A Wing and a Prayer

The peregrine falcon is back -- and falconers want to get their hands on the bird.

On a brilliant Indian-summer afternoon outside of Morrison, Gordon Grenfell unhoods his Barbary falcon. The bird rouses -- shakes its feathers in preparation for flight -- and then, suddenly, in a flurry of motion, swoops off Grenfell's leather glove and over the field, skimming low across the brown grass. A thin wire, a tracking device, dangles from its left leg.

After a few moments, Grenfell blows a high-pitched whistle, and the bird turns in a wide arc like a boomerang and heads back. It bears down on him, and then, at the last moment, veers left and slams into a leather pouch holding a bloody quail wing that Grenfell is dangling from his right hand.

Grenfell paid about $1,200 to acquire Zeppelin from a Colorado Springs breeder. He's already plowed dozens of hours into training him, first on a short leash, then a longer one, and then none at all. Soon, Zeppelin will be ready for a real hunt. He will soar hundreds of feet above the earth, wait for Grenfell's dog to flush a pheasant or a quail, then plunge toward the prey at a speed of up to 200 miles per hour.

Ready for takeoff: Gordon Grenfell and Zeppelin, his Barbary falcon.
Ready for takeoff: Gordon Grenfell and Zeppelin, his Barbary falcon.

By that time, Grenfell will have spent several hundred hours more on training and conditioning his falcon.

It will all be worthwhile, too. "That's what we live to see," he says. "There's nothing like it, and you never get tired of it."

But as much as he enjoys Zeppelin, Grenfell can't have the bird he really wants.

Last month the Colorado Hawking Club, of which Grenfell is president, again petitioned the Colorado Division of Wildlife for permission to take young peregrine falcons out of the wild for use in their sport. Although a decision is pending, the wildlife agency is unlikely to approve the request, at least for the next couple of years.

The stated reasons are technical and legal. Both sides toss around terms like "oscillating productivity" and "site occupancy." Yet the real issue is philosophical and centers on who really owns the state's wildlife, what its purpose is, and who decides how it may be used. Ultimately, the logic used to determine who owns the peregrines could affect the entire future of hunting.

The recent history of the American peregrine falcon is at once one of the great tragedies of man's interaction with nature and one of his most powerful triumphs.

As a result of the widespread use of the pesticide DDT, which thinned peregrine eggs to the point that they could not even hold their own young, by 1972 the American peregrine was on the brink of extinction. The bird had virtually disappeared from the Eastern half of the United States. In the West, biologists counted fewer than four dozen occupied nesting sites.

The decline in Colorado's peregrine population mirrored the nation's. In 1972, when the bird was officially declared an endangered species, only eleven pairs could be found in this state. By 1979, that number had plunged to a scant four breeding pairs.

The bird's precipitous decline quickly inspired a unique partnership between the government, whose job it was to make sure threatened animals did not disappear, and falconers, who loved the birds -- and, more important, had some of them in their possession.

Attempts to breed peregrines in captivity dated as far back as World War II. Yet by the time Jerry Enderson, a Colorado biologist, began methodically trying it in the 1960s, nobody had done it with any real regularity or success.

In addition to being a respected biologist at Colorado College, Enderson was an avid falconer from way back. He'd started in 1951, as a freshman in high school. "It was a chance encounter," Enderson recalls. "I was on my uncle's farm in Iowa, and he'd told me to take a shotgun and shoot a Kestrel hawk. Instead I found a nestling and kept it." He still uses the birds today to hunt ducks.

Enderson was lucky enough to make his hobby his vocation as well. Spurred on by a sense of urgency after the peregrine was designated as endangered, in 1973 he began trying to breed the birds in earnest, using an artificial-insemination technique he and another biologist had developed. That year he produced four peregrines. Although one died from the herpes virus, the others lived. The next year Enderson produced five more peregrines, and five more the year after that.

In 1979, the DOW threw itself into the rescue effort, donating a few hundred thousand dollars for a research station to be built in Fort Collins, just south of the Budweiser factory. (The station was relocated to Idaho in the mid-1980s.) Thirty-six lofts were constructed for the peregrines. Enderson donated his birds; over the years, one of them, a male named B.C. after the comic strip, fathered hundreds of offspring.

Without the participation of both the government -- which supplied money and, as the years went by, expertise and labor -- and private falconers such as Enderson, who provided birds and early knowledge on breeding, the peregrine probably would have died out altogether. Instead, the species has made a rapid and astonishing comeback.

Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help