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The Peregrine Fund Notes From The Field
Experiences of an Aplomado Falcon Hack Site Attendant
Swathi Sridharan — in Aplomado Falcon Restoration    ShareIt is a struggle for me to awake at 5:30 a.m.  The 20-minute drive to work is different every morning, enthralling in the way of slowly revealed secrets: deer, vultures swooping on road kill, snakes, and an eastern sky that shines gently some mornings and burns fiercely on others

At around 8:00 a.m. the first of the Aplomado Falcons makes its way to the tower, its black and gold form outlined clearly in my scope.  Beautiful in their vivid colors and playful soaring flights, these birds have the ability to look like a fat pigeon one minute and like royalty the next.  For the brief time that they are present, the tower is alive.  The falcons eat the quail with small, rapid bites, often ripping feathers to get to the unexposed flesh.

The tower becomes still again after the birds have fed and they huddle together on the far side in the shade.  They scatter, screaming abuses when I approach at 11:30 to remove the bones, feathers, and any other remnants of their breakfast.  

Besides feeding and identifying the birds, my job also includes scaring off any approaching vultures that are interested in the quail on the tower. To do this I run out of the blind and wave my arms in silent protest until the vulture, feigning indifference, shifts direction with a lazy beat of its wings.

At about one month of age, the falcons are flown in from The Peregrine Fund’s headquarters in Boise, Idaho, and are delivered to us in specially designed carriers by one of the four supervisors stationed in Texas.  Each release site usually receives two sets of birds, sometimes even three.  The young birds scream, bite, and scratch vehemently in protest to being moved into the large wooden box on top of the tower where they will stay for about a week.  This is one of the few times that the Aplomados are handled.  I have transferred two females, Blue P8 and Orange KD, into their new home.  Their beaks stretch wide as they scream, revealing little pink tongues.  If held long enough they become quiet and stare right at you, their midnight black eyes lined with eyelashes and protected by eyelids that close from the bottom up.

While the falcons are in the box they are fed once a day by dropping halves of quail through a chute in the top of the box.  Three sides of the box are made of wood with peepholes drilled in various positions, while the fourth side of the box is made out of metal netting to provide them with a view of the surrounding landscape and other birds.  I spent an hour creeping around on the tower on all fours peering into the peepholes to determine whether each bird had eaten and noting any differences in plumage and personality.  Once they have been released anything that will identify each bird helps, since more often than not, the color band around their feet is obscured by an inconsiderate branch or leaf. 

By the third or fourth day in the box, the birds start to get restless.  As the wind picks up in the evenings, they stare out towards the lake behind our tower.  They experimentally stretch out their wings and give a halfhearted flap before settling down.  Red NX, one of the females from our first set of birds, was always determined, if not always successful.  She was forever the first to respond to an all-consuming urge to fly and was usually still going strong when we left.  She would walk around the box, her steps getting faster until she was almost running.  Then Red NX would pause, bob her head as she concentrated and focus her eyes on a far corner of the box.  She would make a prodigious leap, wings flapping hard as she propelled herself straight into the side of the box where she would drop down with a loud thud that never seemed to bother her, but made me cringe.  The others, emboldened by her success, would start making leaps of their own.  It was a funny sight to see seven birds hopping determinedly from one side to the next, often bumping into each other or the box.  As I climbed down the ladder, I could still hear their feet scrabbling across the gravel in excitement.

Release day is a birthday of sorts; the day the birds make their first flight, the day we can no longer control where they go.  The goal of release day is to open the door to the box and allow the birds to come out at their own pace.  Motivated by curiosity and hunger instead of fear, they eat the quail conveniently placed in plain view and learn that the tower is a safe place to return.  They remain there until the sun begins to set and they make their first shaky flights to the nearby trees to roost for the night.

While this first flight suggests freedom and autonomy, as Angel, our field supervisor, puts it, “Life just got very difficult all of a sudden.” The birds are now susceptible to all of nature’s threats and while I stood there, exulting in their achievements, I couldn’t help but be aware of the forces acting against them.  As I write this article only three out of our original seven are alive.  One flew far without stopping on release day and disappeared, two more were eaten by Great-horned Owls.  Red NX, who in her impatience to fly was the first one off the tower, was never seen again.

Their frailty was brought home by their clumsy landings and shaky sense of direction for often the wind was stronger than their wings, and they would end up in a nearby tree looking faintly baffled.  But their strength was made evident as well for within a few days their flights were graceful, their landings superb.  It is a pleasure to watch them playfully chase each other, diving and swooping in a relentless game of catch where no one is “it.” 

My daily routine ends with another four-hour shift at the blind in the evenings and I watch the birds eat and play around the tower until they head back to the lake for the night.  I don’t want to convey an idyllic picture of endless excitement and wonder.  The Texas heat can be harsh, the ranch abounding with snakes and gruesome insects.  And it is tough when some birds disappear leaving only a handful of feathers as a testimony to a late night violent struggle. 

 I think that we are all collectors of one sort or another.  I collect brief moments when I am in awe of the beauty that surrounds me.  And there is, of course, one moment that I will replay in my mind’s eye forever.  I woke up a little later than usual one morning and the falcons were already at the tower, waiting for their breakfast.  Instead of scattering as they normally do at my approach, they let me get closer than I ever had or have been since.  I was a little shaken and was debating how to get them off the tower when the first one took off in a small tight circle around me.  Five other falcons flew after the first until I was completely encircled by gold and black wings beating against the still morning.  I was honored to be surrounded by their fragile, tenacious beauty. 

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