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The art of hunting
Submitted by Kourtney Balsan on Wed, 01/04/2017 - 12:00am
Goodyear farm uses birds of prey to remove pests
Click to see video of the Falconer: http://bit.ly/2ikC8Jk
Falcons take flight in the friendly skies at Duncan Family Farms in Goodyear, where falconer Kalen Pearson was hired to rid the farm of crop-destroying birds.
“The art of falconry is the art of hunting with a bird of prey,” she said.
Pearson, 25, is a falconer at Falcon Force, based throughout the West Coast, and specializes in falconry-based bird abatement. Her goal is not for the falcons to kill the nuisance birds, but instead to scare them off, she said.
“Out here at Duncan Family Farms, I’ve been flying my falcons over the leafy greens. They’ve got kale and chard and spring mix and they have a lot of organic produce that grows here, so my job is to fly my falcons to keep all the pesky birds out,” Pearson said. “They’re simulating hunting out there, which scares all of those birds that are sitting out there, so they don’t want to be anywhere near a stooping falcon, so they take off for the high road.”
The falcons’ results have been excellent, as the birds can go places where others cannot, said Jeremy Vanderzyl, Duncan Family Farms technical services manager.
“Our experience with Falcon Force exceeded our expectations. They are extremely professional and we, in turn, learned a lot about ornithology and the benefits of using this program,” Vanderzyl said. “The most common form of bird abatement is to have our employees walk the fields to discourage birds from eating our seed. We reached out to Falcon Force because a single falcon can cover a large area effectively and efficiently, and they are successful with bird abatement even after irrigating, when we cannot get in to walk the fields.”
Falcons were chosen over any other method to keep the farm environmentally green and because their results are stunning, Pearson said, adding that Falcon Force is trying to get behind the sustainable path agriculture is moving toward to eliminate any kind of carbon footprint that may hurt the planet.
“Falcon Force is green, sustainable, organic, it’s natural, it’s 100 percent guaranteed. I mean how can it not be? It’s a bio-dynamic relationship of predator and prey that is biologically ingrained in these animals for it to function this way,” Pearson said. “You’re never going to find another way to get rid of these pests with this kind of guarantee. The more we can be a part of the West Valley and Arizona’s local community of agriculture in general, well we would love to be a part of it.”
Even though Pearson calls Wyoming home, she lives in a trailer on site at Duncan Family Farms that she is able to transport around to other jobs.
She has 13 falcons, out of Falcon Force’s total of 45 birds, kept in a large caged area along with two dogs behind her living space.
The dogs don’t gobble the birds they share a cage with, because they consider the falcons part of their pack since they both work together to scare birds away from the fields, Pearson said.
One falcon named Cheeto was hand-raised and is caged inside Pearson’s trailer because he needs company, and will whine loudly without it, she said.
“I live right out here on the farm, which allows me to be more accessible,” Pearson said. “We get up before the sun gets up — it’s pitch black. I’m usually weighing birds, putting them on the scale, then cutting up meat for their rations. Hopefully, riding into the fields, the sun starts to turn red.”
In the fields, Pearson flies one bird at a time. Her days consist of falcon calls, which sound like a yip, and swinging her lure, a long rope with tennis balls and feathers on each end to lure the falcon into following its direction and eventually latching on to end the day.
“It’s almost like a martial art,” Pearson said. “These birds can top over 280 miles an hour, so it can be a workout to pull that lure away along with timing. When you do pull it out of the way, they’re trained to remount up again and come back down again and again. The final time, you give them the cue and then they know to grab the lure, that this is the end. Then you pick them up off the lure.”
When it comes to training, falcons aren’t much different than dogs or horses, and learn similar to children with different learning languages, Pearson said.
“How do you teach a falcon? Just like you would kids, your husband, your dog,” she said. “They’re really incredibly smart and they learn so very quickly. We could have a bird from first training to free flying in 10 to 12 days.”
Pearson describes trained falcons as Olympic athletes.
“For these guys, we want to hunt all day long with minimal reward during the day and big reward at the end of the day where your hunting birds are one and done,” she said. “These guys are Olympic athletes. The others are still athletes, but they only do one shot.”
As it is common with other careers relying on animals, falconry has a heavy dose of misconceptions, Pearson said.
“It is mostly from animal activists who have taken it in the wrong light that we are keeping these birds against their will and forcing them into doing things they don’t want to do,” she said. “The reality is, [the falcons] can fend for themselves and take off whenever they want. We offer them the opportunity and they don’t always come back. That’s not a common occurrence, but sometimes, they do end up taking off and there’s not a whole lot you can really do about that. We’ve got GPS trackers on them that we are able to track them down, but for the most part you never know. You’re just throwing them into oblivion”
Although this is Pearson’s first time flying her falcons in the West Valley, she said she enjoys it here as the weather is perfect and the type of birds she is abating helps her expand her knowledge and experience.
“I love the West Valley. Of all the contracts we’ve done, this is probably my absolute favorite for so many reasons,” she said. “This has been absolutely wonderful and my birds are so loving the weather here.”
Pearson didn’t grow up flying falcons, but trained horses, which led her to work with exotic animals such as cougars, wolves, zebras and camels, she said.
“I worked with those animals for a number of years before we got in touch with a local falconer,” Pearson said. “We called him for like two full weeks, he never answered his phone. Finally, his wife answered the phone and asked, ‘What’s up?’ because I’m really bugging them at this point.”
Her first day as a falconer, Pearson practiced abatement to get rid of the birds, and has continued the practice ever since at farms, airports and resorts, along with performing with the falcons for the past six years, she said.
“Flying falcons, there’s something magical about letting a bird go,” she said.
Kourtney Balsan can be reached at Kbalsan@westvalleyview.com.
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