By Jeff Berg
Peter Jungemann remembers one winter day in South Dakota, where he was working for an uncle who had a farm. "I was hunting (with a firearm), and it was snowing. We were in a marshy area, and some panicked pheasants flew right by me, and right behind them was a goshawk. The pheasants took a nose dive into the snow, and I remember thinking, ' That's the way to hunt!'"
As a young man, Jungemann says, "I was always a 'critter guy.' We always had something—lizards, snakes, whatever." But it was not until he spent some time in Athens, Greece, that he became interested in raptors. He soon started working with owls, though he was also curious about falcons. At that time, there were not too many books about the subject of raptors, and no one nearby who was into the sport of falconry.
After his wintry encounter with the goshawk, he set out to teach himself. "I learned it all from books, and by the seat of my pants. South Dakota later became one of the first states to make falconry a legal sport, and it was the site of the first national meet for the North American Falconry Association," says Jungemann, who moved to Las Cruces in 1987.
Raptors were also not well represented in other ways until fairly recently. Until 1970, you could shoot any of them, since they were then considered vermin.
"Bald eagle issues changed that," Jungemann says.
Many laws and regulations have since been enacted to help protect the birds, and also to regulate falconry itself. Now you can't shoot or even possess a raptor, nor any part of one, without a permit. Doing so could get you in trouble. Title 50 of the US Fish and Wildlife Services regulations about migratory birds says, "A falconry permit is required before any person may take, possess, transport, sell, purchase, barter, offer to sell, purchase or barter raptors for falconry purposes."
By 1975, falconry apprenticeship programs had started up around the country. "Now you have to be a trainee for two years before you can get a license," Jungemann explains. "There are state and federal programs, and the state regulations cannot be more lenient than the feds. In fact, either entity can come to your house at anytime to check the records that we are required to keep for each bird.
"But so far, I have not had any game and fish officers knocking at my door at 3 a.m.," he adds with a smile.
You must be at least 14 years old to be a falconry apprentice, and have a sponsor who is a holder of a General or Master Falconry Permit, for at least the first two years in which the apprentice permit is held. Apprentices can only possess one bird, and may not obtain more than one replacement raptor during a 12 -month period. And that bird must be either an American kestrel, a red-tailed hawk, a red-shouldered hawk or, for Alaskans only, a goshawk.
The history of falconry is long and still being researched. Some historians believe that it started between 4000 and 6000 BC; others date it later, starting in Mongolia, from where it was passed to traders from Saudi Arabia, and along trade routes from there. Originally, falconry was a form of subsistence hunting, as opposed to a sport or, as some falconers feel, an art as it is now. It is still practiced around the world, by both men and women, and is sometimes used as a method of pest control, to help eradicate vermin and some "undesirable" birds. Curiously, American Indians have never used falconry, despite the mythology sometimes offered to that effect.
New Mexico author and falconer Stephen Bodio, who lives in Magdalena, recently published a book, Eagle Dreams, about his pilgrimage to Mongolia to try to find the roots of falconry. It is more of a spiritual quest than a work about the activity itself.
Jungemann's interest in the birds has led to a lifetime career. He has worked as a consultant with various private businesses such as El Paso Electric (power lines are a major cause of death for raptors, as thousands are electrocuted each year) and government agencies such as the US Forest Service since moving to Las Cruces (where there are four other active falconers) to do field research. Each government agency he worked with offered him permanent employment, and each one was turned down. "The scientific side of this makes me want to know everything about the regulations," he says—but obviously not enough to take a job with the regulators.
By his own description, Jungemann is a "military brat," whose family moved a lot when he was young. He did graduate work in Wisconsin on barn owls, which, remarkably, were at that time candidates for species reintroduction in that state. "Barn owls were not there before white people moved in," he says. "They need pasture to hunt in, and the white settlers cut down all the trees. The owls hunt by sound and can have huge broods." Which sounds like a form of raptor overgrazing.
And the old adage of being "as wise as an owl"? Forget it, or use it as an insult. "Owls are as dumb as posts," Jungemann says.
Some of the species used in falconry include the Coopers Hawk, which feeds on quail, doves (which are really quick and smart) and rodents; goshawks, one of the larger birds used, which dine on squirrels and jackrabbits and even enjoy the occasional duck; sharp-shinned hawks; prairie falcons; merlins; kestrels; and red-tail hawks, which go for rabbits. Most female birds of prey are larger than the males by one-third.
Jungemann adds, "Some people use and train golden eagles, but they are awkward and hard to work with. At one time, they were used to hunt wolves, so they sure aren't a 'girly bird.'"
Harris Hawks are one of the preferred species. They are a southern species, and one of the best adapted to this area, Jungemann explains. Although plentiful, "goshawks are not heat adaptive and they are high-altitude birds, but I have always had some of them."
At present, Jungemann has 12 birds, including goshawks, merlins and a rare Teita falcon. "The Teita is one of the rarest raptors in the world. It is from Africa, and its habitat is river gorges. It was not even described until 1953."
Since falconry is mostly based on the birds' food, Jungemann describes what his birds dine on when they are not out hunting. The recent drought in New Mexico has made prey sometimes hard to get, and other factors add to the question of diet for Jungemann's birds. He describes the birds' menu: "Raw meat of some sort. Obviously the fresher the better. So, they generally are allowed to eat at least some of what they catch. But for six months out of the year they are not flown due to the onset of the molt, or breeding, or because there is no game season on certain quarries such as doves, quail, duck, pheasant, grouse, etc. During that period and even during the hunting season we must supplement with food that is acquired in other ways.
"I spend easily $1,000 a year on frozen commercially raised domestic quail called Coturnix Quail. It can be highly nutritious if the quail are raised on the best diet of mixed grains and vitamin supplements. Falcons generally need a very high-calorie diet compared to some of the hawks because of their metabolism and physical athleticism and activity. Hawks may be supplemented with various store-bought meats such as beef heart, low-quality steak, chicken, day-old chickens, frozen rats and mice and even fresh road kills of rabbits and jackrabbits. And while some of the larger falcons can also get by on such a diet, they do suffer eventually with lower stamina and drive. Some of the smaller falcons that I have will almost starve if kept on a diet like that without some occasional relief of some fresh bird meat."
Jungemann plays a video of a falconry hunt made in the United Kingdom, which shows a variety of birds hunting. You might think it would be easy for these graceful and strong birds to take down the hares they're chasing, but it's not. The hares are fast and tricky, and this particular breed has a kick that could kill a bird. Not all of the birds are successful: One older falcon latches on to a hare, but is dragged around as the hare tries to break the bird's grip and escape, which it ultimately does. Jungemann says that the bird was older, and "Rosie" died a short time later, possibly from injuries received during this hunt.
"You could spend your whole life doing this, and never have a dull moment," he says. "The birds are not machines. Each species and each bird are different. Hawks tend to be catlike, while falcons and soaring hawks are more doglike."
For example, he goes on, "If prey gets within 5-10 feet of a goshawk, it is gone, even if it is sitting on your hand. A red-tail will watch the quarry, and make a plan—get out its slide rule." Jungemann laughs. "It has to do things a different way.
"Falcons are rifle-like. They can dive at a duck at 200 mph. A peregrine will strike larger prey with its feet."
Behind Jungemann's pleasant home is his "mew." This building, the shelter that he uses to keep his birds in when they are not being flown, is designed to have plenty of light and fresh airflow, along with a well-drained floor of sand or gravel. Some falconers use mist systems or fans to help with the desert heat; cold weather does not usually affect the birds in this area. Each bird in the mew has his or her own space, and, depending on the breed, either a bow perch or block perch is provided. Bow perches allow a hawk to wrap its toes around it, as they tend to perch in trees while in the wild. The block perch is used for those species that need a flat surface to rest upon.
Jungemann brings out Lucky, a captive-produced Barbary Falcon, a breed normally found in North Africa, that is about six months old, and has a "jesse" attached to its leg. A jesse is a sort of tether to keep the bird restrained during training or when it sees an unfamiliar object or person. It is obvious that the birds do not know me, as the ones that have spotted me are being most vocal about my presence.
"They don't like your cap, either," Jungemann says. "Just something else that they are not used to seeing." I knew I should have worn my Boise Hawks baseball cap that day.
Lucky is still in training, and recently had an overnight "adventure" that took him from the place where Jungemann released him at Isaac's Lake (the falcons are all equipped with a tracking transmitter) to the San Andreas Mountains, to Organ, to the Dona Anas, back to the Organ Mountains, once more to the Dona Anas, before spending the night in the Robledo Mountains. Very early the next morning, Lucky came back and landed within 50 feet of where he was released. (The birds think that their handlers are their mates, hence the reason for their return.) Another time, one of Jungemann's raptors went from the Dona Ana area, to the Organs, clear to Mexico, to Trans Mountain Road in El Paso, and came back to a pole a couple of hundred yards from the release spot.
A handsome bird with beautiful plumage, Lucky eyes me for a moment, but must feel that I am okay, as he turns his attention to other movements nearby. He does not have a sense of smell, but the term "eyes like a hawk" is not a misnomer like "wise as an owl." Lucky sits calmly on Jungemann's gloved hand.
Jungemann once had a bird latch on to one side of his face. "There is nothing you can do, because if you move quickly or suddenly, they tighten their grip, as they would if you were quarry. So, I more or less just had to wait him out."
A couple of the other birds in the mew spot a pigeon or dove that has landed on a nearby telephone wire. They immediately begin a symphony, without much harmony, and the intended prey can be glad that the raptors are ensconced in the mew.
As Lucky perches on Jungemann's gloved hand, which of course only offers the barest of protection, Jungemann talks gently to the bird, as we all talk to the companion animals we love. Lucky turns its head upside-down.
Science says that the birds have no personalities, but Jungemann disagrees. "You can tell their moods," he says. "I can sense when they are happy or excited.
"That pose is equivalent to a smile."