THE FLYING OF FALCONS



It was Thanksgiving week at the Alamosa Falconry meet in 1978 that changed our lives. My dear friend, Gerald Richards and I decided to go socialize the first evening. We were ready to go listen to some of the new “Bird Lies.” After a while, Gerald and I saw a group of three guys engaged in a very serious conversation; Their names were: Ed Pitcher, Mike Adler and Rick Sharpe. I know fishermen are famous for their stories; but falconers are not too far behind with their wit. We decided to join in. Immediately, we realized that these “Bird Lies” were out of our league. Even though Gerald Richards was one of the better storytellers, there was no way we could ever top what we were hearing; but we sure listened.

Ed Pitcher, wearing his typical small, round glasses and smoking a good cigar, was telling us about his female Prairie Falcon, Crystal. He mentioned that she had already caught a few ducks and Sage Grouse from a pitch of about three thousand feet or more! Now, let me tell you why this was such an important evening. Traditionally, or for that matter even today, if you had a falcon that flew out a few hundred feet and then started to work its way up to wait-on at about 400 to 600 feet, you had an incredible hawk. After reaching its pitch and, when the bird gets to be up wind, you flush the game. If the ducks clear the water, the falcon can try to catch one before they swirl back to the pond. We were listening to Ed’s stories about his falcons going out half a mile and routinely working their way up to 3000 to 5000 feet, while successfully hunting! This was just never heard of before.

That evening, for the first time, we were listening to all those stories of Ed’s falcons flying “Up in the Heavens.” Ed explained to us that he had to stop flying Crystal for a few weeks because of his work schedule. Flying her again for the last three weeks had gotten her back in shape like her old self. We had talked about going out and trying to find some ducks the next day, when Rick Sharpe asked: “But Mr. Pitcher, isn’t there a disadvantage to flying the falcon so high?” and Ed’s response, while smoking his cigar, was: “Yes, there is a hell of a disadvantage” and taking one more puff of his cigar, he added, “A hell of a disadvantage for the poor fucking ducks!” So, before leaving that evening, we had all agreed to meet at the weathering yard at 11:00 AM the next morning.

Gerald and I walked back to our room, commenting that we could not believe those stories and that we had met the guy who told the best ‘Bird Lies’ ever. Back at the hotel room, we brought our friend Joe Terry up-to-date about the stories and our pre-arranged time to meet Ed in the morning, and of course, he was ready to join us on this adventure. Our minds were spinning, poor Gerald never went to sleep because he kept thinking and dreaming about those incredible flights. Well, let me tell you, we were not going to be there at 11:00 AM; but, at 10:00 AM, in order to make sure we did not miss going out with Ed. Somehow word got around about Ed’s incredible flights and there must have been a caravan of ten to fifteen cars going to the flying field. I could not believe how excited I was.

When we arrived at the duck pond, Ed started getting everything ready to fly Crystal. He was testing the telemetry, put on his hawking bag and removed the leash and jesses from Crystal. With his falcon clipped to his glove, Ed walked towards the pond to make sure it had ducks, when someone said, “Yes, we have ducks.” Ed, very relaxed, unclipped the falcon and took the cigar out of his mouth so he could ‘Strike the hood’ and the falcon was off.

It was a beautiful fall day with cool temperatures and the air was very crisp. Crystal was flying straight away, not turning like our falcons; she was on a mission. She went out at least half a mile before she started to work her way up into the heavens, just like it was described the evening before. We all had our binoculars on the falcon and were not about to miss a wing beat of this bird. Crystal started to go up and up and up and, when she looked like she was about to disappear into some clouds, someone out of the audience asked Ed Frienmouth, an old time falconer, “Have you ever had a falcon fly that high?” His response was, “None that I ever got back!” We could not stop laughing!

Our necks and arms were not used to holding up the binoculars for so long and, with these cooler temperatures; we started to get watery eyes. Crystal was off at an angle, going in and out of the clouds. We figured she was at least 3500 feet or higher. Then, the ducks were flushed and they circled the pond as they gained altitude. Crystal was not stooping. She was smart; she was going to wait for the ducks to get farther away from the water. When the ducks were a couple of hundred feet up in the air, as high as we flew some of our falcons, Crystal started her attack. She was stooping and cutting through the air so fast that the hissing sound of her stoop was like nothing we had ever heard before. Gerald Richards described that moment like this: “The duck’s eyes started to bulge out and turn red, full of panic, realizing that the Pearly Gates were slamming shut. Those ducks were flying backwards in order to make it back to the pond”.

Indeed, the ducks had noticed the stooping falcon and their evasive maneuvers took them back to the pond. Crystal missed the ducks by about ten feet. Not even close! Without hesitation, she started to work her way up again. It only took Crystal about ten minutes to be back up to 3500 to 4000 feet, ready for her second attack. Someone out of the audience made the comment, “Too bad that is not a Peregrine” and our good friend, Terry Heath’s reply was “Can you tell the difference from here?”

Gerald Richards was assisting Ed with flushing the ducks. On the second flush, only a few ducks got up; the rest stayed on the pond. Crystal’s stoop came like a missile out of the heavens. The ducks had already experienced her attack a few minutes earlier. They were full of panic and rushed back to the pond. Crystal was really having a great time. We thought that was the most unbelievable flight we had ever seen. I thought Ed would just swing the lure and call the falcon down. He started to walk back from the pond with Gerald Richards, not even paying attention to what the falcon was doing. When he got back, he said that it was obvious that Crystal was a little too heavy and the ducks were now too full of panic. The ducks would probably be impossible to re-flush from the pond; so, he decided to allow her to go back up. Crystal was a mere speck in the clouds once again! Ed asked for someone to release a pigeon for Crystal to chase and finish the flight. Joe Terry offered a small black pigeon, one that could get away. The pigeon was released. Crystal was going in and out of the clouds when she noticed the pigeon. She did not hesitate to start pursuing her prey.

Her stoops were deadly and her persistence unforgiving. From ground level, back up to 800 to 1000 feet, the chase was on! The falcon would stoop and the pigeon would perform turns of 180 degrees to get away from the falcon’s talons, again and again. These two birds were all over the sky and the flight must have gone on for ten to twelve minutes! For its last desperate escape maneuver, the pigeon started to come down from about 400 feet, with its wings pulled back, using short, quick wing beats and gaining speed very fast, heading for the only small barn in sight. Crystal was right behind the pigeon, tracking every move. We thought the pigeon was safe the second we saw it go through the only small opening at the top of the barn; but, the falcon left us with our mouths open: Crystal did not slow down as we watched her go right into the barn without hesitating. Afterwards, when Gerald Richards and Ed Pitcher came back with the falcon, Gerald told me he had asked Ed if Crystal was the best falcon he’d ever had, and Ed’s response was, “No, she covers her food while she eats on the fist,” and Gerald was about to choke with that. That flight was by far much more spectacular than any of the “Bird Lies” told the night before.

Fellow falconers are likely to expect reading another text about training falcons but will quickly find out why this book is so unique. This book is not about step-by-step instructions on a specific way of training but instead, presents a philosophy of understanding the natural development of a falcon: letting nature guide the physical and mental development of the bird and training yourself to step back and allow the falcon to reach its real potential.

Ed Pitcher has always been known as “The Thinker.” Undoubtedly, he is one of the more influential and philosophical falconers of our time; always surprising you with his innovative, insightful, and progressive concepts. Outfitted with a background in biology and his superb memory, he has attained an advanced level of behavioral understanding combined with an incredible visionary view for the individualized development of each falcon. You will notice that he has not only flown falcons for the past forty years but, he has also studied and reflected on his experiences in a very unique way, attempting to figure out how the mindset of wild falcons can be instilled and maintained in captive raised birds.
When Ed hears a falconer say, “I am trying the Ed Pitcher method,” he replies, “What method is that?” Ed’s philosophy and ideas are always changing. He is always looking to improve his understanding of falcons. Ed’s insightful approach provides a new perspective, applying what he has learned from the real masters of this sport, the falcons he has flown. Ed has been honing his ideas into a very specific and unique way of developing falcons.
The philosophy here not only covers falconry but a very special interpretation of the real value of the sport. Ed says about his approach, “this is not the only way or the right way, but just a different way.” He is hoping that this book will create a platform for a lively discussion where falconers can freely exchange their experiences, and share what they have learned from their own great masters.


By
Ricardo Velarde