The Primal Team: No Flight of Fancy

The early morning tableau is pastorally stark: scrub land dotted by tiny, muddy ponds.

The brisk air is punctuated by the gaggling and gurgling sounds of ducks and sand hill cranes. Their high-pitched tones, however, could be a predator alert. Snakes and coyotes by land, perhaps a hawk or a bald eagle by air.

It is nature at its most primal. Survival of the fleetest. The serious symmetry that is the predator-prey nexus. Inextricable links in the food chain crucible played out in the Bay Area’s Rustic Belt — southern Hillsborough County.

There is also the occasional third party – but hardly an interloper.

Meet Steve Peacock, falconer.

Yes, you read that right. While this slice of rural Hillsborough is hardly a fountainhead of falconry, this ancient hunting sport is what Riverview has in common with medieval Europe. No baronial estates, to be sure, but just enough open spaces between ever-encroaching housing developments for a serious falconer and his raptor.

On this wintry Sunday, Peacock, who is one of about 100 (active) licensed falconers in Florida, is single-minded. He has driven over from his northern Pinellas County home to fly his ornithological sidekick, “Dodger,” a 4-year-old, silver gyrfalcon.

Dodger, a fast-climbing, “long wing” that occupies the top perch in falcon hierarchy, needs the work. Peacock, 56, needs the intimate connection with nature that only falconry affords him.

It’s people such as Peacock that Harvard entomologist E.O. Wilson surely had in mind when he coined the term “biophilia”: the innate human yearning to have some direct contact with nature. It’s why New Yorkers were so enamored of the red-tail hawk, Pale Male, who became a cause celebre last year for losing a nest to a Fifth Avenue condo co-op board.

“This is a partnership,” explains Peacock, who has trained Dodger since he was a 2-month-old. “It’s a personal, emotional commitment. That bird was created for independence and to be a master of the sky. At any point it could just leave and say ‘Sayonara.’ For that bird to accept you at any level — well, it takes quite an effort to create that level of trust.

“I just enjoy the bird,” emphasizes Peacock. “To see a falcon drop out at 200 mph is something. That falcon is fulfilled. To me, that’s life. It’s reconnecting.”

Before anything is reconnected, the flight area must be reconnoitered. That’s Peacock’s job. He spots the would-be quarry – a passel of ducks – and flushes them skyward.

Once untethered and unhooded on Peacock’s gloved fist, Dodger takes a few moments to re-familiarize himself with his sighted world. He regally extends his wings to their 3 ½-foot span and soon climbs to some 500 feet, where he pauses to survey the field. He comes in on a dive-bombing “stoop,” evens out, and ascends briefly to position for contact at about 40 feet. A 4-pound, mottled drake, the prey without a prayer, drops precipitously.

Peacock rushes to savor the moment and protect the feeding – and now positively reinforced — Dodger. “There is a sense of accomplishment,” says Peacock. “It’s the way it’s supposed to turn out for predators. Your partner has succeeded. And you got to observe it. There’s a sense of pride and a kind of an adrenaline rush.”

All the while, Peacock is scanning the horizon. This is also where eagles soar – and stoop. “Until he’s back on the fist with the hood on (and distraction free) I’m not totally happy,” notes Peacock.

In 2003 he lost his first long winger, “Drako,” to an eagle. The experience still haunts him.

“It’s a combination of losing your best-ever pet dog and your hunting companion,” points out Peacock. “You have life experience together. And you have to live with the questions: ‘What could I have done to prevent that?’ and ‘Did I let my friend down?’ You value every flight.”

There would be no eagle sightings – or worse – this day.

It was, notes Peacock, one of Dodger’s better performances. Most outings don’t result in the ultimate raptor success.

“Every successful flight is golden,” Peacock says. “And if you just come home healthy, that’s a victory. And if he fulfills his design, as it were, that’s icing on the cake.”

Falconer’s Day Job

Not unlike most falconers, Steve Peacock has a good day job. A wildlife biologist by training, he is vice president of environmental services for New Port Richey-based Florida Design Consultants, a civil engineering firm. His clients include some of the most prominent residential builders in the area. He’s the go-to guy for dealing with regulators on issues ranging from wildlife inventories and wetland mapping to DRI’s.

“Steve knows his birds and his habitat issues,” says Ann Paul, the Tampa Bay regional coordinator for the Florida Coastal Islands Sanctuary. “If he says it’s so, it’s so.”

Professional employment, which is common among falconers, helps underwrite a pursuit that gets pricey. The birds themselves can routinely cost $1,000 – and a lot more if already trained. The right clothes, equipment (including telemetry) and housing (the state mandates a separate, at least 8’x 8’x 8′, on-residence facility) are part of the substantial overhead.

The sport is also exacting in its time demands. So much so that there is this cautionary aphorism among falconers: “One falcon, one wife; two falcons, no wife.”

For the record, there is a Mrs. Peacock, Megan. The Peacocks have been married 13 years.

Raptor Comeback

There are an estimated 2,000 falconers in the U.S., according to the North American Falconers Association. West of the Mississippi is where most of the action is.

Until the ’70s, many states treated raptors (falcons, owls, etc.) like vermin. That and the ravages of DDT had taken a serious toll on birds of prey. It took the Migratory Bird Act between Canada and the U.S. to change that perception and pattern. Falconers themselves played a major role in rehabbing, relocating and breeding falcons.

“Falconry is not a rapidly growing sport, and it’s not for everybody,” underscores Steve Cecchini, NAFA’s vice president. “Most falconers are naturalists. They love the unique bond with a wild creature. There’s also, I think, the vicarious experience of watching birds fly.”

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