Rigor Vitae: Life Unyielding

Tuesday, February 27, 2007


Last weekend one of the West's premier falconry meets was held, and for the first time in a decade or more, I was in attendance. The Utah Sky Trials were the brainchild of the late Gerald Richards, who was disappointed at some demonstration flights at a Midwestern meet in the late 1960s. In falconry, longwings, or true falcons (Falco spp.), are trained to “wait on,” or to rise to a high “pitch,” where they circle above the falconer, and eventually “stoop,” or dive at birds that are flushed. The demonstration flights that Gerald witnessed were Dick Cheney-sorts of affairs, where pen-raised Chukars and pheasants were served to waiting-on falcons, who, of course, took them with ease. Gerald was a natural innovator, and he set out to establish a demonstration of falconry at its highest level. He began breeding and training a flock of racing homers that were adept at evading falcons, and in February of 1975, the first “Pigeon Derby,” as it was called then, was held in a location that I frankly can't recall. About two dozen spectators gathered to watch three Prairie Falcons (F. mexicanus) fly at Gerald's pigeons. In addition to Gerald's intermewed (kept through at least one molt) passage (trapped wild in her first autumn) bird, there was Steve Chindgren's intermewed eyass (originally taken from the nest), Obery, and my first-year passage bird, Jinx. Having lived through tougher times, passage birds take hunting more seriously than do eyasses, and Jinx snagged her pigeon in an uninspired but effective stoop from a couple of hundred feet up. The other two birds achieved higher pitches, and Obery, who won the event, put in a beautiful vertical stoop from about 800 feet, and a couple of secondary stoops before giving up the chase.

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

Wednesday, February 14, 2007


It's Valentine's Day: a time to celebrate love, and if you love the life sciences like I do, you'll want to visit the 73rd edition of Tangled Bank, the carnival featuring the best science blogging of the past two weeks. It's now up at Lab Cat.

It's pretty old news, now...sorry I forgot to link to this earlier...but you'll also want to check out Edition #42 of I and the Bird, featuring the blogosphere's best ornithological blogging. The Darwin Day edition is up on Neurophilosophy.

And while we're on the twin topics of things I love and things I forgot, my very favorite blog, Tetrapod Zoology, moved to Scienceblogs last month. If you like zoology, and you've never visited Darren before, you're in for a treat.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007


High school graduation is a milestone day for most of us. It was for me. It was the last time, for a long, long time, that I saw Suzanne. Her sense of humor came from another galaxy; it made you question everything you held as true, and her beauty made sight seem like a new sensation. Whenever she spoke to me, my throat tightened up like I held a shot of acetone in my mouth. From time to time, a bit of news made it through the grapevine: a marriage, kids, and ultimately, a divorce. My hopes of seeing her at our ten-year reunion were disappointed, and again at our twenty. By last summer, only a bit of hope remained for anniversary number thirty, so I was flushed with adrenalin to receive an email inviting me to meet her for a drink before the reunion. Since that drink, she's brought cheer to each day, and has treated me better than I could possibly deserve. Thanks, Suz! Happy Valentine's Day!

Wednesday, February 07, 2007


Zoos are wonderful resources for wildlife artists, and my job would be a lot tougher without a few of them around. We have a pretty decent zoo here in Salt Lake called Hogle Zoo—in recent years they've taken to calling themselves “Utah's Hogle Zoo,” for the benefit of amnesiacs and escaped interstate kidnappees. I used to hitchhike down there as a kid about once a week and hop the fence, and I still spend lots of time there each year, observing and sketching the inmates. The highlight of the place for me is the Small Animals Building, which houses a good collection of reptiles, amphibians and small mammals. There is a central tropical atrium that houses numerous species of free-flight birds, where I led hordes of kids from the City School District in a wildlife art instruction program last fall (below).

For the past dozen years, Hogle Zoo has organized an exhibition of animal art called World of the Wild, that features about 100 pieces of sculpture and flatwork, much of it very good. This year, the director, Jameson Weston, decided to spotlight a featured artist, and I'm happy to report that the honor has fallen to me. If you're in the Salt Lake area, consider dropping by for the opening reception tomorrow (Friday), February 9th, from 7 until 9pm. (UPDATE: Oops!! I've just been notified that you need an invitation to get into the reception tomorrow--sorry!) The zoo won't even charge admission that evening (though I may jump the fence just for old-time's sake). In addition to the work by other Utah artists, ten paintings of mine will be on display, including the original of the poster image shown above, depicting a Ruffed Lemur (Varecia variegata) and Panther Chameleon (Furcifer pardalis). Incidentally, both animals represent the forms of their species found on the little island of Nosy Mangabé, off the northeast coast of Madagascar. I'll also have a few copies of my book on hand. Come by tomorrow and have me sign one for you...or at least have me sign a poster. I might even spike your lemonade for you. The exhibit will continue through April 1, and can be viewed during regular zoo hours.
upper: poster featuring BLACK & WHITE RUFFED LEMUR & PANTHER CHAMELEON (2007) acrylic 18" x 24"
lower: photograph by Suzanne Grow