Raptor Rapture

Jerry Ostwinkle's life fell apart when the government seized his golden eagle; now he's fighting for Rex and the rights of falconers.

History provides a concrete foundation for the drama Ostwinkle is living out.

To stop the indiscriminate slaughter of migratory birds by hunters, Congress passed the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. Since then, federal officials have enforced regulations designed to protect these birds. But they have also had to contend with falconers who, like hunters, were given certain rights to birds of prey.

With hunting, regulation is easier. Hunting seasons and other limitations control the amount of prey that will be killed. With falconry, which involves regulating the way a person treats a live bird, oversight is more complicated.

Sage, Mike Marks' goshawk, spreads her wings during a day of hunting.
Paolo Vescia
Sage, Mike Marks' goshawk, spreads her wings during a day of hunting.
Mike Marks approaches Sage after her kill of a white-tailed rabbit.
Paolo Vescia
Mike Marks approaches Sage after her kill of a white-tailed rabbit.

Anyone can take state and federal tests for permits to capture, fly and keep falcons, hawks and other migratory birds. Permit holders must comply with a slate of regulations dictating everything from the type of birds falconers can have to the type of shelter they must provide.

While many falconers support the tight regulations -- drawn up with the help of the North American Falconers Association -- others say enforcement is often unfair and heavy-handed.

Mike Marks says he never had a violation of his falconry permit until he was issued five paperwork violations three years ago, when federal wildlife agents were trying to get him to provide information about Ostwinkle and Bruce Taubert, an Arizona Game and Fish official and falconer who was charged by the Fish and Wildlife Service with violating his falconry permit. Records from Arizona Game and Fish and the Fish and Wildlife Service show that Ostwinkle, Taubert, Lollman and other falconers were targeted in the Arizona Falconers probe.

"They painted this picture of these guys trafficking in birds," says Marks, a soft-spoken falconer who plans to keep his goshawk, Sage, as long as she will stay with him. "They think everyone is a criminal. They think we're just out there trading birds."

Taubert was charged with failing to get written authorization to place his prairie falcon in the temporary care of another, and for being about a week late in reporting the acquisition of a prairie falcon. The Arizona Game and Fish Department refused to prosecute, saying the charges were too minor to warrant court action.

"Most judges would not consider forgetting to leave a note with a friend or reporting the capture of a raptor a few days late worthy of taking up their valuable court time," says Thomas Spalding, deputy director of Arizona Game and Fish, in a letter responding to the federal charges. "In the years I personally enforced state falconry regulations, these occurrences were brought to the citizen's attention with warnings rather than burdening the court system and prejudicing the judges against black and white wildlife violations. Past department attempts at prosecuting these types of offenses have resulted in a zero average."

Authorities say the tension between falconers and the federal government has existed since the sport was legalized by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. But falconers say their chilly relations froze over the day the Fish and Wildlife Service commenced a nationwide sting operation against falconers 20 years ago.

In "Operation Falcon," federal wildlife agents used Jeff McPartlin, a falconer they arrested for illegal trafficking of birds, to lead them to other falconers suspected of similar violations. By offering to buy the birds illegally, undercover agents nabbed dozens of falconers.

The sting created a deep divide between the government and falconers, who still wince at the memory of that time.

"There's some real harsh feelings," says Harry McElroy, a 70-year-old falconer who has been flying raptors since 1948. "There was no question there was entrapment."

What the government fails to see is how well falconers treat their birds, and how much they have done for the species, McElroy and other falconers say. When the pesticide DDT threatened the survival of peregrine falcons 30 years ago, falconers learned how to breed them in captivity and release them in the wild, helping to save them from extinction.

"We've learned more about raptors because of these people right here," says Chris Williamson, a former insect collector and raptor enthusiast, during a day spent with a group of falconers while they flew their birds. "If you didn't have guys like this, who liked birds this much, you wouldn't have peregrine falcons or the number of raptors in the sky today."

Ostwinkle's work with Rex was no less heroic. Bumped out of the nest by his siblings, the golden eagle was discovered in the Hualapai Mountains near Kingman by hikers who fed Rex their food for several days before taking him to the Adobe Mountain Wildlife Center. The baby bird was malnourished and appeared to have a head injury, so the center turned to Ostwinkle, an experienced volunteer. Ostwinkle agreed to rehabilitate the 45-day-old eagle and return it to the wild, if possible.

"When we got the eagle, they thought it had two days, max, to live," says Ostwinkle, his face tanned a deep brown from days in the sun. "We never had an eagle this young."

Rex surprised everyone and lived. Force-fed egg yolks and syrups to build up his electrolytes, Rex continued to grow. And the bird wasn't injured. The hole in his head reported by those who found him was his ear. Soon, it would be time to start teaching him what food was.

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