This baby will really fly
Some people cart their children to work.
Like a proud papa, Gene Landfather is watching over a 4-week-old half-peregrine, half-gyr falcon named Couyah Wachee this week. That’s Sioux for dancing bird.
The South Shore Motors salesman, a 7-year licensed falconer, brought his baby into the dealership in an open carrier during his shift to nurture the bird. He picked up the bird from a Reno breeder almost two weeks ago.
The bird, with feathers softer than a baby’s bottom, preened itself Tuesday while investigating the surroundings with its signature piercing eyes.
The stare was reminiscent of anyone who’s left a dealership in a daze shopping for a car.
But like a trooper waiting for Dad, Couyah occasionally fluttered his feathers, squeaking and quacking with the passing of each visitor.
At 9 weeks, Couyah will be fully grown, an accelerated pace of development the 53-year-old Gardnerville resident still finds “hard to comprehend.”
He’s cared for 30 birds ranging from ravens and hawks to owls and falcons, so the dealership’s upper management knows that a bird on the job goes with the territory.
Most breeders advocate raising falcons with their parents until Couyah’s age.
Beyond keeping an eye on its growth, the birder seeks to somewhat desensitize the non-social animal to seeing people.
“See that ball? He just ate a half quail,” Landfather said Tuesday, pointing to a lump in the bird’s chest. He buys 100 frozen quail at a time for the bird’s four daily feedings.
Falcons are raised to hunt crows, ducks and pigeons. Their habitat may include the rural landscape of cliffs to the urban awnings of skyscrapers. The activity has made the Bonaventure Hotel in downtown Los Angeles a hotspot for the lunch crowd watching them fly and hunt pigeons.
Landfather advocates education of predatory birds like the peregrine falcon – known for being the fastest animal on Earth. One of the rarest birds, the gyrfalcon has the distinction of being the largest and most powerful of the family.
Landfather tours schools urging the BB gun age to refrain from shooting the birds.
“That’s the real hope – that people will come in and see him and realize these aren’t the birds you shoot,” he said.
The education doesn’t end with the public.
His responsibilities also include teaching the birds little “streetwise” tricks a parent would teach a child.
For example, falcons need to learn to look up to survive.
“You don’t walk down Eighth Avenue in Oakland with a Rolex watch on,” he said, recalling a lesson in nature’s hard knocks when he lost a bird to a golden eagle.
Landfather’s love and passion of these birds started early.
“I used to dream I was flying with a fish-eye lens over the Grand Canyon,” he said.
Landfather estimated that in about five weeks his hybrid bird will fly, a demanding hobby that eventually gets him up at dawn and out again in the evening when the bird is fully grown.
Like many falconers, Landfather will fly his raptor using a transmitter.
“When he’s on the chase, he’s gone, and sometimes you don’t know where he is,” he said.
The numbers of peregrine falcons have soared in the last 30 years to more than 1,600 breeding pairs, representing a miraculous success story of the Endangered Species Act. The recovery led to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Yreka delisting the bird two years ago.
Peregrines were placed on the endangered list in 1973, when their numbers plummeted to 324 nesting pairs in all of North America.
The universal assessment for their recovery revolves around the widespread restriction of the pesticide DDT – dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane and PCB – polychlorinated bipheny poisoning. The chemicals essentially thinned the bird’s eggshells, killing the hatchlings.
Fish and Wildlife singled out the nation’s falconers as chief contributors to the birds’ return from near extinction. During this time, falconers shared their extensive captive breeding techniques to reintroduce the species to the wild.
Landfather believes these birds – which can live for 20 years under the best of circumstances – have a better chance of survival under the care of a falconer than in the wild.
There is a controversial view of the practice.
Protectionists have expressed the steadfast belief that the birds are better off in the wild.
“Usually when young birds are in the nest, there is some rate of mortality in the wild. It is possible for a baby bird to have a better chance of survival in captive breeding programs, so they don’t have to compete with their nest mates,” Fish and Wildlife Service Supervisor and ornithologist Phil Detrich said.
Falconry, deemed the ancient sport of kings, dates back as far as 2000 B.C. in China.
During its early years, it inspired knights, soldiers, aristocrats and even Shakespeare in Macbeth.
Its rich tradition has lasted through the ages. Socially, hawking parties entertained aristocrats. Mythically, the peregrine falcon was thought to be sacred to the God Apollo. Culturally, the bird of prey was revered in Japan as a symbol of victory to soldiers receiving medals of honor.
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