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.

Ostwinkle placed two rabbits in Rex's chamber, and for eight days, Rex played with them -- until Ostwinkle killed the first rabbit and showed him what was under the fur. The next day, Rex killed the second rabbit.

Now the eagle needed to learn to hunt, but it wouldn't be easy. Every time Ostwinkle took Rex out to find prey, the eagle failed and nearly starved. Ostwinkle sat down with his wife and his employer to discuss the time off he would need to train Rex, and for the next nine months, he took the eagle to the mountainsides to learn to fly, spot prey and dive down for the kill. Gradually, Rex became a supreme hunter, killing up to half a dozen jackrabbits each week.

Without Ostwinkle, Rex would never have learned to be a golden eagle.

Sage clamps down on her rabbit kill.
Paolo Vescia
Sage clamps down on her rabbit kill.
Thomas Hildebrandt, who manages wildlife programs for the Arizona Game and Fish Department, considers Ostwinkle an eagle expert.
Paolo Vescia
Thomas Hildebrandt, who manages wildlife programs for the Arizona Game and Fish Department, considers Ostwinkle an eagle expert.

Like other falconers, Ostwinkle lived a life that revolved around birds of prey. He would spend hours a day manning the various raptors in his care, getting them used to people and to latching onto his gloved fist. But the biggest commitment was to flying the birds and hunting with them, sometimes with fellow falconers whose passion for the sport brings them back to a remote area off Interstate 17 and Dugas Road, southeast of Prescott.

Standing around the campfire drinking beer and cooking sausage on a chilly October morning, the falconers look like any group of guys on a camping trip, except for the ring of falcons and hawks behind them, tethered to wrought-iron perches. Occasionally one leaps off, its fluttering wings yanked back to the ground in mid-flight.

The men spend the next few hours talking about the birds, turning around every so often to check on them, like worried parents.

"It's not a sport, it's not a hobby, it's a passion," says Ted Diamont, a retired New York police officer and falconer who prefers to fly goshawks. "It's a part of your life, your soul."

Most falconers are obsessed with their birds, he says; some have lost their jobs, their income and their wives over the feathered animals. Ostwinkle confirms this, blaming falconry for the breakup of his first marriage.

"You're giving up quite a lot," Ostwinkle says, adding that probably two-thirds of falconers are divorced because of the sport. "Once you're in the zone, you think of nothing else but the bird."

The thrill is in the hunt, the falconers say, as they wait for the weight of their birds to drop. Soon the birds are hungry enough to be loaded in the trucks and driven up the hill, where jackrabbits and other small prey are hiding in the bushes.

"If we ever get in a head-on, we'll all be decapitated by our perches," jokes Marks before untying Sage, his goshawk, and placing her onto the bar behind his seat.

The birds wobble back and forth as the four-wheel-drive trucks bounce up the mountain, but the birds are calm with their hoods on. At the top, Alan Malnar takes out Jackie, his red-tail hawk, removes her hood and raises his glove in the air. As Jackie lunges from his fist, the falconers scatter across the mountainside, using sticks to beat the bushes in their path. They are "flushing" the area, or scaring prey from their hiding places, and Jackie is following them overhead. Suddenly, a jackrabbit darts into a bush and the falconers scream, "Ho! Ho! Ho!" Jackie dive-bombs through cat's claw and sinks her talons into the white fur, the jackrabbit squealing in pain.

"You hear that squeal?" asks Diamont. "That's what we live for. It's almost better than sex."

The rabbit is drenched in blood, but as Malnar rushes to the scene, he hovers over Jackie, panicked about the feathers the thorny bush ripped from her chest. "She's freaking. I've got to let her settle down."

Jackie is rewarded for the kill with meat, and the group starts the hunt again with another bird. "This is a blood sport," says Diamont. "It's an addiction."

The addiction comes from sheer awe of the birds, falconers say, watching the beauty of their flight and their power and precision when killing prey. It's the reward for the hours of training to get raptors to return to them after a day of hunting.

After years of working with falcons and hawks, Ostwinkle's reward was to one day have a golden eagle. Rex more than fulfilled that ambition.

Having been in close contact with Ostwinkle for months, Rex had begun to depend on him for his every need, a process called imprinting. Rex would call to Ostwinkle, the same way an eyas, or baby eagle, calls to its mother from the nest. If another bird scared him, Rex would scurry for cover between Ostwinkle's legs. In his truck, on the way home from a day of hunting, the eagle would sleep in Ostwinkle's lap.

The intense imprinting meant that Rex could never be released into the wild. It also meant trouble for Ostwinkle with Kamile McKeever, legal instruments examiner for the Fish and Wildlife Service, who expected the bird to be either released to the wild or sent to a zoo.

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