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Falconer in the foothills

By on August 29, 2017 in Uncategorized with 1 Comment

Susan Rae Sampson tries her hand as a falconer with Mr. Biggles. Photo by Mark Oswood

By Susan Rae Sampson

When I walked in the foothills near Wenatchee Heights during the last few weeks before the late cherry harvest, I walked right into a scene from Merry Olde England.

There was a falconer, his left hand in a thick leather gauntlet, a large Harris’ Hawk named Isabella perched on his hand.

The man behind the bird was Paulie Corry, who told me that he came from a 300-year-old line of British falconers. He wore an Akubra hat from Australia, but his accent was genuine Liverpool.

His hawk wore soft leather cuffs around her legs, fitted with grommets for the snap swivel on the glove, but the swivel wasn’t attached. She wore short leather straps called “jesses” for holding her, if needed, but they were flapping loose; and she wore no leash.

Instead, her cuffs were fitted with small Christmas jingle bells for locating her after she flew free and landed. Importantly, she also wore a yellow band that shows that she was registered with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. It would be illegal under U.S. law for Paulie to own, buy, sell, give, or possess any migratory bird without a license to do so.

Paulie is a licensed Master Falconer who is also authorized to use birds for no-kill nuisance bird abatement programs; and that’s what has brought him to the Wenatchee area for the summer.

Pauli started his falconry career with the U.S. Air Force in Dover, England, chasing off nuisance birds from an airfield. He moved to Escondido, CA, became a U.S. citizen, (“I’m no royalist, and I read the Constitution”), and accepted another contract with the USAF.

The U.S. Air Force appoints an officer as its official falconer, but it subcontracts for abatement of nuisance birds. For 10 years, Paulie and his hawks handled nuisance birds at March Reserve Air Force Base near Riverside, CA.

Commenting on “Sully” Sullenberger’s bird strike that led the pilot to put his Airbus down on the Hudson River in 2009, he observes that New York’s Kennedy Airport has a falconer, but LaGuardia does not. Sully started from LaGuardia.

Paulie’s work hasn’t been limited to airports. He and his hawks chased seagulls away from a landfill near Anaheim, CA, because the gulls were scavenging garbage and dropping it on Angel Stadium. He chased gulls from a landfill near Santa Barbara because the gulls scattered garbage up to a quarter of a mile away, polluting a waterway. The gulls learned to flee as soon as they saw his Akubra hat.

Paulie also did a gig at Sea World in San Diego, chasing off aggressive gulls that were stealing tourists’ food, then he put on a show: He would warn spectators to keep their hands down, then let his hawk fly close over their heads.

Unfortunately, a drunken spectator held up a hotdog with catsup on it. The bird saw meat and blood, and it struck. A hawk’s talons can’t be pulled out of their targets, because talons are locked onto prey in their default position. A falconer has to know a technique to unlock them. This time, the spectator wasn’t injured, but Sea World could envision a different outcome, so the program had to end.

Paulie is working locally to chase ravens away from cherry orchards. He says that an orchardist’s loss to birds can reach $20,000 in a three-month season, even if trees are wrapped in nets to keep birds out.

He says that trained birds work in the Tri Cities area in late July to protect the blueberry crop. Growers like the no-kill bird abatement program because it is environmentally clean.

Paulie’s birds include four Harris’s Hawks, all females from the same clutch, and three falcons. Falconers prefer females for hunting because they are a third larger than males of the same species.

His Peregrine, Mr. Biggles, is actually three-quarters Peregrine and one-quarter Saker falcon. The Peregrine ancestry traces back to pure California stock that falconers used to restore the Peregrine population after it was nearly decimated by the use of DDT in the environment prior to 1972, when the chemical was banned from agricultural use.

Paulie’s technique is to observe the movement patterns of nuisance birds, then to release his hawks close to them, to move the nuisances along.

Untrained falcons strike other birds in the air and untrained hawks trap their prey on the ground.

Wild hawks use their talons to hold the heads of their prey on the ground, then sever the spinal cord of the prey with the spurs on the back of their feet. Falcons use a notch behind the curve of their beaks to dispatch prey quickly before they can be injured themselves.

By contrast, Paulie’s falcons are taught to hunt on the ground, and both his hawks and falcons are taught to “let it lie,” rather than to kill and eat the prey. That’s a challenge to the birds because they won’t hunt at all unless they’re hungry.

His raptors would risk their health to eat wild prey, especially pigeons, which can carry disease. If they do kill another bird, he must report that to the Fish and Wildlife Service, because a kill reflects poorly on the skill of the Master Falconer.

None of the raptors, wild or trained, retrieve their prey. A falconer who hunts has to follow his bird to retrieve any game he wants to keep for himself. Paulie says that hunting hawks could kill enough game by noon to feed its handler for a week. That’s especially true of his Harris’s Hawks, which naturally hunt in packs.

Paulie had me toss the big, rust-colored Harris’s Hawk, Isabella, up into the air. She flew into a nearby tree, where a robin took alarm and scolded ceaselessly. When Paulie whistled, Isabella returned at once. She weighs 36 ounces (two-and-a-quarter pounds) and hit my glove forcefully.

Paulie rewarded her with a morsel of common quail meat supplied by a specialty grower in Spokane. He always trains his birds by rewarding them with food, never by punishment.

Mr. Biggles squawked and squawked for food. “He’s imprinted on me, so I’ll always be his mother,” Paulie explained.

Mr. Biggles is fitted with a radio transmitter because he can fly 1,000 feet high and range 2,000 feet out, and Peregrines can hit 240 miles per hour, so sometimes after he lands, he’s a challenge to find. On a windy day, he might have to be lured back by a decoy dragged along the ground.

Unfortunately, Golden eagles and female Peregrines can prey on Mr.Biggles, and coyotes can recognize his calls.

Paulie’s birds don’t interact with wild raptors, but there is always the risk that they’ll stray or migrate. Prairie falcons and Gyrfalcons are more likely to stray, but most trained birds know where they’re guaranteed their next meal, so they tend to stay.

In the wild, Paulie’s birds might live for five years. As trained birds, they can live 15 or 20 years.

The birds are valuable. A trained Peregrine can bring up to $20,000 in Saudi Arabia, where falconry is a tradition extending through centuries.

The birds are not easy to maintain. “They’re like babies,” Paulie said. They have to be fed and exercised and their training reinforced every day, and rarely is a trained falconer available to babysit.

But Paulie is good to his birds, and they’ve been good to him — they’ve paid for a nice house for him and his wife, for his pickup truck, and for college for his three children.

And being imprinted on his father, one of his sons is a falconer.

Paulie Corry can be found on Facebook. Paulie’s email is

CorryWildlifeControl@gmail.com.

EXTRA READING: Helen MacDonald’s 2014 memoir, H is for Hawk chronicles her training and the efforts of writer T.H. White to do the same. The book won several literary prizes and became a best-seller.

Susan Rae Sampson relocated to the Wenatchee area in 2009, where certain bird-watching friends promised that she’d have rich bird-watching opportunities. They never expected this one.

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  1. Marianne Houlne says:

    Hi Sue.Sounds like you are having a lot of fun with what Mother Nature provides. Thank you for the information on hawks and falcons. My Southlake Clinic is closing shop on Sept. 28th. I will have to work for the hospital until I retire. Nice to see that you are enjoying life as always! Marianne

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