Master falconer brings live raptors to the South Shore this Saturday |

Master falconer brings live raptors to the South Shore this Saturday

Dylan Silver
Action file photo

If you go

What: Lake Tahoe Bird Festival

Where: Taylor Creek Visitors Center

When: June 8, Marie Gaspari Crawford will present at 3 p.m.

Marie Gaspari Crawford has a different kind of appreciation for birds and especially birds of prey. She’s a falconer. She looks raptors in the eye daily. She lets their needle-sharp talons grip her arm. When she calls, they come to her, sometimes with recently harvested prey.

Crawford will present about birds of prey and their significance in the ecosystem at the Lake Tahoe Bird Festival. She’ll even be showing a few birds of her own. She took a few minutes to talk to Lake Tahoe Action about the age-old practice of falconry and the not-so-cuddly birds she keeps.

Lake Tahoe Action: What is falconry?

Gaspari Crawford: Falconry is a sport that’s over 4,000 years old. It’s using birds to hunt and to provide food for the falconer and themselves.

How did you get started doing this?

My husband was a falconer about 30 years ago. He used to tell me stories about him and his birds. Because I grew up on a ranch and grew up around all kinds of wildlife, the idea of having a falcon never entered my mind. When he was telling me all about what he was doing and how he was doing it, it just sounded like something I wanted to do.

He got me some books for Christmas. After I read them and said this is something I really want to do. He said after you retire, if you still want to do this, I’ll help you. When I retired, we went down to the Department of Wildlife and found out all the current regulations. I went through the apprenticeship and became a general falconer and six years later became a master falconer with both the state and federal government.

What does being master falconer mean?

It’s kind of like the difference between having a bachelor’s degree and a Ph.D. You can have more birds. You can have a bigger variety of birds. You can have different European breeds. And you can apprentice falconry.

Is it just falcons?

It’s falcons and hawks.

What kinds of birds do you have?

I have two Peruvian Aplomado falcons and a white deer falcon. My niece, who will be with me, has a red-tailed hawk.

Do you actually hunt with them?

Yes I do. We have to abide by the same hunting laws that a person with a shotgun does. Unless it’s hunting season, I cannot hunt. Your hunting season is from October to February.

What do you typically hunt?

It just depends on what kind of bird you have and what you train that bird to hunt. With deer falcon, I have friends that go after swans, geese and ducks. The bird I have has been trained to go after pheasant and sage hen. With the Aplomado falcons, I was hoping to hunt quail and chukar with them. The red-tailed hawk usually you’re hunting things like jack rabbit. Our red tail likes to hunt snakes.

How long does it take to train a bird of prey to hunt with you?

To take a bird from the wild and train it, it takes about three weeks. They’re incredibly smart. They learn very fast.

Can you tell us about that process of training the raptors?

I’d rather not. That’s something that’s passed down from sponsor to apprentice. It’s something that has to be overseen. It’s not something that I’d want anyone to just go out and give it a try.

With a sport that’s so old, there must be a certain way of doing things.

You’re talking about a sport that’s 4,000 years old. It has a lot of history. Back in medieval times, the birds you owned were determined by your station in life. If you were caught with a bird that was above your status, you could be killed or have your hands chopped off. There were no questions about it. There was no discussion. You had the bird, end of story.

A knight could own a red-tailed hawk. If my niece or I were caught with a red-tailed hawk, we would be beheaded or have our hands chopped off. The deer falcon I have was only owned by kings or emperors because they can take down swan, geese and ducks. Those kinds of meats were only allowed to those kinds of people. A lady could only own a merlin. If you were a servant, you could only have a kestrel, which takes grasshoppers, rodents, little tweety birds. Having these birds was as common as having a dog these days. They took them to church. They took them to parties. They slept with them in their bedrooms.

Having one of these birds must really change your lifestyle.

It does. Your world kind of tends to revolve around them. Especially if you get little ones or young ones, it really becomes intensified. You have to feed this animal five times a day. Not only that, but there’s only one licensed raptor vet on the West Coast. She’s in Roseville, Calif. If I have veterinary problems, I have to go two-and-a-half hours over the summit. A lot of the veterinary work you have to do yourself. Part of what that sponsor teaches you in that two years of apprenticeship is not only the care and the training, but also the veterinary care and your bird identification.

Do you develop a relationship with them?

They are hunting partners. They’re not a pet, far from it. They are wild and they never lose that wildness. They’re birds of prey. Some birds get pretty tame, but they’re always, always treated with respect and trust. They have to trust you and you have to trust them.

So no cuddling?

No. They don’t cuddle real well. But I can tell you the first time I put my bird up in a tree, walked 500 yards away, threw up my fist, called to him and he flew straight to me, spread four-and-a-half feet of wings and lit on my arm as light a feather, it was a thrill I’ll never forget.

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