Peregrine Spring: A Master Falconer's Extraordinary Life with Birds of Prey - Nancy Cowan (2016)

Part II. A TALE OF TWO PEREGRINES

Chapter 17. Licensed!

Rehabilitators and citizen wildlife watchers alike desire a world that has wild animals in it for the present and for future generations. We feel that by doing something for one individual creature, something positive is being done to protect wildlife as a whole. What’s not widely known is that almost all wildlife rehabilitation done in the United States today rests on the shoulders of volunteers. This includes donations of money, time, facilities, or services.

It behooves public officials to cooperate with rehabilitators, as the alternative would be for the officials to take on the task themselves, and, without any exceptions, public agencies involved with the environment and with wildlife management are already stretched beyond their capabilities. At the same time, these agencies are dealing with a mass of laws put into place by people concerned for the welfare of the environment and its wild populations. Navigating between permitting an activity regarding wildlife and staying within the laws of the land is a difficult feat. The onerous permitting process rehabilitators go through is the unavoidable consequence.

For us, acquiring the necessary documentation for the rehabilitator’s permit went at a frenetic pace. A fellow rehabilitator volunteered the use of her flight cage. Phone calls were made to local veterinarians to ask if they would serve as our vet reference and provide medical assistance. I set up an appointment to meet the veterinarian who returned a call and left with his signed letter clutched tightly in my hand.

I called Mike Cox, director of the Vermont Institute of Natural Science Raptor Center. Mike had seen us through some critical periods with our birds, and I had transferred to him the red-tailed hawk he maintained as a falconry bird. I asked Mike to provide a letter, and when it came, not only was it a glowing report of our experience and worthiness to rehabilitate, but in it Mike also offered several types of assistance, so a number of requirements were satisfied at once.

Silk Farm Audubon Center’s Ruth Smith quickly fulfilled our request for a letter. Dave Erler fired off a letter from the Squam Lakes Natural Science Center. With amazing speed, documentation for the federal permit was compiled, but we still had some objectives to complete.

Although the federal government has downlisted the peregrine falcon from endangered to threatened, New Hampshire at that time maintained it on its own endangered species list. The peregrine is held in special esteem by our state wildlife officials because when the decline of the species in North America was recognized, New Hampshire held the only nesting pair located east of the Mississippi River.

A state rehabilitator application with its pages of requirements and instructions was rushed to us from the Fish and Game Department, and I set to work completing it. The most important requirement was a premises visit by the local Fish and Game conservation officer (C.O.) followed by a written recommendation from the officer. My heart sank. It was bad enough to be asking our friends for letters. To have to ask for a C.O. was another thing.

Some states may call them game wardens, but conservation officers in New Hampshire are accorded special status. They enforce the laws governing hunting and fishing as well as many other outdoor recreation and conservation matters. When people get themselves into trouble out in the wilds, conservation officers are called upon to rescue them.

C.O.s are often alone in isolated localities when they work. There is risk involved because lawbreakers sometimes go to murderous lengths to avoid detection or capture. Our local C.O., John Sampson, could have come straight out of the Old West. I had to know him quite a while before I learned he could smile. Always polite, always correct, he is a rigidly “by-the-book” officer. Sampson is someone you would want to have on your side and never be on his wrong side. Asking him to come by for a visit would take courage. I was not sure I could summon enough bravery.

We first met John when he came to inspect our falconry facilities after we moved to his jurisdiction. Thereafter, we could expect an annual return visit from him, “just to check things.” A couple years later, John had to plan a meeting for his fellow officers, and he asked if he could hold the meeting at our place so we could give a presentation about falconry. I spoke about the inspection of falconry mews and equipment. The group then quizzed my husband about hunting with falcons and hawks. John Sampson wore such an inscrutable look on his face when I set out cookies and lemonade, I wondered whether he was pleased or irritated. I was certain, though, he had appreciated the program. I figured I could lean on that when I made my bid for a special visit.

When I got him on the phone to launch into my dual request, I heard a quick intake of breath before he explained how busy he was. It was mid-April, the traditional opening of the fishing season. Large numbers of fishermen would be on the lakes, streams, and ponds, and all of their licenses would require checking.

“Perhaps we could schedule this over milk and cookies, Nancy,” he said with a chuckle, and I knew I was being told I would get his earliest free moment. Sergeant Sampson had just rearranged his priorities so that a V.I.P. (Very Important Peregrine) could be accommodated.

This might have also been due to the fact that Jim and I had handled a wildlife problem for him long before when a homeowner had called him regarding a young great horned owl sitting on her back deck. John called us and local rehabilitator Maria Colby to help him. We squeezed into Maria’s car and headed to the property. When we got there, we became acutely aware that the place reeked of skunk.

Raptors have wonderful sight capabilities but, with the exception of carrion eaters such as condors and vultures, their sense of smell is almost nil. This makes nocturnally active prey such as skunks a great target for owls. Young raptors find meals can be few and far between. A juvenile owl that killed a skunk would not leave until it had eaten all it could. There was the young great horned owl, perched in a small tree overlooking the deck and the dead skunk.

Jim, John, Maria, and I all looked at one another. No one moved a muscle or spoke. Finally my husband strode over to the skunk. He carried the dead, smelly critter away from the house, across the yard, and into a meadow. The great horned owl followed him. When Jim reached a downhill slope, he gave a heave and the skunk sailed into the meadow with the owl closely gliding after it. Problem solved. Except Jim now reeked of skunk, too. We squeezed back into Maria’s car, holding our noses for the ride home. After Jim’s selfless action, Sergeant Sampson may have felt indebted to the “civilian” who had handled his “wildlife problem.”

In the midst of gathering documentation for the permit, a call came from an Audubon biologist named Chris Martin. If any person in our state deserves the title “Mr. Peregrine,” it’s him. Chris coordinates the efforts in New Hampshire to monitor the nest sites, band the youngsters, and record the data. He is deeply concerned with all things having to do with peregrines and has kept us abreast of matters pertaining to the wild peregrine population. He called to voice his approval of our planned rehab efforts, to offer assistance, and to tell us his own peregrine news.

Turns out, Chris was having a “peregrine spring” of his own. There were thirteen active nest sites in our state that nesting season, and, for the first time, one of them was in an urban location. The nest box placed on the New Hampshire Building, one of Manchester’s tallest, was holding four precious eggs which were due to begin hatching, appropriately, on Mother’s Day. The building was where Jim had worked until his company relocated his office to Boston. Chris knew how excited we would be at the prospect of young falcons fledging from that building’s man-made “cliff ledges.”

Chris was also friends with federal biologist Michael Amaral, and together they climbed mountain ledges to check up on each year’s crop of New Hampshire peregrines. “Michael says he banded the injured peregrine up on Holt’s Ledge in 1999,” I told Chris.

“Well, I helped him climb the cliff!” Chris burst out with a laugh. I invited him to come see the falcon as soon as he could.

Chris, Michael, Dave Erler, and Jim and I are only a few of the many people who take the welfare of peregrines seriously. When the decline in peregrine numbers was noted by falconers and became national news, this raptor became America’s poster child for the endangered species programs of our nation. One major cause proved to be the widely used insecticide DDT. Another was the lack of legislation to protect our North American birds and preserve their habitats. The idea that our continent was so polluted as to cause such a strikingly beautiful bird to disappear took hold and lent credence to cleaning up our environment, bestowed power to and increased the scope of protective legislation of our natural resources and wildlife, and gave rise to conservation groups.

The peregrine’s special aura is borne from its legend-laced history as a falconry bird, and from its majestic command of the skies. That it is the fastest living creature doesn’t hurt either. As difficult as the prospect of helping the injured Holt Ledge peregrine might appear, in the minds of Chris, Michael, Dave, Jim, and me, the effort was assuredly worthwhile.

There were other preparations to do besides assembling paperwork. The mini-mew had to be retrieved, scrubbed down, and aired. This small, two-and-a-half-foot-high portable chamber had been purchased from another falconer a few years prior. It has proven invaluable whenever we have an ailing bird in need of quiet confinement. Keeping the peregrine in the mini-mew would give us time to evaluate its readiness to be perched on a block perch of normal height.

At least once a year we check over and replace worn-out anklets, jesses, and bells. This time we’d need to add equipment specially sized for the wild male peregrine and the young female due to arrive from the breeder. Jim and I put our heads together over the catalogues from Northwoods and Mike’s Falconry Supplies, the falconer’s equivalents of the Sears and Roebuck “wishbook.” We pored over the pages, many of which offer the same item, but in sizes ranging from the tiny (male kestrel) to the immense (female golden eagle). Size varies according to the species of raptor and also by sex, as female raptors are larger than their male counterparts. We wrote out the order to newly outfit each of our birds with anklets, bells, jesses, and a tail-guard for Jim’s goshawk, before adding special, removable anklets for the rehab peregrine, ones that could be taken off without having to be cut on release day.

We also ordered a supply of quail from a game farm. Falcons, as a wise master falconer told me once, require “high-octane fuel.” And the fellow with injured tissue to rebuild would benefit from the richness of the quail, as would the young, unfledged peregrine coming from the breeder. Fifty pounds of “high test” would set us back about two hundred dollars.

By now letters and affidavits were arriving. I put in another call to John Sampson about his visit, and at the same time made an offer to write the letter for his signature. Shortly afterward, John found time in his schedule, and I had cookies waiting for him.

The day came when I was able to assemble every required document. The lot went into a large Postal Service Express Mail envelope with a return envelope enclosed as well. Three days later our federal rehabilitation permit came rocketing back in the envelope. We could now begin plans to start working with this peregrine!

The clock began ticking off the final moments before Michael Amaral planned to deliver the peregrine. Then disaster struck with a spring snowstorm. The heavy, wet snowfall downed a large limb in the yard, and my husband wrenched his back trying to move it. Within two days, Jim could barely walk. X-rays revealed a severely compressed disc but, fortunately, no ruptures. Like the peregrine due to arrive any moment, he needed rehabilitation.

There was one chair in the living room that afforded Jim some comfort. My two-year-old pointer, Stormy, and I were booked for five full days with one of the best pointing dog trainers in the country, so Jim was going to be stuck at home by himself. The injured peregrine could not have come at a better time. Now Jim had something to take his mind off his pain.