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.

"The bird was allowed to be in his possession, but it is not his bird," she says. "It's a public resource. It belongs to you; it belongs to me."

Ostwinkle refused to give Rex up, insisting that the best place for the eagle was in his care. He then went over McKeever's head, getting approval from law enforcement officials at the Fish and Wildlife Service -- a maneuver that left a sore spot with McKeever, who hasn't trusted him since, Ostwinkle says.

With Rex, Ostwinkle became one of only a handful of falconers nationwide to legally possess a golden eagle. He says he's been accused of having Rex imprint on him so he could keep him, but he insists it's not true. "Because Rex was 45 days old, I thought there was no way it would imprint. I had no idea they were that intelligent."

Linda Warren Peterson, director of the Arizona Film Commission, has tried to loosen restrictions on the filming of raptors in Arizona.
Paolo Vescia
Linda Warren Peterson, director of the Arizona Film Commission, has tried to loosen restrictions on the filming of raptors in Arizona.
Falconers proudly hold up their birds of prey during a day of flying and hunting. From left, Mike Marks, David Reese, Alan Malnar, Jerry Ostwinkle, Joseph Hardin and Chuck Dwyer.
Paolo Vescia
Falconers proudly hold up their birds of prey during a day of flying and hunting. From left, Mike Marks, David Reese, Alan Malnar, Jerry Ostwinkle, Joseph Hardin and Chuck Dwyer.

Most birds of prey imprint to their mothers within the first two months of life, authorities say. Falconers who take birds after that time can usually avoid imprinting behavior and safely release the bird back into the wild. Eagles, however, are different.

Because of what he learned from Rex, Ostwinkle says he believes any eagle taken and released in its first year of life will die in the wild without proper training.

The observation is groundbreaking, some wildlife biologists say, and it could change the way rehabilitators prepare captured young eagles for release in the wild.

"There should be no question of his expertise in the natural history of eagles, falcons and other birds of prey, and the conditioning techniques necessary to return them to wild condition," says Thomas Hildebrandt, a wildlife program manager for the Arizona Game and Fish Department. Hildebrandt wrote a letter supporting Ostwinkle's desire to start "hacking" eagles back into the wild.

The hacking technique has proved successful in releasing young peregrine falcons and other juvenile raptors because it avoids the imprinting process, Ostwinkle says. A bird is placed in a box, high upon a pole, which it learns to think of as its nest. Without human contact, food is lifted to the bird, usually something in full form, like a jackrabbit carcass, so the bird recognizes what it is eating.

Slowly, the food supply is reduced to a live rabbit that is bound and easy to catch. The approach mimics what mother eagles do, which is injure prey so their young ones can get their first easy kill. After that, food is cut off, forcing the hungry birds to leave the hack site.

While they are away, the box is replaced with a scale, which the falconer watches from afar through a telescope. When the bird returns, the falconer can check its weight to see if it caught and ate anything. If not, the process of feeding and hunger motivation starts over again, until the bird becomes a successful hunter.

For young eagles, whose learning curve is longer than other raptors, hacking is crucial for their reintroduction into the wild, says Ostwinkle. But so far, he hasn't had the chance to try out a hack site on eagles. The female raptor from Tucson was going to be his first one, helped along by Rex, who would act as her surrogate parent. But the Fish and Wildlife Service took her away before Ostwinkle had the chance to hack out the younger eagle, and now she's imprinted and nonreleasable for sure, he says.

Had the female eagle stayed with him, she would have been successfully returned to the wild, where she would have reproduced, says Ostwinkle. As an imprinted raptor, however, she is unable to mate with another bird of prey. "When they took that eagle from me, they lost 20 eagles because she can't breed,'' he says.

Hacking of eagles and other birds of prey is not commonly done because it is so time-consuming, says Hildebrandt. But he says it may be an option wildlife specialists should look into. "Although we feel like we're doing good things, it may not be enough," he says. "Jerry's findings may increase our workload."

With his permits revoked, however, Ostwinkle can no longer work with raptors from the United States, and he cannot use the hack site his friend and fellow falconer Bill O'Brien helped him set up on federal land O'Brien leases at Eagletail Ranch, west of Phoenix.

The loss has been staggering for Ostwinkle, whose devotion to eagles and other birds of prey has attracted a strong following in the falconry community. Although some falconers have kept their distance for fear of being dragged into his battles with the federal government, many admire his convictions.

"I don't know how to help him," says Morley Nelson, a well-known falconer who is credited with changing the American mindset about eagles and other raptors with the 11 films he did, including seven with Walt Disney. Nelson has golden and bald eagles, some of which were used in the films to show audiences that the birds were beautiful, smart creatures, not vermin to be shot and killed.

The filming effort succeeded, he says, but whether Ostwinkle can prevail is uncertain. "He's got a lot of problems, but he's fighting it beautifully."

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