At the age of 25, Justin Lilly is one of the youngest master falconers in the country. From a young age, Justin was captivated by the sight of hawks soaring effortlessly overhead and eagles swooping down into the Gunnison River to catch fish.
He started flying his own birds as a teen, and while the hobby provided hours and hours of enjoyment, it wasn't until a few years ago Justin realized he could make a living off his hobby.
When he wasn't out flying his birds, Justin loved to get on the Internet and read about the sport. In researching falconry, he came across a website about avian abatement. The concept is simple, and has been used to disperse pest birds from airports. More recently, the use of trained falcons and hawks has gained momentum as a safe, effective and 100% green means of protecting landfills and agricultural crops.
"It's like a visual deterrent," says Justin, who named his avian abatement business "Down from the Sky."
"When there's a predator in the area, all the birds leave. It's a natural predator-prey fear response."
Since establishing his business, Justin has been on the road months at a time. He's set his birds loose in California landfills to prevent marauding seagulls from spreading disease. The bird-hazing technique is also popular in Napa Valley vineyards, where a flock of starlings can cause tens of thousands of dollars of damage in a single day. As the blueberries ripen in Washington state, he heads north to help growers protect their crops until harvestime.
Justin deploys his birds in teams of three, alternating the teams every other day so the birds have a chance to rest.
"Everybody works hard, but everybody gets a break," says Justin. Everybody, that is, except the falconer — he's a one-man operation. In 2012, Justin says, he was on the road from December to April.
While there's no demand for agricultural pest control this time of year, Justin says he still has to fly his birds regularly to keep them in shape. "You never know when a job will come up," he said. "I may get a call tomorrow from a landfill in California with a major seagull problem. They need help ASAP, and if your birds aren't ready to go you won't be working there very long."
Avian abatement by falconry is just in its infancy, Justin says, but as time goes by he believes more and more agricultural producers will be sold on the totally "green" concept. He and other falconers recently established the American Avian Abatement Association in an effort to increase professionalism in the industry; advocate for legislation confining ownership of exotic raptors to licensed, qualified individuals; serve as a source of information for clients interested in avian abatement services; and keep the physical and mental well-being of the raptors used for abatement a priority. Justin is the vice president of the fledgling organization.
While avian abatement is a means of earning a living, falconry is a sport, and one Justin is still passionate about. He has birds for both work and play.
In a clearing near the Escalante Road turnoff, Justin put Wilson, one of his favorite falconry birds, to the test.
Wilson is a 3-year-old gyr peregrine tiercel, or male. Justin explains tiercel means one-third in Latin. The male birds are a third smaller than the females, a phenomenon called sexual dimorphism. The females are larger because they incubate the eggs, and a larger bird can give off more heat over a broader area.
After outfitting Wilson with a radio transmitter, Justin strikes Wilson's hood and removes his tether. A quick weight check lets Justin know if Wilson is carrying the optimum weight. If he's too heavy he won't perform. If his weight is too low he's running on empty. Justin is looking for a weight where Wilson is responsive, but not starving.
He watches Wilson shake out his feathers, then take flight, circling the pickup and mounting higher and higher. Soon he's out of sight and Justin can only track him through telemetry.
Then he pulls a racing pigeon from the bag around his waist. The racing pigeon — selectively bred by Justin for this purpose — wings rapidly toward its North Delta home 15 miles away. Cruising speed: 50 to 60 miles an hour.
Wilson has been circling high above waiting for this moment. The chase is on!
This is a sport with a lot of risks. Birds get lost, birds get killed by other birds (most commonly golden eagles or redtail hawks). If the falcon catches its prey, it can be so focused on its snack it doesn't notice a ground predator like a coyote, bobcat or even a dog, stealthily eyeing dinner AND dessert.
"Every time you release your bird there's a chance it may not come back, but if you're afraid to fly your bird, you'll never progress," Justin explains.
He understands the highs and lows of falconry. One day your bird mounts up 2,500 feet and comes down so fast you can't see it. At the last minute, it pitches up, shooting back up toward the sky 200 to 300 feet. The next time out, the bird becomes so fixated on its target it fails to come out of the stoop. That happened recently to one of Justin's birds.
"Target fixation — that's what happens when they're extremely oriented on what they're chasing. It's a common bird mistake, and in that case it was fatal," Justin explains. "It's hard to deal with. You've taken this baby and turned it into a hunting machine. You've done your best to develop this child and one day it's not there any more."
Justin admits he was distraught by the death of his bird. He also uses the words emotional, stressful, rewarding and addicting to describe the sport of falconry.
Because each outing presents a unique scenario, there's always an opportunity to learn something new. Although he's been flying falcons since he was 14 years old, Justin realizes he still has a lot to learn and he looks forward to events such as the Utah Sky Trials — the "Super Bowl" of falconry — to exchange ideas and watch some of the best falconers in the country compete.
There are two kinds of falconers, he explains. An austringer flies hawks, redtails, Harris hawks, goshawks and Cooper's hawks. A "real" falconer flies only falcons. Many, like Justin, prefer gyr peregrines, considered the "Cadillac" of all falcons.
Gyr peregrines are half gyr and half peregrine. "They have a thing called hybrid vigor," Justin explains. "The breeding between the two produces a fantastic high-flying falcon that's motivated, intelligent and aggressive. It's so awesome to watch them dive from a thousand feet. They're like a missile coming down."
Shortly after the Utah Sky Trials in mid-February, the falcons begin to molt. They drop all their body feathers, grow new feathers and get wired up for breeding season. It's not a good time to turn the birds loose, so they remain caged through August or September.
The solitary birds are segregated in large kennels, each with a bath pan, water to drink, room to fly and several different types of perches. They can get out of the wind and the cold, or they can select a sunny spot where they can spread their wings to the sun for "weathering."
"They're definitely living at the Hilton," Justin says.
While the falcons are going through the molt, Justin is out flying his abatement birds. Through the use of artificial light, they're induced to molt during the winter. When spring comes they're ready to go into training for work which, depending on the length of a contract, can run 16 hours a day for six weeks to six months.
Justin's oldest bird is 8 years old. In captivity, birds of prey can live 25 to 30 years. If they're properly cared for, they can easily fly 15 to 20 seasons. "But you can never think that way with falcons because every time you fly them it's a gamble," Justin says. "It's a dangerous world out there."
Justin learned falconry through apprenticeships with three different master falconers, and now he's got an apprentice of his own. Like most apprentices, the Grand Junction 26-year-old has started out with a redtail hawk. "It's been rewarding to pass on some of the knowledge I've gained," Justin says, "and it's important to keep the tradition of falconry alive."
That tradition, he says, dates from before medieval times when falcons were used as a means of attaining food. "There was only so much man could do with the primitive weapons he had 6,000 to 8,000 years ago," Justin explains. "Then falcons became a status symbol, and only noblemen were allowed to have birds."
Feeding, housing and training birds of prey demands a huge commitment of both time and resources, Justin acknowledges, and leaves little time for other pursuits, like girls. He cites an old saying: "One hawk, one wife; two hawks, no wife."
But even at his young age, Justin can't see himself doing anything else. "I'll be chasing falcons around for the rest of my life," he says.blog comments powered by Disqus