THE UTAH SKY TRIALS
I attended the next dozen or so Pigeon Derbies, competing just one more time with an intermewed passage Prairie named Hillary, whose performance that day fell short of distinguished. Over the years I watched the little meet grow into an event that attracted hundreds of spectators, and the best game hawks from all over the western U.S. The name was eventually changed to “Sky Trials,” largely out of deference to animal-rights lunatics. When Gerald died in 1994, the maintenance of his pigeons and of the meet was taken over by another Utah County falconer, Pat Shane. In 1992 I took a short break from flying falcons to establish an art career, and my return to the trials after that hiatus illuminated a number of trends in a sport that, until recently, remained fairly unchanged for a millennium.
The falcons that competed in the 1975 derby were all native birds that began life on Utah cliff faces. Prairies were the only large falcons available to us. Peregrines (F. peregrinus) and Gyrs (F. rusticolus) were extremely rare in the state, illegal to trap, and no one here had ever bred them in captivity. This year ten birds competed, all of them captive-bred, all of them hybrids. This is typical. Today dozens of breeding projects supply most of the birds used in falconry. Most inseminations are artificial, and a high percentage of the resultant birds are hybrids. Members of the genus Falco are closely related, and most of their hybrids are fertile. Already, the precise lineage of some falcons is unclear, and the day will soon come when one can purchase birds that are not of a species, but of a breed (I'll take the “blue-check”). I find this a bit exciting, but mostly sad. Of about 50 large falcons brought to this year's Sky Trials by spectators, I saw just one that looked like a pure Prairie Falcon. Most of them I couldn't identify by more than a guess.
Among the advances in falconry furniture, none has been more profound than the introduction of radio telemetry. The telemetry available in 1975 was expensive, heavy, and the batteries were short-lived. I didn't know any falconers that used it. Today, everyone does, and it gives them the confidence to allow their birds to range more widely and wait on at a higher pitch. Where 300 feet was once a decent pitch, many falcons routinely fly well over 1500 feet today. Some falconers use weather balloons to raise a lure into the sky, encouraging their birds to feel comfortable flying that high. Last week Pat Shane demonstrated a radio-controlled airplane that he plans to use in such a manner next year.
Perch technology looks the same as it did 30 years ago, but no one uses the long, hanging, eagle-luring, traditional jesses that were ubiquitous then. Jesses, leashes, and hood braces are often made of synthetic materials rather than leather. A friend of mine recently perfected some very light, very sharp-looking hoods made of molded polycarbonate.
Of all the changes I observed, though, the most surprising was the level of popularity the Sky Trials presently enjoy. By the late '80s, they afforded an unequaled opportunity to watch spectacular stoops by around 30 first-rate game falcons. This year, fewer than 100 people showed up to watch ten falcons fly, and maybe half of those birds were worth going out of one's way for. It appears to me that the popular wave of hawking I witnessed 15 years ago was the apex of a curve. As suburbs continually expand, the kind of open habitat falconry demands dwindle. I couldn't fly a big falcon today without driving over 100 miles each day to do it, and an insane sport incrementally appears more insane. If falconry is diminishing in popularity, that's a good thing, though. Large numbers of Americans flying falcons would take an unfortunate toll on today's world. I've been obsessed with the sport since I was ten, and it's only the obsessed who can devote the time and energy to maintain the health and happiness of their charges. Only if the sport is reserved for that peculiar minority will the obsessed child of today have a chance of catering to that obsession into old age.
upper: THE PLUMING POST--PEREGRINE & ROCK DOVE (1990) acrylic 30" x 20"
center: ENTRADA--PEREGRINE FALCON (2005) acrylic 10" x 5"
lower: Garret Larsen brings his dad's falcon back from the field at the '07 Sky Trials. Photo by CPBvK