How a lost falconry bird brings out the very best in humanity

Plucker’s Story

Plucker’s Story

“Conor, I don’t understand what’s happening. I think I just lost Plucker,” I told one of my friends as I stood at the base of a small eucalyptus tree one cool Friday morning in March, my Marshall radio transmitter receiver pinging loudly in both of our ears as he and I both went through the various stages of disbelief from either end of the cell phone. There was no hawk in sight, no familiar jingle of a bell.

Plucker and me out in the field

It had started out an exciting day in the field, more so than most of my falconry days had been this season. Frustrated with few flushes, or slips as we call them in falconry, and hawks that were having a hard time adjusting to my new pointer puppy, I had been having a tough season committing myself to two hawks and a busy work and business travel schedule. I was only just beginning to hit my stride as March and the end of the season rolled up, bringing with it the challenge of the territorial displays and nest building of the native hawks and corvids.  The season of flying two red tailed hawks had started to wear on me.

Photo courtesy of Stephanie Cruz @stephaniecruz.photography

I had trapped Joplin, my normal colored female, with Conor in September in one of the more exciting mornings. Trapping passage birds is always an adventure, and being with friends, watching wild birds during the southern migration is a really enjoyable day. The practice of trapping passage, or first year birds, for falconry is one that isn’t understood by many outside the falconry community. With a mortality rate of up to 90% in a wild bird of prey’s first two years of life often due to human-related causes, a falconer can help build a better chance for survival by trapping, training, and later releasing birds for gamehawking.

Not too many weeks after trapping Joplin and starting her training, Conor and Paul arranged for me to have a dark morph male transferred on to my falconry permit. Dark morphs are indigenous to the Western US and are uncommon. While many falconers prize them and I was grateful for my friends’ confidence in me, I simply love flying red tailed hawks and the color makes little difference to me. Not knowing that he came with a name, I called him Boone. Paul and Conor always referred to him as Plucker.

Plucker gets skunked

On Friday, March 9th, I arrived at a hillside filled with rabbits little after sunrise and started out with Joplin first, and then brought out Plucker. We had some great flights and a little after 8 am –  8:11 to be exact – he had a near miss after which I snapped a few pictures of his “got skunked” look. At that moment, a man walking four dogs, flushing and chasing every rabbit on the hillside walked by and I had a feeling my morning might be over. I began walking back toward my pickup, looked over my shoulder, lifted my glove and gave Plucker a call. He immediately headed toward me and then suddenly did a hairpin turn and headed over a ridge behind him. Thinking perhaps he had flushed a skittish rabbit, I worked my way uphill and over after him, expecting to find him either down on a rabbit or sitting on a rock just out of sight.

It turned out to be the kind of ridge that just kept on unfolding, rolling out in many different angles, so I continued walking, a little bit annoyed that my hike was taking longer than I expected. As I dipped down and crossed each fold of the ridges, I began to realize I really didn’t know where my bird was and I should probably get higher. Unconcerned, I climbed up to the spine of the hill and began calling him every once in a while, knowing that he would come to the glove from wherever he was when he heard me. It took about 15-20 minutes before I realized I needed to track him as a I hadn’t heard a single ring of his bell. I still wasn’t worried, he has my best transmitter on with a fresh battery and the longest range. The receiver said he was close. I remember thinking to myself “Of course he is, you know your bird.” Plucker was not one to fly out of my sight. With a lot of early handling, he acted a bit like an imprint at times and had only been in a low soar in the most favorable of conditions only once. He always stuck to me like glue, and that morning he had been tight like a tick and there was game everywhere.

And that’s where I ended up, just a few dozen yards down that hill, staring at a small empty eucalyptus that taunted me with the lying receiver pings that said my bird was close. I was stunned, and completely unable to process what was happening. After hanging up with Conor, I walked and drove around the area for the next few hours without a single sign of my bird. Just before having to head home for an appointment I couldn’t miss, I went back to the eucalyptus tree and searched again for his transmitter. After looking in the tree and the grass, I finally found my transmitter sitting neatly in some shrubs near the base of the tree. The feeling of emptiness holding my tail mount in hand overwhelmed me. A few hours later, I texted Paul to tell him what happened. He quickly responded, “Do you think someone took him?” The thought had never occurred to me.

So many hours and emotions go into a falconry bird that they are nearly priceless.

Later that afternoon, my partner Andre and I returned to canvas the area. A few false leads and sad tears later, we ended our search at dark. The next day brought rain, more tears, and no sign of him.  Each day I returned, rain or shine, and started by glassing the field, and then proceeded with wider and wider circles of the area. I found tons of red tails, but not a single dark morph in sight.

By Wednesday night, I was completely dejected and could barely drag myself out to keep looking again. My family was coming to visit that weekend for my mom’s birthday, and I was utterly exhausted. Thursday evening found Andre and I eating a late dinner after a long day. I hadn’t been on social media all day, but had been periodically checking birding groups on Facebook to see if there had been any sightings. I hadn’t announced his disappearance because I was concerned that if people had found out there was a dark morph falconry bird flying, they might flock (ha!) to the area to try to find him before I did.

That night, I happened upon a posting in a red tailed hawk group that said “Did anyone lose a hawk in California?” with the subsequent comments that clearly indicated they were referring to a dark morph but I could not see a picture. I stopped eating and started hopping up and down yelling. I frantically submitted one of the pictures I had just taken right before he had taken off and tried to get more information.

Through a series of messages and connections with friends, I was put in touch with one of the people who had originally shared the posting, Jessica. We emailed back and forth and I had found out that my bird had landed in the yard of her friend, Tammy, near Ridgecrest and Bakersfield, 200 miles north of me and more than 150 miles north of where we had flown the Friday before. Tammy went to take a picture of him, and he landed on her arm.

Tammy’s lost and found pic

She posted him in the local lost and found. She then announced that she had decided to take him to the animal control. Apparently, a man was waiting for her in the parking lot of the animal control, claimed it was his bird, she gave it to him, and away he went. That was all the information she had. I hardly slept a wink that night, thinking of Plucker and the challenges that lay ahead of me.

The next morning, I asked Jessica if I could speak with Tammy directly. While waiting to hear back, I contacted the California Fish and Wildlife and told them everything that I knew. I asked if they could look up recent acquisition and recapture reports to help us get any leads. We didn’t know if the man was a falconer or not, or if he was, if he would follow the regulations and submit a report as he was legally required to. The falconry license examiner said that she would work on it, but there was only so much she could do with the information we had.

A couple of hours later, I was able to talk to Tammy. She was a wonderfully kind and compassionate person. She was so upset about what had transpired and vowed to make it right by looking for the bird.  After trying in vain to explain that I knew she had just tried to do the best she could, I was happy to get a name, physical description, vehicle description, and to know that she had tried to drop the bird off at the Ridgecrest Animal Control. I called them as soon as I got off the phone with her and found out how to contact the police and see about their parking lot surveillance. From there, I was back on the phone with Fish and Wildlife, and then with my always helpful local game warden as well as the Fish and Wildlife law enforcement in Sacramento.

That afternoon, feeling better that my game warden was on the trail, my mom arrived and my mind began to slow down a bit. At 7:30 as we were eating dinner, I got a phone call. I didn’t know the number, but I knew it was about Plucker.

“Hello, Hillary? This is Jessica, I was talking to you last night about your hawk? I have him. I have your bird, and I’m driving down from Ridgecrest to get him back to you!”

“WHAT!?!”

That’s right. Jessica, a complete stranger, drove three hours up to Ridgecrest to find my bird for me when we didn’t even know he was out in the wild.

“He stinks like sour crop and whoever had him cut off all of his anklets and jesses, but he’s in a crate, and we are heading your way.”

As it turned out, Tammy got really upset after talking to me, so Jessica and her fourteen year old daughter, Makayla, drove up to help her. Jessica had put a dog crate in the back of her pickup, grabbed a purple gardening glove and some chicken breast, and headed north. After tending to Tammy, they started driving around. Makayla spotted Plucker on a telephone post.

“That’s him!”

“We don’t know that yet,” Jessica had told her. “That bird doesn’t have any jesses on. But if we walk up to him and he doesn’t fly away, that’s him.” So that’s what they did. Plucker thought a long hard moment to flying down to a purple glove. But in the end, he did, gobbled the meat, and threw himself into the dog crate.

When I met Jessica and Makayla in the Walmart parking lot in Temecula at 10:00 at night, I looked at her in amazement and said, “I can’t believe you did that. What were you thinking? Why did you do that? How did you know to go looking for him? To do all that stuff?”

Jessica explained to me that she used to be in dog rescue, and that when a dog went missing, that’s what you did. A

Plucker returns, feeling pretty sick

bunch of people would go driving around with dog crates, and well, probably not gardening gloves, but food and started looking and calling. She went on to explain to me how many messages she had received about Plucker, even as far away as Idaho, from people claiming it was their bird that they had lost years ago.

Jessica was right, Plucker had a bad case of sour crop and he was very underweight. His foot was sore, and he wasn’t putting weight on it. And to top it off, his tail and wings were trashed and covered in white urates: a clear sign he had been sitting in a crate or hawk box for more than a few days. It took several days of very careful feeding and care to ensure his recovery.

To this day, my mind is still blown by an unlikely series of events, the compassion and fortitude shown by Jessica and Tammy, and the help that so many others in the falconry community offered me. For as many people that showed the worst sides of humanity, there were plenty more that have shown me the best in Plucker’s escapade.

This sums up well what training birds has taught me. It has brought out the best teachers, carers, and support systems in many of us, and it has brought out the prideful, the vain, and those that prey on the silence and weaknesses of others. Caring for and training animals is a fantastic equalizer as well as a lie detector unparalleled, because the behavior of the animal is guileless. It tells the story of the environment that has shaped it. To unlock the true potential of a relationship between a human and an animal, we have to suspend vanity, share knowledge with one another, and like friends and strangers did for me, remind yourself that there is good in this world and people will do the most remarkable things for others without being asked.

Plucker and me at home