A large crowd of HSV Audubon Club members and friends recently filled the Coronado Center auditorium to welcome master falconer Rusty Scarborough, who has been bringing his birds and knowledge to the Village every other year since 2005.
Scarborough is the park manager of the Walter B. Jacobs Memorial Nature Park in Caddo Parish, Louisiana, and has been a master falconer for more than 30 years. He also serves as president of the Arkansas Hawking Association and has a bachelor’s degree in wildlife conservation with a minor in microbiology from Louisiana Tech University.
He has bred, trained, and hunted many types of birds, including various falcons, kestrels, and golden eagles.
Scarborough began his talk with an overview of the history of falconry, “the sport of kings”. Falconry originated in the Asian plains of the Middle East about 3,000 years ago and migrated first to Europe and then to North America. The United States began protecting birds with the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, but the law “had no force,” according to Scarborough.
During the 1940s, heavy use of DDT to control fire ants and gypsy moths caused American peregrine falcon numbers to plummet due to eggshell thinning; the pesticide was not banned until 1972.
The North American Falconers Association was founded in 1961 to “foster the proper practice of the sport of falconry and the wise use and conservation of birds of prey” (from the Association’s website).
The peregrine falcon was listed as endangered in 1973. Through regulation, reintroduction efforts, and the sale of hunting licenses, the first captive-bred bird release occurred in 1974, and the falcon was delisted. of endangered species in 1999.
All birds of prey are protected and permits to own a bird are issued through individual states, with federal oversight. State laws may be more, but not less, restrictive than federal law. Scarborough said falconry is the most highly regulated hunting activity and taking birds for game has no effect on populations.
To obtain a license, a new owner of a bird must have a sponsor, pass a test, and undergo a regular inspection of facilities and equipment.
Scarborough described the different types of birds of prey: buteos (broad-winged falcons, known in some places as vultures), accipiters (true falcons, with short wings), falcons, the fastest animals on the planet, eagles, and owls.
Scarborough said that 80% of raptors die before they are one year old, and 50% of them die before they are two years old. “Falcons have to be good athletes,” he added, to avoid dangers: injuries, starvation in cold weather, rodenticides, etc. He also pointed out that the birds only manage to capture prey in one out of 10 attempts.
There are three levels of falconers: apprentice, general and master. An apprentice is required to catch a bird in the wild, be it a red-tailed hawk, American kestrel, Harris’s hawk, red-shouldered hawk, or great horned owl, and practice with a sponsor for two “successful seasons.” before moving on to the next level. What constitutes a successful season is determined by the sponsor, and Scarborough said, “You have to be able to catch what you’re hunting” (for example, if you’re hunting rabbits, you should catch rabbits, not squirrels). Arkansas trainees primarily use red-tailed hawks, the largest native Arkansas hawk.
When asked about the training process, Scarborough said, “It’s a relative process,” explaining how falconers manage the weight of the bird, etc. Trainees choose the right bird for the type of prey and habitat they plan to hunt. Scarborough said whatever his birds catch is used to feed them, but some hunters eat the catch themselves.
It takes six months for a bird to molt, because it drops one feather at a time; if he misses more than one, his hunting speed decreases. Scarborough noted that it is illegal for anyone except licensed falconers to have feathers from these birds; falconers use primary and tail feathers to splice (using super glue!) broken feathers when necessary.
Scarborough accompanied his talk with beautiful photos and videos of falconers and their birds. “Birds can soar 1,000 to 1,500 feet,” she said, “and then duck, dive, at speeds of up to 230 miles per hour.” An amazing video showed a golden eagle taking down a small deer.
Scarborough is an excellent speaker, but the stars of the show were without a doubt his two beautiful birds: Vulcan, a 9-year-old red-tailed hawk, and Chahta, a 5-year-old Harris’s hawk.
Next month’s show will feature wildlife biologist Phillip Jordan, who will talk about bats.
For more information, visit the HSV Audubon Club website at hsvbirds.org.