Brigitte Bowers: UC Merced calls out falcon to help clean up the skies

February 7, 2014 

Editor’s note: This is the first in a three-part series.

On the morning of Jan. 30, Sonic didn’t make weight. Like any other athlete, the Barbary falcon doesn’t perform at his best if he’s overweight, and that was the situation falconer George Pena, Sonic’s handler, had to contend with on that gray, drab morning.

If he tried to fly Sonic, the bird wouldn’t do well, and that would be bad for the falcon. Though Pena was standing in the middle of the newest campus in the University of California system, a campus built in the 21st century, his dilemma was ancient: The problem of whether or not to fly one’s falcon dates back at least 4,000 years to the Xia dynasty of China.

Records from that period indicate falcons were presented to Chinese royalty as gifts, though historians are unsure about whether the falcons were used for hunting or kept as pets. However, historians suspect that falconry might really have started in prehistoric times when hunters learned to follow birds of prey and steal their food when they made a catch.

Eventually, falconry made its way to Arabia around 1700 BCE, and then it turned up in southeast Europe around the time of Alexander the Great, who is pictured on ancient coins carrying a hawk. Holy Emperor of Rome Frederick II, who reigned over five countries from 1220 to 1250, wrote the first known book on falconry.

By the time of the Renaissance, falconry was all the rage, with celebrities like William Shakespeare, an avid practitioner of the sport, touting it in their plays. Falconry even reflected social hierarchy, with the regal gyrfalcon, weighing as much as 4 pounds, reserved for guys like King James I. The lower classes got the ignoble and lightweight kestrel, suitable for hunting only small game.

But falconry, while still a hunting sport, is no longer confined to seeking out ducks in marshes and fields. Today, falconry is also practiced as an environmentally responsible method for abating troublesome birds (such as pigeons) in urban landscapes. And that’s why Pena was standing in the middle of the UC Merced campus, debating whether or not to fly Sonic.

He did not debate long, because Pena is an experienced falconer whose interest in birds of prey began during his kindergarten years, when he started checking out books on falcons from the Merced County Library. “The cards were always blank,” Pena told me, referring to the old system of signing cards to check out books. “My name was always the only one on there.”

And so, given his long history with birds and his extensive knowledge about falconry, Pena knew better than to fly Sonic on that morning a little over a week ago.

Since Sonic couldn’t fly Thursday morning, I met up with him and Pena the next day. We stood on a lawn in the center of campus, surrounded by three-story buildings. Students walked past, shouldering backpacks and glancing in Sonic’s direction, possibly wondering if the bird would offer sufficient entertainment to merit being late for class. No one seemed to think so.

Sonic waited to be released, and then he was off.

Barbary falcons are famous among falconers for their sweet nature. Easy to handle, they are also strong hunters with remarkable stamina. Because they are native to Africa and the Middle East, environments with extreme climates and miles and miles of barren land, Barbary falcons have adapted by becoming athletic predators. They like to fly so high as to be undetectable, even through binoculars, to those on the ground.

I tried to watch him, but falcons are so fast – peregrines are the fastest animal on the planet – that I could keep track only when Sonic flew close, swooping toward me and then rocketing up again, rising so high that I was left peering at a clear blue sky, no birds in sight.

Pena stood a few feet away, tracking Sonic without much effort. And then the flight was over as smoothly as it began. Sonic landed on the ground in front of Pena, who held out his arm. Soon, the falcon was eating pigeon breast.

“I’m letting him get his fill,” Pena said as Sonic enjoyed the rewards of a good flight.

Brigitte Bowers is a lecturer in the Merritt Writing Program at UC Merced.

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