went along, encountered problems undreamed of by chicken farmers. For one thing, as is true with any number of species, including Homo sapiens, every female peregrine is not automatically smitten by every male peregrine, and vice versa. Some simply dislike each other and will do nothing to advance the species. Cade switches partners when that happens.

Because a young chick tends to "imprint" on its source of food, if the source is human, the bird associates human beings with food. This won't do for a bird released to the wild; he'd wind up hanging around supermarket parking lots. In an effort to solve this, a puppet that looks like a peregrine was tried last year; ground-up quail meat was squeezed out of a plastic bag in the puppet's mouth, thus disguising human intervention. More practically, young birds are returned to the care of adult birds 12 days after they are hatched, this being when they can first see well.

Working in his unheated hawk barn at Ithaca, Cade and his staff began to increase their breeding stock. They learned to artificially inseminate peregrines. They induced unsuspecting females to lay two clutches of eggs by removing the first batch to an incubator, which stimulated the birds to recycle, so to speak.

By 1974 they were ready to release the young birds. Two captive-bred peregrines were placed in an enclosure on the roof of a 10-story building in New Paltz, N.Y., fed until their flight feathers were grown, then released. Two more were taken to Colorado and planted in the nest of a pair of wild peregrines, which readily adopted them. A Western branch of Cade's lab was established at Fort Collins, Colo., and in 1975 the New York and Colorado breeding centers delivered 16 more young peregrines to the countryside. Twelve are known to have survived the first few months, and five of these were still around in 1976. One turned up on the 32nd-floor ledge of a Baltimore building, startling the tenant within, who knew it wasn't a pigeon. (In 1943, peregrines nested on a terrace of Manhattan's St. Regis Hotel.) Another was spotted on the Hudson River Palisades, a historic peregrine nesting site opposite New York City.

Last year 42 birds were released, 37 in the East and five in the West. Equipped with bands and transmitters (which beep for about six weeks), the young peregrines dispersed to the ridges, riverside cliffs and marshes, which are their natural habitats.

"Cade's project is the best thing that's happened since raptors began," says Morley Nelson. "Humanity is actually helping raptors, looking deeply at them, doing something more than cussing them." Haifa dozen other countries, including Canada, Japan and West Germany, have embarked on peregrine-breeding projects. The next test is to see whether the captive-bred birds will breed successfully in the wild, but it will take two or three years of maturation to find that out. Even if the birds don't breed, the Cornell scientists have the know-how to keep reproducing them until the problem is solved.

A generation ago, the idea of several dozen scientists working on the survival of a single threatened subspecies would have been laughed out of the faculty clubs. It's still a bit hard to grasp, particularly when it is acknowledged that the peregrine's contribution to ecological balance is minimal. Cade's motivation is frankly esthetic. "It's not even their physical beauty so much," he says. "It's their function, the way they move and act in the air. It's how they fly and pursue and attack. The kill is anticlimax. I tell conservationists who object to falconry that if they saw a peregrine attack, they'd write sonnets about it."

Cade is a falconer, and so are many of his colleagues. "It's a case of self-interest and public interest dovetailing," says a pun-prone government biologist. No other bird, not even the much-decorated eagle, would inspire that effort, because no other bird flies like a peregrine.

Cade's project is helped by private contributions, including $30,000 Arabs have donated to the Cornell operation (the annual budget is about $175,000). Moreover, a former Cornell graduate student is now on the payroll of an Arab sheik, developing a falcon-breeding project in Bahrain, complete with an air-conditioned hawk barn. This causes lips to curl in some wildlife precincts, but there is nothing illegal about it.

The cascade of positive developments in the raptor world—the laws, the protected area, the banning of DDT and the perfection of captive breeding—can make a raptor fan giddy with confidence. Yet eagles, hawks and other raptors are still shot with disillusioning frequency, law or no law. Fish and Wildlife agents can't do much about it because of the sheer expanse of territory involved; they have one man, for example, in all of Wyoming, prime eagle country. Dr. Lee Eggleston, a Colorado Springs veterinarian, estimates that half of the 400 injured raptors he has seen in the past five years were gunshot victims—and less than half survived. Eggleston's other winged patients either collided with something, most often a car, or became ill when they were captured and improperly fed. "People give them weenies, stew meat, pizza," he says. "People think raptors can eat whatever is available at the supermarket. But the wrong diet can soften their bones or cause them to lose muscle control."

Nonetheless, Eggleston illustrates another ace in the raptor's deck—the emergence of raptor aid stations. Stellanie Ure, a thin, dark-eyed mother of two, operates one at her home south of Salt Lake City. Wildlife officers send her their injured eagles and other raptors. "Sometimes they leave them in a box at my door," she says. A self-taught biologist, she treats their wounds and gentles them back to health. Much of the treatment is improvised, because there are no textbooks on raptor anatomy. "Sometimes I'll use Gatorade or boiled Coke with egg yolks and vitamins to pull them out of shock. It works." Occasionally, a recuperating raptor gets surly. "A red-tailed hawk came at my face once," she recalls. It took six stitches to mend Ure's torn lip.

Ure's reward comes when she liberates a healthy bird. I watched her release a marsh hawk one day. She held the bird for about 30 seconds, then turned it into the wind and let it go. It flew off over a ravine where it caught an updraft and spiraled upward until it was almost lost from sight. "Look at him," she cried. "He couldn't flap his wings when I first saw him. He's so strong now. He's flying for the joy of it. Oh, my, that's perfect."

Sheepmen, who protest that eagles gobble up too much of their profits, are probably responsible for some of the shooting and trapping that go on. A sheepman can get special permission to kill an eagle if he can convince a Fish and Wildlife agent that a particular bird is picking on him, but such permission is rarely granted. When a southern Montana sheepman convinced the feds that eagles were ravaging his lambs, their solution was to trap 145 golden eagles and transplant them to far-off habitats. The rancher says it didn't work; either the same eagles or others with similar appetites are still around.

But shooting and trapping were never the real levelers, and neither were power lines. The villains are more complex and insidious: economic progress, population growth, that cherished American tradition, "development," and pesticides. After DDT was banned in the U.S., companies here turned to less lethal pesticides. But DDT is still being manufactured by several foreign firms, as well as by one in the U.S., almost exclusively for export, and in Latin America it is still being used. The tundra peregrine, one of the three North American subspecies, regularly migrates from the Arctic to Latin America and back. In recent years the tundra population has declined sharply as a direct consequence of DDT absorption, presumably ingested in Latin America. Thus the tundra peregrine's survival depends not only on biologists, but also on the State Department, international agreements and the clash of priorities in a dozen other countries.

"People pollution," the dogged proliferation of our own beleaguered species, is a constant threat to raptors as well. "If the population of Wyoming increases half as much as some of the projections," says a worried government biologist, "it could destroy the best eagle areas in the state." Eagle aeries in Utah have been supplanted by cliffside homes. A rare-hawk habitat in the Southwest was taken over by a golf course. The Snake River sanctuary will eventually have to deal with farmers who hanker for the vacant public land near the refuge, land that now supports raptors' prey, mostly squirrels and rabbits.

The fuel shortage is another hazard. A proposed raptor management area in northern Alaska lies uncomfortably close to an oil field. Untapped coal beds in Montana, Wyoming and Colorado underlie some of the finest eagle habitats in the country.

When the government men talk of "management," they mean both protecting and controlling raptors and their habitats. It is a curious word to apply to raptors. One doesn't think of managing these exquisite creatures. How do you manage an eagle when you get close to those wicked talons? "I was caught once or twice by a golden eagle," says Dr. Eggleston, "and it was like getting your hand stuck in a garbage truck."

But the raptors have a secret, and it's so good it may guarantee their survival, management or no. The secret is that we are both predators—raptors and humans—and, in a sense, we need each other. They need us for habitat protection and for good works like the Cornell peregrine project. We need them for equally or more important reasons: for beauty, yes; for the spirit, O.K.; but mostly as a symbol for our own determination to survive as well.

We occupy the same general position in the food chain that they do—at the top. If pesticides can do in raptors, they can do in us.

"If we don't protect them," says Utah biologist Al Heggen, "we're likely to be left with only those miserable species that can associate closely with man—the Norway rat, the cockroach, the house fly, the mosquito. If we let the peregrine go, we will be more ready to let another species go, and another and another...."

The survival of the raptors is our survival, that's the secret. We have to help them for our sake.

TWO PHOTOSLooking fierce and indomitable, a merlin (left) and an American peregrine clutch fresh kills, but residual pesticides in such prey as the merlin's starling are insidiously decimating some raptors.PHOTODespite its fully protected status, the golden eagle is still shot and poisoned by sheep ranchers.PHOTOA prairie falcon, about to be trapped for research purposes, attacks a mechanical squirrel lure.