In Falconer on the Edge, Rachel Dickinson gives readers an in-depth look at a subculture that many people may not be aware existed. Falconers are an intense, passionate, tight-knit group of bird-loving hunters, and they subdivide themselves according to the type of bird they fly, from those who favor hunting sage grouse with gyrfalcon-peregrine hybrids (“an überbird [with] stamina and speed and beauty”) to those who fly hawks to catch squirrels and jackrabbits. The falconers Dickinson depicts remind me of a more athletic and outdoorsy version of Trekkies, with their conventions, cliques, private jargon derived from Norman French, and the way they are often misunderstood by outsiders.
Although falconry (“a loose term [that] refers to flying any kind of raptor or bird of prey”) originated perhaps 3,500 years ago in the Middle East, spread through Asia and Europe, and didn’t catch on in North America until the twentieth century, it seems a pastime tailor-made for the American West, as it requires a lot of open space and abundant game. With all the care and training that a bird of prey demands, not to mention the need for the falconer to be in top condition to run through fields after his bird, it might be the most labor and time-intensive variety of hunting, which is why so few practice it. Dickinson writes, “Today there are approximately forty-five hundred licensed falconers in the United States, and two to three thousand of them belong to [the North American Falconers Association].” Judging from the portraits in Dickinson’s book, there are no casual falconers.
Dickinson became interested in falconry when she discovered her husband Tim Gallagher, editor of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology’s Living Bird, was once a falconer, and his latent passion for the sport was reawakened when someone brought in a kestrel to his office and he determined to train it. Rather than quizzing her husband about falconry, Dickinson, a journalist whose articles have appeared in the Atlantic Monthly and National Geographic Traveler, decided to learn about the sport from another source, Tim’s friend Steve Chindgren, a consummate falconer who has performed public bird shows for almost three decades, “first at the Tracy Aviary in Salt Lake City, then at the Hogle Zoo.” But during falconry season, Steve clears out of Utah for a cabin in southwest Wyoming, which he operates as a falconer’s lodge and uses as a base for his daily hunts. He’s so intent on getting in a hunt every day that he sometimes pushes limits, flying his falcons when predatory eagles are in the area, which leads to some disastrous consequences.
As Steve’s story unfolds, we learn why he avoids his home state of Utah for flying his gyrfalcon-peregrine hybrids—his falconry has led to a few brushes with the law there. One particular game warden nursed a grudge against him for many years, and brought Steve to trial when his falcon struck a duck out of season, with the game warden’s brother-in-law serving as the prosecuting attorney for the state. “You know they had been talking about me for years. I was like Jesse James to them,” Steve explains. Also, Utah doesn’t allow falconers to hunt more than a handful of sage grouse in a season.
But as Dickinson details, while Wyoming currently places fewer restrictions on falconers hunting sage grouse than does Utah, that may soon change if the grouse is listed as an endangered species. Rampant oil and gas development has disrupted the sage grouse’s habitat, and many biologists believe its population is dwindling, though Steve doesn’t agree, based on his observations of sage grouse numbers in the fields in which he hunts. Dickinson writes, “Compare the number of grouse caught by falcons in a year, probably not much more than a hundred, with the number of grouse that gun hunters kill in a single season in Wyoming, which is in the thousands.”
So for the moment, Steve is practicing falconry with the intensity of one who may soon see his favorite occupation curtailed. Dickinson provides a full portrait of this focused man, and the chapters about his youthful beginnings as falconer and his family life are enlightening. Dickinson writes, “a beginning falconer—an apprentice—has to trap a bird to use as his or her first falconry bird,” and the stories of Steve’s determined expeditions to Alaska and Texas for that purpose are funny and wild. Steve’s wife Julie has adjusted to his prolonged absences during falconry season as a military wife might—she’s built her own life up while he’s gone so that he’s almost in the way when he is home.
Falconer On The Edge is an incisive look at a modern devotee of a fascinating ancient practice, and Steve Chindgren emerges as a complex, driven figure keeping the sport of falconry alive in the American West.