Lumberton falconer touts conservation victories
Originally a way for animal and master to ensure both had food to eat, some 4,000 years later falconry is a sport practiced around the world.
In North America, it’s also touted as a conservation effort aimed at increasing the population of raptors like eagles, hawks and falcons in the wild.
Phillip White appreciates both aspects.
The Lumberton man got into falconry in 2016 after finishing his education and starting a job at Motiva, though his interest started long before. Having worked on a farm most of his life, White had always loved seeing hawks soaring over the fields, but his first close and personal encounter with a bird was in the classroom.
“I was in fifth grade and a falconer came to school and brought a red-tailed hawk,” White said. His interest in falconry was sparked and grew from there.
Since his job no longer required him to work from sunup to sundown, White realized he had the time to invest into capturing, training and caring for a raptor. But he would need guidance.
“First thing, you have to find a sponsor, which is a seasoned falconer who thinks you’re serious enough to take it on, because it’s a pretty big ordeal,” White said.
He spent months filling out paperwork with Texas Parks and Wildlife and studying for a grueling exam. He said a background in veterinary science would be a major advantage, since the test focuses on caring for and maintaining the health of the bird. Falconers are required to know and be able to identify avian diseases to ensure the birds they’re re-releasing into the wild will have the best chance of survival, and so a bird under a falconer’s care wont fall ill or suffer an injury and go untreated.
After passing the test, he then had to build the proper enclosure for a bird of prey and have it inspected by a game warden.
Once all of the preliminary requirements were met, White was finally allowed to trap a bird.
His “old school” sponsor had one extra step for White — he had build his own trap, which he said was a “cool experience”
After catching and training them, falconers are able to hunt with their birds, setting them loose to take down prey in a field. What they are able to hunt depends on the species and size of the bird. White is a second year apprentice falconer, but soon he will be allowed to have more than one bird at a time. Eventually, as a master falconer, White will be allowed to trap and hunt with eagles, which can kill much larger prey.
White has trapped, trained and released two birds, a red-tailed and a Cooper’s hawks. In July he trapped his current bird, Furiosa, a female Harris’s Hawk that under a year old.
Though he does take his birds out hunting, taking down prey isn’t White’s main goal.
“It’s really about helping the birds. There are so many falconers that are not hunters,” White said. “I don’t have any need to come hunt small animals, but I will do it with Furiosa so she learns how. I would never do this without her. It’s all about getting these guys strong and getting them back in the wild.”
In the short time he’s had her, Furiosa has become part of White’s family.
“One of the reasons I wanted a Harris’s hawk is because they are so personable.,” White said. “They’re social birds. In the wild, the Harris’s hawk has a family group and they hunt as a family. One of the reasons they make such a good falconry bird is, once they get your trust and your bond, they take you on as one of their own”
The bond between Furiosa and White is obvious. The young but powerful predator follows him around open fields, preferring to perch on his hat or shoulder rather than his fist. She pecks at the bag at his waist looking for “tidbits” — little pieces of whole dove, muscle and organs alike.
It’s these tidbits that strengthen the bond she has with her master. She knows returning to White’s gloved fist guarantees her a meal, protection and a safe place to rest.
“Most people don’t know this but 70 percent of all raptors die in their first year of life because it’s just so tough,’ White said.
Furiosa may not have survived if White hadn’t captured her. She had a pulled tendon in her wing that could have torn if he hadn’t taken her to a specialist in San Antonio. They set her wing in a cast for five weeks, ensuring it healed properly.
Now she takes down rabbits and other small game with ease — the only remnant of her injury is the harmless glue still visible in her feathers.
White will hunt with Furiosa for another year, maybe two, before releasing her back into the wild — likely into the same family group she was captured from. Once released, her instincts should take over in 24 to 48 hours, and she will behave exactly like a wild animal.
Next, White hopes to trap a peregrine falcon, but with only 40-odd permits and some 200 falconers in Texas, the competition for the once-endangered dive-bomb hunter is intense.
“Hunting with a peregrine on ducks, there’s nothing like it,” White said.
The birds circle above the ducks on a pond. Once the falconer flushes the fowl into the air, the falcon will single one out and nose-dive towards it, reaching speeds of 200 miles per hour. The bird then rears back and strikes the duck with its talons, usually killing it on impact.
“It sound’s like a car crash,” he said. “It’s an amazing thing to see.”
Peregrines are one of the shining examples of falconry as conservation. In the 1970s, falconers alerted the United States Fish and Wildlife Service of an alarming absence of peregrines, according to White. It was discovered that the pesticide DDT was causing the birds to lay soft eggs, meaning they broke when the females incubated them.
With the combined efforts of falconers and Fish and Wildlife, captive breeding and a protected status has brought the species back from what White called, ’the brink of extinction.”
If White is not selected to trap a peregrine, he says he will most likely keep Furiosa a while longer. While falconers are allowed to keep a bird its entire life, White said most release them and trap new ones after a few years.
“You’ve got a well established bird that you get to release back into the wild and you know is going to be a good breeder for years to come. Then you get a new baby and you get to see it’s personality and work with it,” White said.
Still, Furiosa has a special spot in White’s heart. As she sits on his glove, White will scratch her chest and her tail feathers swish back and forth. He said it’s exactly like a dog wagging their tail.
“I really am blessed with her,” he said. “She is a very sweet bird. With a wild bird you never know. They all have different personalities, just like we do.”
For now, White and Furiosa will continue to hunt together. He said caring for the bird has become a bonding time he spends with his 13-year-old daughter, Nichole, who he said will definitely be part of the next generation of falconers.