With a few flaps and a silent swoop, a lean, wide-winged hawk flew through a small wooden ring and onto the gloved hand of Master Falconer Kenny Elvin before a rapt audience during a recent event at Coyote Point in San Mateo.
Eyes widened among attendees of all ages, and eager applause that you just can't fake erupted as the bird accomplished its feat. In a region home to so much cynicism and curated content, it was a rare moment of wildness and authenticity. (Though yes, there would be plenty of time for selfies with the majestic birds later.)
Elvin is a San Jose resident who proudly owns six hawks, six falcons, two owls and a kookaburra. "I'm kind of a bird nerd, " he confesses.
His dozen-plus raptors also form the staff of employees for his pest abatement business, Full Circle Falconry, which makes use of the birds to scare away problematic pests and unwanted birds. But that's just the formal industry surrounding his avian obsession. Elvin also gives presentations to teach people about the majesty of these creatures, offering a rare close-quarter vantage point to a species that many can only see from afar in the wild.
Years ago, Elvin and his daughter, Anne, both fell into the world of falconry around the same time and their lives haven't been the same since. As Anne puts it, falconry is "a hobby that blew way out of proportion. It basically took over our lives. … It's a full-time commitment."
Falconry has become a livelihood as well as an avenue for community service for Elvin — a way to get outside and an opportunity to teach. It also gets him on the road: he often brings his falcons through the local circuit of Renaissance fairs.
He's always been an outdoor person who loved working with animals, he explained; he's always had a dog and been around horses, and was "always picking up wild pets while running around in the hills," he said.
"Falconry was just an extension of that," he said. It's part of his continued fascination with the wild.
For Anne, falconry was a new world that paired her fledgling interests in animals and science. "I was an impressionable kid who loved animals," she said. "They put a glove on me, put a hawk on me and I was like, 'OK, I want to do this.'"
Anne went on to pursue avian sciences at U.C. Davis and today works at the Palo Alto Junior Museum & Zoo, where she teaches science lessons at the facility's "Zoo Camp," educating children about how to take care of animals.
Taming the wild
Falconry is a heavily regulated practice, and as Anne explained, there are strict rules about which birds can be used for falconry.
Birds can only be trapped when they're less than a year old, before they have established themselves in the breeding population. This is partly because of the low survival rate of young birds of prey, where young birds' survival rate is less than 40%, and in some species it is less than 20% between hatching and making it through its first winter.
"In a lot of cases, the young birds would not have survived anyway," she said. Once the falconry apprentice has trapped a bird, there's a long training process to develop trust with it. The first couple of days, the human doesn't leave the bird alone.
Next, the falconer must convince the bird to eat off of his or her glove, then to hop onto the glove. Over time, the falconer builds up trust and habit to get the bird to fly on a longer and longer cord before it is trusted to fly free and return to the falconer's glove.
Falconers train birds to come back by keeping them on a strict feeding regimen. They manage the birds' willingness and ability to hunt by carefully monitoring their weight. A bird should be a little hungry before being sent out to fly, but not too hungry, or it'll be angry and won't cooperate, Anne explained. But feed it too much, her father warned, and the bird will get "fed up" — the literal origin of the term—refusing to behave or obey.
With these particulars in mind, both Kenny and Anne Elvin emphasize that these birds are not pets. "If it was a pet, it would be a lot easier," she said. "These animals are not tame. They're wild. And the fact they're willing to fly with us and come back to us is huge. Every time we let a bird in the air, they don't have to come back."
Hunting for prey
The fact that his birds are wild, though, Elvin says, is what makes them so effective at scaring away pests. He contracts with landowners such as people who own wineries to fly his birds and chase out winged troublemakers like seagulls and pigeons, as well as smaller birds like finches, bluejays and robins. It's an eco-friendly way to get rid of birds that don't respond to scarecrows.
The method relies on the predator-prey interaction, and there's always a threat that the bird of prey might eat a smaller bird — or get eaten by a bigger bird.
When asked to describe the process, he explained, "Gosh, it's like herding cats," and noted that there's often a fine line between maintaining control and the illusion of control with these wild creatures.
Nature's raw edge is never far away in this work. A beloved falcon he flew for about seven years was eaten about two months ago by a red-tailed hawk, he said.
Watching a bird of prey hunt, Anne explained, is quite intense: "They get so focused, so into it. It's spectacular."
Another lesson she's learned: falconry "really gets you used to the fact that animals eat other animals." Growing up, there was a freezer for human treats with ice cream, and a freezer for bird treats, such as mice, quail and game."You get used to handling dead animals," she said.
Birds, she said, are obligate carnivores. Like cats, they cannot go vegetarian or vegan, since they don't have the physiology to digest vegetable matter. They have no alternative to eating meat.
Their carnivorous nature even shapes how the birds must be kept. They are tied to tethers and restraints while perched, not only to keep them from flying away, but to keep them from eating each other. Put simply, Anne explained, "They eat meat and they're made of meat."
And although they're built for hunting and chasing prey, they don't necessarily love working for their food, making them compatible for captivity, as long as it comes with a healthy dose of hunting time. Unlike other animals that hate captivity, she added, many birds of prey tend toward laziness. If given the choice between having to catch a live rabbit or eating a roadkill rabbit, they'll go for roadkill every time.
A long tradition
According to National Geographic, falconry is believed to have originated about 4,000 years ago in the Mediterranean before it moved into medieval Europe.
Europe, Kenny said, "has been pretty serious about it for quite some time."
As he explained, falconry was popular during the Renaissance period, in which falconry was a highly classed sport. Each class had a different kind of bird it was expected to fly. However, it fell out of favor as shooting gained popularity instead, according to the International Association for Falconry. It gained popularity in the U.S. after World War II, according to the North American Falconers Association.
KQED Science reports that in the 1970s, activism by falconers who learned how to breed peregrine falcons in captivity helped to keep the species alive even while the widespread use of DDT threatened the population, because it made eggshells dangerously thin. These efforts, alongside the ban of DDT, helped the species to be reintroduced into the wild. The peregrine falcon was removed from the Endangered Species List in 1999.
Today, Anne explains, people pursue falconry for different reasons. Some people compete with their birds in tournaments, hunt with them or seek to fly the "craziest, most intense birds out there." She recommends the 2014 memoir by Helen Macdonald, "H is for Hawk" as an accurate depiction of what it's like to live with an intense bird of prey.
While there are more falconers in California than anywhere else in the U.S., it's still a rare sport in the States compared to other areas, like in the Middle East, where it's far more popular, Kenny explained. In the U.A.E., people race their hawks, according to National Geographic.
As a young adult now living in a small studio apartment, Anne said, she's not exactly in a position to keep large birds of prey at home. But she does have a small kestrel whose health problems limit its ability to survive in the wild. "He's my buddy and guards the apartment."
Still, her face lights up when she talks about why she loves this quirky, historic sport that's really about so much more. "The fact that the birds come back to you — it still blows my mind. Every time the bird comes back to the glove, that's the best feeling."
The Six Fifty is a new local blog covering food, arts and ideas on the Peninsula.