Falconer on the Edge: A Man, His Birds, and the Vanishing Landscape of the American West

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Like most married people, Rachel Dickinson thought she knew her husband quite well after years of marriage. But one evening, he surprised her by unexpectedly bringing home a small brown paper bag containing an injured kestrel. You see, Dickinson's husband, Living Bird magazine editor Tim Gallagher, was a lapsed falconer without any birds, until this kestrel, Strawberry, reawakened his latent passion. As the bond between her husband and his tiny falcon grew and deepened, Dickinson was amused and fascinated and wished to learn more about her husband's hobby. But there isn't much modern literature on this topic, so she decided to research and write a book about it herself. The result is her biographical sketch, Falconer on the Edge (NYC: Houghton Mifflin; 2009).

Falconry is an ancient sport where humans go hunting with birds of prey instead of guns or bows and arrows. Traditionally, the birds of prey were removed from nests as downy chicks and doted upon and trained so they viewed their handlers as their source of food. After these birds fledged, they were trained to hunt for prey, either medium-sized mammals or game birds, which the falconer then shared with his hunting birds. (I write "his" deliberately because women were almost never permitted to participate in falconry).

In her quest to understand the appeal of falconry on its devotees and to gain a deeper understanding of her spouse, Dickinson spends one season following master falconer, Steve Chindgren, as he hunted Sage Grouse with his hybrid gyrfalcon-peregrine falcons in southwestern Wyoming. There's Jomo, who has been an excellent hunting partner to Steve for a remarkable 20 years; Jahanna, a talented but still relatively inexperienced bird that is being groomed as the replacement for the aging Jomo; Tava, a young bird who is developing into an effective hunter; and Zaduke, a sweet-mannered first-year bird that Steve is training.

Steve was just eight years old when he first became involved with falconry. After paying for a newspaper ad seeking to reunite a lost red-tailed hawk with her owner (who never claimed her), Steve went home with his first bird. For years, Steve and "Shoulders" -- named in honor of her favorite perch -- were inseparable. Unfortunately, Steve's progression from a "beginner's bird", a red-tailed hawk, to the epitome of falconry, artificially created hybrids between gyrfalcons and peregrine falcons, remains mysterious. But by the time Dickinson meets him as a man in his fifties, Steve is an independent master falconer who regularly abandons his wife and kids for six months out of every year to live in a small cabin that he purchased on a large plot of empty acreage in Eden, Wyoming. It is here in the heart of an arid wilderness that he trains and works with his small group of hybrid falcons.

In this book, we are given an outline to the history of falconry and its unique terminology, which is first explained and then used throughout the book. Since Steve's family is Mormon, the author uses this to segue into a brief history of the Mormons' arduous journey by wagon train from Nauvoo, Illinois to Utah, where they founded Salt Lake City in 1846. We also also are introduced to the myriad threats to the fragile arid interior of North America from agriculture and ranching, mining, and the natural gas and oil industries. Taken together, these topics would appear to make for compelling reading, for me at least.

I did not like this book for two reasons. First, I did not like the writing. Dickinson's repetitiveness made me experience "déjà vu all over again" as I wondered if I had accidentally lost my place. The exquisitely adapted sage grouse, whose numbers are declining, are only discussed briefly, and mostly as targets for Steve's "killing machines," as his falcons are referred to several times in the book. The author introduced the many threats to the arid regions in Wyoming in an awkward way, almost as an afterthought. Further, Dickinson never really warmed up to her subject because her writing often wandered aimlessly, almost as if she was working hard to expand a magazine article into a book. As it was, this 220-page book would have been much better condensed into a magazine article.

Second, I developed a surprisingly strong dislike for the main character, falconer Steve Chindgren. He struck me as tremendously arrogant and selfish because of his casual relationship with the law, his dismissive rationalization of his illegal behaviors, and his famously short temper that is apparently rivaled only by his poor impulse control -- traits that ultimately resulted in the unnecessary deaths of several of his precious falcons for the same reason within mere days of each other.

By the end of the book, I was not convinced that the author had developed much insight into falconry or its devotees, and I was angry at Steve for being so inexcusably careless with his precious birds' lives.

Rachel Dickinson is a writer whose articles have been published in the Christian Science Monitor, USA Weekend, National Geographic Traveler, Audubon and many other magazines. She is the author of several non-fiction children's books, including Great Pioneer Projects You Can Build Yourself and Tools of the Ancient Romans: A Kid's Guide to the History & Science of Life in Ancient Rome. She and her husband, falconer Tim Gallagher, live in Freeville, New York, with their four children.

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I thought falcons were adapting well to the urban environment. There are falcons in Hermann Park in Houston that live off the pigeons infesting the Texas Medical Center. A few red-shouldered hawks winter in Hermann. They hunt the obese squirrels fattened by cast off hot dogs. Muscovy ducks lay eggs even in September and October, but I doubt the hawks try for the ducklings. Mama and daddy muscovy can beat the crap out of a hawk.

Don't mess with a muscovy. They will batter your ears and gouge at your eyes.I saw a TV show where they dubbed a "quack" onto a shot of a muscovy. These ducks do not quack, they hiss worse than any snake or cat as they bob their misshapen heads.

If you want to read an amazing and eloquent falconry autobiography, find Gerald Summers' books. Start off with Lure of the Falcon and work your way through his (and his birds') life - it is a fascinating journey. It took a while to get a hold of a full set of his books (5), but they were worth every penny.

This book seems kind of like double-dipping since Tim Gallagher recently published an autobiography on the same subject! It was far less enjoyable than the Summers series - it focused too much on his overall life, and too little on his falconry. PS: If you want to read some really atrocious hawk handling, see T.H. White's The Goshawk. Great writer, horrible falconer.

By Anonymous (not verified) on 13 Jun 2009 #permalink

Dickinson was amused and fascinated and wished to learn more about her husband's hobby.

Um, it wasn't a hobby, it was a kestrel.

Sorry, I haven't been able to resist hobby jokes, ever since the sketch Henry wrote about Charles Darwin being murdered by an ape.

I won't comment on your opinion of this book--it was written by my wife, and I don't want to be accused of bias. But you do have some historical inaccuracies in your review that should be pointed out.

You said that the birds were traditionally "removed from the nest as downy chicks." Although modern falconers sometimes take their birds as downy chicks and raise them as imprints, this is far from traditional. Most Medieval falconers preferred to train falcons that were trapped well after they had left the nest, when they were on passage (or migration), because they were already experienced hunters. When they did take young falcons from a nest, they always got them as late as possible, preferably just as they were about to fledge.

And what you said about women "almost never [being] permitted to participate in falconry" is completely wrong. Falconry was popular with men AND women in the Middle Ages--at least among the nobility. The falcon preferred by most women at the time was the merlin (which was often called the lady's hawk). Although it's small, the merlin is a superb hunter that can fly as impressively as any peregrine. It's still my favorite falconry bird. Some prominent women in history (such as Catherine the Great of Russia and Mary Queen of Scots) have been great aficionadas of falconry, and there are still many women who practice the sport.

By Tim Gallagher (not verified) on 15 Jun 2009 #permalink

You mention that the falconer would use his birds to hunt sage grouse. I've heard that in several other places as well. How is this allowable? And even if it is allowable, how can they justify it? These are threatened and declining birds. You said that not much else is mentioned about this in the book, but I would be curious to know more about it.
I've got no problem with using raptors to hunt, but I think something other than endangered species should be the prey (yes, they aren't classified as "endangered" right now, but they should be).

Sage grouse are not endangered. They are not even listed as threatened. Their decline is due to loss of habitat and has nothing to do with hunting. What few are taken by falconry will not significantly affect the population. If population of sage grouse is a concern then buy land and set up the habitat for sage grouse.

By K. Meiners (not verified) on 15 Feb 2010 #permalink