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Eyas Prairie Falcons

Eyas Prairie Falcons

Posted 2/6/2015

Can’t Live With Them, Can’t Live Without Them

Author: Eric Tabb
(Reprinted here with the permission of the Author)

While enjoying a warm, breezy late August morning out on the lawn, I gazed up on this year’s new eyas Prairie falcon “Slew Foot Sioux,” reflecting on how much we have been through together already this summer.


The fact that she is still with me is something of a miracle. Many eyas prairie falcons attempted by western falconers have gone their own way by now through some quirk of summer madness, telemetry or not. There are many issues to be resolved between a falconer and his or her young charge in the warm months following fledging. This early period is particularly difficult with this native desert species due to the propensity of fat baby prairie falcons to have a sudden change of heard about the “surrogate parent” , and bolting from the home territory. It is quite a dramatic and disconcerting phenomena; they just go insane and fling themselves toward Cheyenne. They typically can travel a long distance, putting them over rugged, roadless terrain in very short order, where telemetry often becomes ineffective. Frequently, this happens on a hot morning wind; I now fly prairies primarily in the evenings during the summer months. I lost a couple of nice prospects back in the eighties, this way, before I learned how to recognize the symptoms of “summer madness” onset.

This can happen to young Prairie falcons in captivity and in the wild, they migrate, or drift for a while, ending up in a variety of places where they find catchable food and a comfortable environment to await the coming of winter. Banding studies have shown that many of the prairies fledged in southwestern Idaho head north and east to the intermountain West. Ed Pitcher understands the dynamics of this behavior better than most. He described the desirability of the August caught prairie falcon in the journal of the Idaho falconers association in 1981. This article inspired a change in Idaho falcon trapping dates to allow capture of these particularly malleable early passage/post soar falcons several weeks earlier than was traditionally allowed. Few falconers have taken advantage of this opportunity. Finding and trapping these birds is not all that simple. A Few local falconers will take nice young Red tails in these high valleys, but prairie falcons are elusive, no doubt engrossed in some isolated prey base away from roadways.


I recall a comment by Bill Heinrich concerning both early and late passage Prairies. He claims to have had an easier time with November trapped falcons. Passage Prairies, caught at any point in their young life, are cool, calm, and efficient. If I were smart, I would stick with them alone and not bother with eyases and their tantrums. Some guys like Bruce Haak, Hubert Quade, and Ken Tuttle have figured this one out and have fun summers.


I have this problem, I can’t resist eyases when I am dangling from a cliff, over the splendor of the falcon’s territory. It is an intoxicating experience, and I am addicted. I love baby falcons; the way they smell, their playful nature. I don’t mind the constant dicing up of their daily rations or subjecting coworkers to mutes, down, and little baggies of meat. Sharon has been awfully good natured about the curtain hanging brancher (rock hopper) stage. Since moving to Idaho, it has been a spring ritual to hike to a few prairie eyries, both known and suspected, primarily for the recreational value and not always with the intent to take an eyas. While many falconers these days are busily phoning breeders, looking for that certain Peregrine, Gyr, or hybrid, I ponder such things as the size and wing beat of the haggard’s greeting me as I approach the cliff. In all honesty, if I had the disposable income, I would be “shopping” too. I am fortunate that the free alternatives are as attractive as it is.


After what is often a rather tricky search for the actual nest hole, the sight of a pile of downies is always exciting and reason enough for me to have left Florida years ago. Sometimes, the eyrie is not at all where you expected it to be, suddenly there they are, ridiculously accessible.


There is one eyrie close to town where I can immerse myself in wilderness within minutes, entering a world of mule deer, lupines, chukar partridge, rattlesnakes, and falcons with a commanding view of a city of 250,000 people below. I found the wing of a Columbian sharptailed grouse in that nest the year I moved to Boise. Then, I parked and hiked without seeing another human. Now, I have to ask permission twice before parking. I never took an eyas from this pair. They just seemed to belong to all those people down there, whether they knew of their existence or not. There are so many prairie falcons in this part of Idaho that we have the luxury of choice of where to take our eyases. Since the Snake River Birds of Prey Natural Area is off limits, those 300 or so pairs are subjected only to the occasional researcher. No big deal really, but it seems like a silly restriction that prevents a few eyases from coming out of that canyon for falconry. There are easily as many pairs in the surrounding mountains and foothills as there are in the SRBPNA, so we have many choices from mid May to early July. The vastness of Owyhee County, to the south, has been my choice of harvest for quite a few years now; it is such incredible country. The geology, flora, and fauna entrance anyone who explores this desert range.


Taking an eyas falcon, whether from a breeder or from the wild, is such a big commitment; one that most of us with a lot of commitments in life can not take lightly if the new falcon is to have a rewarding future as a game hawk. I have to admire falconers like the late Tom Hudson, a colorful fellow who moved to Idaho from southern California a few years ago. Tom was committed to his birds and his wine and seemed to possess a heart of gold toward his friends. He invented the “recipe” for rearing eyas raptors long ago by living with his eyases, making them truly a part of his every waking moment. His last new bird that I know of, before he dried up and died was one of the finest eyas Prairie falcons that I ever saw. Anyone who saw her smear a high flying pheasant over the cars at an IFA meet in Twin falls, while Tom lost his previous night’s libation in the tall alfalfa, had no doubt that they were witnessing mastery of a unique sort.


I found it interesting to read that the falconers of Zimbabwe, those who wish to take a Lanner falcon, generally take only passagers. This practice appears to be officially sanctioned by their regulations. Is it because eyas Lanners just take too long to develop into desirable game hawks? The releasability of passage raptors is a plus. Eyas African Peregrines are considered worthy of master class attention. Is this an availability issue or do the eyas become as competent as the passage without a lot of additional work? I’m sure the experience of survival has honed the passage Lanner into a worthy game falcon. The same can be said of any falcon. The Prairies have a rapid, aggressive wing beat and rapacious manner from day one, much like the Peregrine. I do not really know about eyas Lanner falcons. The few I have seen flew rather sluggishly at first. These were all females. Sometimes I see a fire in my eyases that is not as readily apparent in the cool reserved passage. It’s just an uninhibited rowdiness that I admire and enjoy. I have caught more game with the passage falcons that I have “borrowed” from the wild. I’ve had more fun “trying” to catch game with my eyases.


I probably should not be allowed to take eyas Prairies. Most of mine turn out to be noisy brats. Still, they excite me with their youthful enthusiasm in the field. Tiercels are wonderful. My Present tierce, a second year imprint named Sugar Ray, is a sweetheart. He is less than mind boggling in the field (at least in his first season) with most of our hunting involving small sage brush birds and feed lot multitudes. He is just a fun little hawk that you can go for a walk with the kids in the open desert and let him make a lot of flights off of everyone’s fist. He likes to fly and will stay on the wing, even in strong wind, for quite awhile before looking for a perching spot between flights. We have a flight pen of jumbo bobwhites this year to start the second season with a program to reinforce the waiting-on style. The local grey partridge population looks pretty good this year, although decent places to fly them diminish annually as Boise becomes a big city.


Returning to the new bird Sioux, she was named Slew Foot due to the odd fact that one of her feet was obviously larger (stouter) than the other at 20 days of age when she was taken from the eyrie. At about 40 days, with the baby puffiness gone, both feet became uniform with a good sized span for this 27 ounce (765 gram) falcon.


We had a brief yet enjoyable “tame hack.” Eyas Prairies in this part of Idaho are available very early. Sioux was on the wing by mid June, a time when Prairies from higher elevations nearby are just downies. There is an old gravel pit on top of a hill close to home that is a great spot to let rookie falcons take their first flights. It overlooks a pastured creek bottom that is alive with bird life. A road cuts below, separating the public hill from the private fields. It is a choice spot to watch the setting sun and observe a young falcon taking her first steps, so to speak. Sioux looked strong from her first transmitter fumbling sortie, rising without effort on a warm breeze lifting out of the pit. After a few inaugural circles, she began to make exploratory runs out over the pastures before returning to the top of the hill beside me. My youngest son, Logan found this a perfect time to explore the area too. He can’t resist hucking boulders off the edge and bringing the annoyed pair of Barn owls to my attention.


There is another tame hack site, much farther out in the desert that is our second phase of early education. On the edge of the SRBPNA, a lava dome out in the middle of thousands of acres of fire climax Cheat Grass provides the setting for the hard lessons of life for a young prairie in training. What must be close to a thousand young Prairies come out of the river canyon over this area each year at this very time, but we see very few. By now the ground squirrels that made their extraordinary numbers possible have estivated and the falcons, young and old, waste no time getting away from this place, searching for a greener pastures to spend the summer. It becomes the land of the raven with large, raucous bands of these formidable corvids roving about looking for trouble (or fun and food from their perspective). For a Gyr or a large Peregrine hybrid at tame hack, they provide a ready group of distracting playmates, annoying yet great for conditioning. For a smaller falcon, like a Prairie, the attention can be all too one-sided. If Prairies hung out in gangs, the combination might be fair, but a single falcon, especially on wearing noticeable foot gear, is in for a very bad time with ravens driving the youngster to exhaustion and fright. It is something that young falcons must experience, developing defense mechanisms and respect (contempt) if they are to fly successfully in southern Ada County. The ravens do not go away. And then there are the eagles!


Sioux’s first big trial by raven was just about her undoing. She was making big wide ranging flights from the lava dome, delighting in the wide-open spaces when she drifted just far enough away to be discovered by a passing squadron of ravens. They drove her far to the east. I finally caught up to her the next morning, three hours after dawn, hiding in the middle of a huge section of green waist high wheat. During the several mile cross-country walk/run, following a flock of black pirates harassing some poor unseen victim far ahead. When I finally caught up with the signal, I found one very spooked and tired falcon who bated away from me, but was so weak she could not fly.


From that day on, Sioux was a different bird. While some young Prairies snap for no apparent reason, this particular incident induced the “madness” this time, and I was now the boogeyman. Something had happened in her head before the flight began. Sioux had bated from the fist when we made eye contact and proceeded to range more widely than ever. This put her into the position to be harassed by the ravens. Back at home, she refused to sit on the fist, much less stand for the hood. Gone was the playful baby that played in my lap and put her head into the hood a few days before. I knew the weight had to come down. After being raised on six English sparrows a day, I knew that cooperation at 30 ounces (851 grams) was a lie. Half of a four week old cockerel a day got us back on track, along with some “calling off” lure exercises to redefine my role. Our upland gamebird opener of August 15th had come and gone without the hoped for trip east to try some young grouse. My hope is for a duck hawk, and with the aggressive way in which Sioux has taken a couple of domestic flying mallards, also raised this year, I am encouraged about our future “at the brook.” I can see them bouncing off the basalt in my mind’s eye now.


Back to my meditations on the lawn, I see a sleek young falcon, nibbling at the “feathers” of my English setter’s front legs as she rolls on her back under the block. It is hard to imagine how much she hated us all, several weeks ago. So many things can happen to a falconer’s birds in the field these days. Not all of them are good either. It seems like a miracle that we keep them for any length of time at all. We made it through our first real test, thanks to telemetry, and I am sure there will be many test to come. Surviving them makes those sweet sunsets with freshly plucked feathers laying about all that more rewarding.


It is not my intention in writing this article to try to present myself as some kind of expert on the subject of eyas Prairie falcons. It seems like the longer I try to be a real falconer, the harder it gets to succeed even halfway. I see examples around me of younger falconers doing a better job with prairies and other species than I am, usually due to lifestyle differences, but also with extraordinary feeling for the needs of hunting raptors. This makes me encouraged for the future.


What I do wish to promote is the concept of today’s yeoman falconer utilizing his/her native species of raptors, pursuing the available prey species. We all get excited about exotic and expensive hawks and prey; the fantasy flights of our dreams. However when we take a good look at the falconry conditions around us, close to home, going native makes a lot of sense. Back before telemetry, in Florida we flew locally caught passage Peregrines over what is their native winter range. When a falcon was lost anywhere in Date County, we could almost always recover them at a big lake close to home, along whose shores they were initially trained. These same falcons were also released here in the spring, but often stayed by the lake for several weeks before heading north. It really is a shame that this practice has been illegal for over twenty-five years. Thank goodness there have been options to switch to.


If anything, I hope to be able to impress upon those of fewer years experience, and even those with more, of what a tremendous resource we have in our native raptors and the truly rewarding experience of obtaining the birds, flying them in, and often releasing them to their home territories. Take a native falcon or hawk sometime, while in a slump from barn birds, and discover your roots. Do it because you can.