March 8, 2013
Hunting with birds of prey instead of weapons like guns or arrows is known as falconry. It’s an ancient sport that has been lauded in literature such as “Ivanhoe” and “My Side of the Mountain.” But it lives beyond stories in Pennsylvania. And some people who practice it are more than just hobbyists—they’re also wildlife educators.
I visited three local veteran falconers while reporting this story. Each has a distinct style and way of working with their birds. But they were all equally committed to the sport of falconry and to sharing their passion and knowledge with others.
I met Dave Farabaugh in the Pittsburgh suburb of West View, where he let me tag along for my first hunt. Initially it seemed an odd place to do what he has been doing for three decades—using birds of prey to hunt.
“I hunt with red tails. I’m a city hawker. I hunt and the bird follows me,” says Farabaugh.
He takes his red-tailed hawk to hunt in this ravine at least three times a week. He whacks the knee-deep thorny brush with a stick, disturbing the rabbits beneath as his hawk watches from a tall tree. He calls this patch of land the “rabbitat,” because it’s generally full of them.
Farabaugh is among about 170 active falconers in Pennsylvania and 4,500 in the United States. While the sport has been around since the ancient Egyptians and practiced in nearly every civilization throughout Eurasia, it wasn’t until the 1970s that it became a regulated sport in the United States. At that time Pennsylvania boasted close to 40 falconers, but they were unorganized and practicing independently.
One of those early Western Pennsylvania falconers was Earl Schriver.
“Falconry started when I was 13,” says Schriver. “Number 1 because of Boy Scouts, number 2 because of reading. "Ivanhoe," "The Black Knight," all of those—they talked about falconry. Why not? We had hawks on the farm. I was the original falconer of Western Pennsylvania.”
At 82 years old, Schriver has spent the last 70 years trapping, banding, rehabilitating, and even breeding birds of prey. He has three large-scale bird houses, or mews, on his property in Cranberry. They once housed 20 birds including a great horned owl and two golden eagles. He’s down to four birds now.
He takes me out to the newest mews where his four raptors live and introduces me to each. There’s a 26 year old asiatic saker falcon, who he describes as “rough and tumble”. Then there’s JR, the 6-year-old peregrine falcon from Spokane, Washington. He has a 56-oz red-tailed hawk who is on a diet after he let her get fat this winter. Then there’s his pride and joy, Lizzy the hybrid.
“She is half peregrine falcon, quarter deer falcon and quarter saker falcon. In other words—she doesn’t have a clue.”
Schriver bred her here on his property in Cranberry. Lizzy is a beautiful mix of salmon, white, and brown plumage. She squawks relentlessly when we enter her cage. I ask Schriver if it’s because of me. He says no, she thinks he’s the male falcon. She’s trying to court Schriver.
He pulls out a light yellow tuft of feathers from his pocket. “What were you about to feed her?” I ask.
“Day-old chicks,” he replies. “Early Chicken McNuggets. These birds can digest nothing but raw meat. They’re killing machines. People don’t seem to understand that.”
But that’s not for a lack of trying on Schriver’s part. Retired now, he used to give presentations to school children, showing off his birds as what they are—predators. He would teach as many as 25 lectures a year at the McKeever Environmental Learning Center in Sandy Lake, Pa.
One of Schriver’s missions was to rid children of what he calls "The Bambi Complex."
“You get something as beautiful as these birds, and they are, and they start eating a day old chick or a rat or rabbit or something like that, and it makes you wonder about the birds and animals, talking to one another? No, they eat one another,” he says.
Jeff Finch is another falconer who shares Schriver’s mission to educate. His day job is principal of a high school in Allegheny County and he uses this position to teach his students about birds of prey.
“I feel like, particularly kids, if they get to feel like they’ve developed a relationship with something, then they’re more apt to realize it out there in the wild, be attentive to it and feel like there’s a reason to support it,” says Finch.
But education is only a small part of falconry. It’s much more than showing off birds. Each of the three falconers I spoke with emphasized that falconry is a consuming commitment.
“You’re engaging in, in my view, a contract,” says Finch. “A contract with the history and integrity of falconry and a contract with the regulations of the state and government. And in that contract you’ve agreed to give good care to that bird, but also to use that bird as a free-flight hunter.”
What does that contract involve? A lot of time.
Before one can become a licensed falconer, he or she must take part in a two-year apprenticeship and pass several tests and inspections. Once a falconer, the practice itself involves hours of commitment a day.
Falconers are obsessed with their birds’ weight. Food is the only control they have over them. If you release a bird when it’s full, it won’t come back to you. But, you can’t release it underweight either. It needs to be, what they say in falconry, “feather perfect.”
To this end, Dave Farabaugh weighs his hawk several times a day, marking it in a log.
“This morning I weighed her at 6:30 at 39.3. Today at noon she weighed 38.5. So she burned a few grams,” Farabaugh says as he reads his red-tailed hawk’s logs.
Today Farabaugh is flying his bird at 39 ounces. That’s just shy of its normal 40-oz weight. He wants her to be a touch hungrier than usual, since there’s a stranger tagging along—me.
But for falconers like Schriver, Finch, and Farabaugh, they are fully rewarded for all of their diligence. They gain access to the most fundamental part of nature: the chase.
In fact, they each told me that their favorite flights were the ones that didn’t end in a kill because that’s when you get to truly witness the natural world.
“It’s rewarding because you’re in their world,” says Farabaugh. “Mother nature’s 50/50—that bird can chase a bunny and a lot of times he’ll get it, a lot of times he won’t get it.”
Today was one of those days that did not end in a kill. But that doesn’t diminish Farabaugh’s spirits. He calls the bird back to him and rewards it with a day-old chick he had hiding in his pocket.