The falcon circled a thousand feet above our heads—a tiny triangular form blinking in and out of sight waiting for Steve Chindgren to make his move. Suddenly the falconer ran toward the waiting dog, whooping and hollering and clapping his hands “Heeeaaaahhh!” he yelled. A dozen sage grouse burst from behind the sagebrush and headed for the distant hills, wings whirring.
The bird fell into a power dive, its body elongating and morphing as if it was extruded from the sky. With a crack—like a major league hitter connecting with a fast pitch—the falcon hit a grouse. An explosion of feathers was scattered by the deadly impact, and the grouse tumbled to the ground. The falcon flew down after it. And then it was over.
The first time you witness a kill, the speed and shock of the scene is jolting. “What just happened?” you think as you run toward the falcon, now calmly ripping hunks from the slain grouse. This is not for the faint of heart; Steve takes out his pocket knife and disembowels the grouse with a sure hand, throwing the heart and guts to the ginger-and-white dog as reward. He then pulls a dead sparrow from his game bag, and offers it to the falcon. The bird steps onto Steve’s gloved hand and calmly turns its attention to the new treat. Steve picks up the grouse, shows me the subtle, and beautiful, feathers, then stuffs the carcass in his game bag. We will be eating marinated grilled sage grouse for dinner.
In autumn Wyoming is a mecca for serious falconers who come from all over in RVs and campers and congregate in what they call grouse camps. Their days are spent hunting sage grouse with dogs and falcons on the vast tracts of public land. These are exclusive little gatherings and most of the falconers have known each other for years. The curious can buy a falconry experience – and accompany a falconer on a hunt or have a bird of prey land on your fist (at places like The Equinox Resort in Manchester, Vermont, and the Greenbriar in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia). You can even take a three-day falconry course at the West Coast Falconry Academy in California, but only spending time with a falconer—a hardcore falconer—will expose you to the intensity they feel every day during hunting season.
Chindgren in one of North America’s most hardcore. For six months, he runs the bird show at the Hogle Zoo in Salt Lake City. But during hunting season he’s at his cabin, he calls it The House of Grouse, on the edge of thousands of acres of public land in south-central Wyoming. From the cabin’s front porch you can see the serrated edge of the Wind River Range to the north, and in between, a glorious swath of high desert filled with pronghorn, mule deer, elk, and sage grouse, and deep ruts in the desert made by thousands of pioneer wagons heading west on the Oregon and Mormon trails 150 years ago. Across it all, the celadon sagebrush, with its heady scent, gives the chicken-sized and desert-colored grouse an ideal place to live.
Steve flies beautiful hybrid birds that are a cross between a peregrine (the world’s fasted falcon) and gyrfalcon (the world’s largest falcon). That combination is critical when trying to catch and kill sage grouse, which can outweigh the falcon five-fold. These large birds turn out to be formidable prey because in spite of their bulk, they can out-fly a high-flying falcon, like a peregrine, across the desert floor. The hybrids help level the playing field because gyrfalcon characteristics provide the power and stamina to give chase.
Falconry is a blood sport, but is also the most highly regulated form of hunting in the United States. Falconers have to go through a multi-year apprenticeship, and take an exam, to become master falconers. Both federal and state governments have a say in what birds you can fly, and how many of them you can have at a time. Falconers don’t own their birds—rather, they are on loan from the federal government that protects them under various laws including the migratory bird act. Add to this the constant care, upkeep, and training, and you see why falconry in the U.S. is a highly specialized pursuit.
Chindgren has been flying falcons in this part of Wyoming for decades. He respects the grouse, and during the non-hunting months spends his time photographing and observing their behavior. During the spring he hosts guests at his cabin and takes them to observe sage grouse on the lek – where the big cock birds fight and strut in hopes they’ll get lucky with the hens that mill around. He knows where the hens and their broods gather to feed on sweet alfalfa. And he’s spent hours attaching soda cans to the top wires of barbed-wire fences so the grouse don’t collide with them—a move that led the local game and fish department realize these simple steps can reduce sage grouse-barbed wire collisions by 70 percent.
One crisp morning before dawn, Steve and I head out to go hunting. We drive along the narrow highway through the high desert and it’s just us and the roustabouts heading for the natural gas fields to the north. We turn onto a two-track road that parallels the wagon ruts of the Oregon Trail and crosses the desert floor toward some low hills. As we bounce along the sky begins to brighten in the east. Several pronghorn pronk away, startled by the sound of the truck. Steve, who has a sixth sense about where the sage grouse might be hiding, stops the truck to let the dog out and prepare his falcon for a flight. I stand nearby with my back to the ever-present Wyoming wind, watching the scene unfold. As the sun rises Steve is standing knee-deep in sagebrush, looking heavenward at his bird, while trying to keep an eye on the dog. On that day, I know the odds are good that the grouse will live to fly again.
Rachel Dickinson writes for a number of publications including The Atlantic, Audubon, and National Geographic Traveler. Her latest book is Falconer on the Edge: A Man, His Birds, and the Vanishing Landscape of the American West.
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