Book review: “Falconer on the Edge” by Rachel Dickinson

Falconer on the Edge

“Falconer on the Edge,” by Rachel Dickinson.

Published June 24, 2009, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Book follows life of man who hunts with falcons.”

2014 Update: The Greater Sage-Grouse has not been listed as of yet. Energy exploration and development continues but Wyoming has put in place core areas where they are protected.

Falconer on the Edge, A Man, His Birds, and the Vanishing Landscape of the American West, by Rachel Dickinson, 2009, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 220 pages, hardcover, $24.

By Barb Gorges

Rachel Dickinson examines the life of hardcore falconer Steve Chindgren in her new book, Falconer on the Edge. For several months of each fall Chindgren lives in a cabin in southwestern Wyoming, near Eden, to hunt sage grouse with his falcons every day. Dickinson researched the book by making a number of trips to Eden. She recently responded to questions by email.

Question: When you decided to learn about falconry from somebody besides your husband, Tim Gallagher (author of “The Grail Bird” and “Falcon Fever”), were you thinking as a freelance writer or were you more concerned about getting a handle on your husband’s obsession?

Dickinson: I really wanted to understand what was going on and did think it would make a great book but I guess rather than stress the relationship by learning about the sport from Tim, I decided to go further afield and find the most hardcore of the hardcore falconers. And all roads led toward Steve Chindgren.

Question: How would you handle it if Tim, like Steve, decided he was going to fly birds in the middle of nowhere for several months every year?

Dickinson: As Steve’s wife, Julie, told me, she knew that this was the way Steve was when she married him. So whenever there was a fork in the road or a choice to be made falconry always won. If Tim decided that this was what he really wanted to do with his life I would say, “See you later and have a nice life.” I think Tim’s obsession is a bit more under control.

Question:Did you develop a taste for sage grouse? No catch and release for falconry, huh?

Dickinson: We always ate what the falcons caught. Sage grouse has a strong sage taste but if you take the breast meat and marinate it and then throw on the grill for a few minutes — not too long because the meat is so lean — it’s darn yummy. What we didn’t eat, the falcons ate.

Question: Energy development in Wyoming is a subplot in your book, the menace lurking in the background, taking sage grouse before Steve’s birds can. How did that come about?

Dickinson: I spent a couple of years going to Wyoming for a week or so at a time and I saw enormous change just over those two years. I knew early on that the changing landscape due to energy exploration would be a strong sub-plot in the book — it had to be because it affected everything that Steve loved.

Question:The local Audubon chapter showed Steve’s sage grouse film which supports sage grouse conservation. Does his obsession with falcons carry over to sage grouse?

Dickinson: Steve knows more about the natural history of the sage grouse than probably most wildlife biologists working out in the field. When he’s not flying his birds he’s driving around checking on the grouse — looking for leks, looking for wintering grounds, looking for evidence of bird strikes on fences — because if you don’t really understand the prey species, you can’t really understand how to be a falconer. He’s as hardcore about the sage grouse as he is about his falconry because it’s a part of his falconry experience.

 Question: What does Steve think he’ll do if they are listed as threatened or endangered?

Dickinson: If the sage grouse gets listed, Steve says he’s going to fly his birds on jack rabbits — that will require a real paradigm shift for him since he’s hunted sage grouse for so long. He loves his spot in Wyoming and is determined to keep it as a falconry lodge so he’s got to do something. I know he’s just hoping and praying it doesn’t come to that.

 Question: Did you have trouble adapting to the open spaces around Eden?

Dickinson: I come from the northeast where everything is pinched in with hills and gorges and lakes and streams so it took me a little while to get used to all that space. Once that happened there was no looking back. What a fabulous place. I miss it and hope to get back there, maybe this fall for the annual grouse dinner at Steve’s cabin.

Peregrines come back with help from friends

Peregrine Falcon

Without captive breeding techniques honed by centuries of falconers, the population of Peregrine Falcons may not have recovered. Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Published May 13, 2012, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Peregrines back with a little help from friends.”

2014 Update: eBird shows several peregrine observations in the area around Cheyenne, but nothing more recent than 2010.

By Barb Gorges

Peregrine falcons were listed as endangered in the U.S. two years before I opened my first bird field guide in 1972.

The guide, “The Birds of North America,” published by Golden Press in 1966, did not allude to the peregrine’s diminishing population. It only said it was “a rare local falcon.”

However, in the era of an awakening environmental consciousness, we all heard about the peregrine, a very handsome poster child for the drive to ban DDT, one of the pesticides responsible for poisoning birds of prey and causing their eggshells to be too thin for un-hatched young to survive.

One doesn’t expect to meet an endangered species in the wild, especially when ornithologists had declared it extirpated in the eastern U.S. by 1970 and in trouble in other parts of the world (peregrines are found everywhere except the Sahara, the Amazon and Antarctica). But I had another encounter with a peregrine last month, just outside Cheyenne.

My six peregrine observations, all since 2003, have been around Cheyenne, at either Wyoming Hereford Ranch or Lions Park. All but one were in spring.

I remember the first sightings, on Audubon field trips, for which I was relying on more experienced birders for identification. Once, at WHR Reservoir No. 1, we saw a peregrine in one of those legendary dives–once clocked by a scientist at 200 miles per hour.

It slammed into an unsuspecting duck standing on a sandbar. The peregrine’s former common name was “duck hawk”–ducks being a favorite among the many kinds of birds they eat.

Last month, my husband Mark and I saw a bird sitting in a cottonwood below the same reservoir, watching us. It had all the peregrine field marks, including the dark cheek patches, which must have been the inspiration for those cheek pieces for first-century Roman centurions’ helmets.

Peregrines have been favorites of falconers for 3,000 years. While the young can be taken from wild nests, they are also bred in captivity. In 1970, the founder of The Peregrine Fund, Tom Cade, began breeding them in earnest, as did Bill Burnham of Fort Collins, future president of TPF, beginning in 1974.

By 1984, TPF had opened the World Center for Birds of Prey in Boise, Idaho. By 1997, 4,000 peregrines had been bred and released into the wild. By 1999, the peregrine was off the Endangered Species list. The fund continues to work to conserve raptor species around the world.

It isn’t quite the same as the old days for the peregrines. Someone thought of also introducing–or hacking–them into cities that have plentiful pigeon prey and tall buildings that would imitate their cliff-face nesting habitat. Urbanites could be seeing peregrines much more often than we do.

While peregrines went missing in the eastern U.S., what happened to them in Wyoming? I asked Bob Dorn, co-author with his wife, Jane Dorn, of the book, “Wyoming Birds.” From his research, he was able to give me a list of over a dozen observation dates back to 1929.

In 1939, Bob said O. C. McCreary categorized the peregrine as “a rather rare summer resident,” usually indicating that they are breeding, and “an uncommon migrant,” meaning not quite so rare during migration. As Bob put it, “When you’re at the top of the food chain, you are in scarce numbers.” (Somehow, that isn’t true of humans.)

The Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s species account states that by 1970 Wyoming had no viable breeding population. They formed a partnership with TPF and over 15 years, 1980-1995, introduced 384 captive-bred peregrines. It was successful. There were 90 breeding pairs recorded in 2009, the most recent information available.

Today, breeding peregrines tend to be found in the northwest part of the state. Down here in the southeast, we have the potential to see migrants from April through May.

The most recently published field guide I have, “Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America” (2009), does mention the peregrine was endangered—small concession to the idea that the hobby of bird identification can no longer be divorced from bird conservation.

The new “Peterson” range map shows there is still a big empty area in the middle of the country where the “Golden” guide had indicated wintering peregrines nearly 50 years before. But it also shows summer range, presumably breeding range, where the “Golden” guide did not.

Unfortunately, many threatened or endangered birds are not as charismatic as the peregrine. Experience with captive breeding may be nonexistent and the reason for a species’ plummeting population may not be as simple as a particular pesticide. The commonality however, is that human experiments with new technology often produce unexpected, bad consequences for some birds, while accidently promoting the unwanted reproduction of others–think starlings.

Meanwhile, birders continue to collect and share observations, causing range maps to continually be redrawn. Mark’s and my single peregrine sighting on April 8 becomes part of the larger story.

Keep your eyes open, too.

Book reviews: beginning birding, songbird silence, falcon fever, extraordinary encounters

Finding Your Wings

Finding Your Wings, by Burton Guttman

Published April 2, 2008, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Authors explore our fine feathered friends.”

2014 Update: All four books are still available, though you may have to look online.

By Barb Gorges

Frequently, this winter I filled frigid weekends and long dark evenings reading four books about birds. And since we can still expect a few blizzards between now and June, I thought you might want to look for and read one of them yourself.

No matter your taste in literature, one will suit you. The first is a “how to,” the second a “what to do,” the third is historical/travel and the fourth, spiritual.

Finding Your Wings: a Workbook for Beginning Bird Watchers

By Burton Guttman, Houghton Mifflin, available March 2008, softcover, 75 color photos, 224 pp, $14.95.

This addition to the Peterson Field Guides series is not a field guide. It really is a workbook in which you are expected to write and draw. Drawing a rudimentary bird is a way to note distinctive features of an unknown bird to help you identify it later with a field guide.

Most of the workbook exercises require having either the “Peterson Field Guide to the Birds of Eastern and Central North America,” 5th edition, or “The Peterson Field Guide to Western Birds,” 3rd edition (1990).

An example is Exercise 5-18. “Baltimore and Bullock’s Orioles [E317 (eastern guide, p. 317) or W313 (western guide, p. 313)] are very similar and for a time were considered a single species. How do the wings of the males differ?” The answer is at the back of the book.

The three other kinds of activities are field exercises, such as studying crows in flight, quizzes and games.

Guttman, longtime teacher of birding workshops, wanted to write a book that will help people get to know and love nature so they’ll protect it.

He says beginners need to work on three goals at once: learn how to see as a birder sees, learn about the categories of birds, and learn as many of the easily identified common birds as possible.

My birding “sight” needs restoration after a long winter so I think I will work through the exercises myself.

Silence of the Songbirds

Silence of the Songbirds by Bridget Stuchbury

Silence of the Songbirds

By Bridget Stutchbury, Walker & Co., 2007, hardcover, 256 pp, $24.95.

A review copy of this book arrived in my mail last fall and it took me months to get past the ominous title and read it.

Stutchbury, a professor at York University, holds a Canada Research Chair in Ecology and Conservation Biology and divides her time between homes in Ontario and Pennsylvania.

Her book is a chapter by chapter description of songbird perils: deforestation, forest fragmentation, shade-grown versus sun-grown coffee, pesticides, lights, windows, cats and cowbirds. Adding her personal experiences highlighted by her animated prose style, Stutchbury explains exactly how each hazard affects birds. The facts are much more interesting than what the popular press has time for and the book is much more cohesive than a collection of journal articles.

Unlike other science writers, Stutchbury’s sentences do not need diagramming in order to extract their meaning. The citations for the underlying scientific studies are quietly listed in the back of the book, along with an index.

In the epilogue, Stutchbury reminds us how important birds are to people as pollinators, insect eaters, scavengers and nutrient recyclers.

Most importantly, helping readers avoid a feeling of hopelessness, she gives us a “to do” list: buy shade-grown coffee; buy organic if the produce is from Latin America where so many songbirds overwinter; and buy organic or try to avoid crops that are the greatest pesticide risk to birds: alfalfa, blueberries, celery, corn, cotton, cranberries, potatoes and wheat.

Also, buy wood and paper certified by the Forest Stewardship Council; buy toilet paper, paper towels and tissues made from recycled paper to protect the northern forests where so many songbirds nest; turn off lights at night in city buildings during migration; and keep your cat indoors.

Be brave, buy the book and read it. Through the York Foundation, Stutchbury is donating proceeds to support research on migratory birds. Or don’t buy the book and borrow my copy. Then with the money you save, make a donation to a bird conservation organization. Or spend it on organic cotton handkerchiefs and shopping bags.Falcon Fever: A

Falcon Fever

Falcon Fever by Tim Gallagher

Falcon Fever: a Falconer in the Twenty-first Century

By Tim Gallagher, Houghton Mifflin, available May 2008, paperback, 336 pp, $25.

The first thing you’ll recognize is that author Tim Gallagher is the one who recently wrote “The Grail Bird,” about his experience finding the ivory-billed woodpecker. However, you’ll get little insight into that venture here, even though the book begins in the autobiographical mode.

In mid-20th century in California, a 12-year-old Gallagher could read about falconry, roam the woods searching for hawk nests and meet adult falconers who generously offer to mentor him. In his teen years, reminiscent of Kenn Kaufman’s “Kingbird Highway,” he might escape home and drive a rattletrap with a friend to a national falconry convention a thousand miles away.

Despite this idyllic life (not counting a truly tough home situation), Gallagher longs to be a contemporary of Frederick II, 13th century Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire known for the quintessential book on falconry still consulted today. Frederick was once accused of letting hunting with his hawks interfere with attending to a crucial bit of warfare.

While the beginning of the book is autobiographical, the latter part is travelogue, in which Gallagher spends a year visiting other falconers and makes a pilgrimage to Frederick’s Italian castles.

One chapter of interest to Wyoming folks documents Gallagher’s visit to falconer and filmmaker Steve Chindgren’s hunting lodge near Eden to witness hawking sage grouse.

Chindgren’s name may sound familiar since his sagebrush/sage grouse movie was shown at the Cheyenne Audubon meeting in March.

Falconry is a very different way to enjoy birds. You’ll know much more about it by the end of the book–its centuries of history as well as its modern day incarnation.



Sightings: Extraordinary Encounters with Ordinary Birds by Sam Keen

Sightings: Extraordinary Encounters with Ordinary Birds

By Sam Keen, illustrated by Mary Woodin, Chronicle Books, 2007, hardcover, 114 pp, $14.95.

Perhaps this book could be classified as a spiritual autobiography in essay form, in which Keen’s encounters with birds are the prompts for musings on the various elemental philosophical questions.

Keen is a former professor of philosophy and religion and now a lecturer, seminar leader and consultant. He is also a storyteller, evoking his childhood among staunch Presbyterians, as well as an historian. Consider this partly tongue in cheek sampling from the last essay.

“Careful observation has convinced me that birders, far from being just quaint old ladies in sensible shoes and nerdy zoology students, are involved in something strange, archaic, and clandestine–something more like a pagan religion than a hobby….I suspect that the growing number of enthusiastic birders are converts to an ancient cult of bird worship….”

And then Keen explains that bird worship goes back to the Phoenicians, Persians, Greeks and Egyptians. “There is speculation that prior to 100,000 BCE (Before the Christian Era) a culture devoted exclusively to birds existed in America.”

Things haven’t changed much. For instance, the miracle of spring migration is still celebrated. The more science explains it, the more awe inspiring it is.