Birds of a Feather
The tradition of falconry dates back to 2,000 BC China, when birds of prey were used by humans for hunting purposes and given as gifts to indicate wealth and nobility. Despite the sport’s ancient roots, the tradition is still very much alive on Pace’s Westchester Campus. Assistant Director of the Environmental Center and master falconer James Eyring can attest to the changing roles of raptors and how the sport of falconry has evolved in this modern era.
“Falconry is a hunting sport, a blood sport. Ideally, you would fly a wild bird of prey and catch wild game,” explains Eyring. “ If you think about it, in the Middle Ages there were no guns, so if you wanted to eat (certain types of) poultry, you’d need a bird of prey to get some, because catching ducks is very difficult.”
Eyring postulates that the sport originated accidentally—that someone caught a hawk and kept it as a pet instead of eating it and that most likely, through instinct alone, the hawk chased after a duck or pheasant, which led to humans adopting and modifying the natural behavior of the birds of prey.
Today, Eyring’s birds serve a variety of purposes—both at Pace and in the surrounding communities. Fitted with small radio telemetry devices that can aid Eyring in locating a bird who has flown the coop, the hawks are featured in flying demonstrations that have become a staple during Pace’s Earth Month celebration, as part of welcome events for incoming students, and as a part of Homecoming for members of the Pace Community who are returning to campus. Additionally, Eyring takes the show on the road, traveling to nearby communities to speak to young people about habitat and environmental issues.
“With the demonstrations we do, the birds serve as an equalizer. I could walk into a school in Darien, Connecticut, or into a school in the South Bronx and the kids will have the same reactions,” he explains. “I walk in with an owl on my glove and there’s this aha moment that the bird’s presence offers. It really jump-starts the learning.”
For Eyring, his own aha moment came to him when he was growing up in North Salem, New York. At the time, Eyring’s father was a dog trainer that used live pigeons and quail to aid in the dogs’ training. One day, near his father’s birdcages, Eyring spotted a raptor wearing leather jesses around its legs, which Eyring knew to mean that the bird “belonged” to a falconer—one that he was determined to find. Eventually, he did find the bird’s owner, falconer Paul Kupchok, who spent two years as Eyring’s mentor and sponsor while he apprenticed as a New York State falconer
Eyring eventually found himself on Pace’s Westchester Campus and three decades later, he is the care taker for 70+ animals, including uromastyx lizards, chinchillas, and a 9’ long Burmese python named Thud; but it’s the birds that steal the show.
The collection includes Oscar, the affectionate, Furby-faced Barred owl; Ophelia, the squawky, Peregrine-Gyr hybrid falcon; Delta, the large Lanner falcon whose species is native to Africa; and the tiny kestrel, Phineas. In addition to his sporting birds, there are several other large birds of prey that call Pace home.
“Elvis is my favorite. He’s definitely the star,” says Eyring of a Gyr-Saker hybrid falcon. “We’ve had him since he was an eight-day-old eyeass, or baby falcon, and he’s the most reliable flyer.” Part of what makes Elvis and his feathered friends so successful is careful weight management on Eyring’s part. Each morning, he weighs each bird and records the data—a few mere grams in a bird’s weight can mean the difference between soaring skyward or sluggishly perching.
Though most of Pace’s raptors have made their way to Eyring for rehabilitation and release back into the wild, there are several birds that remain on campus due to their inability to fend for themselves and—despite Eyring’s best attempts—their diminished fear of humans.
“Some of the birds are used in the flying demonstrations, but Merle is my hunter,” he explains about a large Harris Hawk, native to the Southwestern U.S. and parts of South America. “Traditionally, the falconer and the bird would share the bird’s quarry. She’ll take ducks, pheasant, muskrats, rabbits, and squirrels; it’s pretty impressive.”
For more information about the birds of prey on Pace’s Westchester Campus, or to learn more about the Environmental Center, click here.