These birds do not need you

They know how to fly. They know how to hunt.

Habibi the Lanner Falcon
  • Habibi the Lanner Falcon
  • Image by Kirk Sellinger


Training a Harris's Hawk to fly with a paraglider.

Training a Harris's Hawk to fly with a paraglider.

It was during one of my forays down the YouTube rabbit hole that I happened upon a “parahawking” video. In the two-minute clip, a hawk soars alongside a man as he paraglides over the oceanfront cliffs of Torrey Pines. The bird lands on the man’s outstretched, gloved arm, then takes off again to ride the same thermals as the parasail. I watched with fascination as the wild bird repeatedly landed on the moving perch — several cameras affixed to the parasail offered tight shots of the hawk in action.

After seeing this marvel of human/bird collaboration, I took notice of a red-tailed hawk I’d seen drifting around my neighborhood. My living-room window is eye-level with the tops of a few trees and telephone poles upon which the bird likes to perch. One day, I paused from my work to watch a nature show-like scene play out — two crows harassed and dive-bombed the hawk until it flew away. Curious about this behavior, I returned to the internet for answers — the term falconry kept cropping up.

Falconry, or “taking wild quarry in its natural state with a trained raptor,” is an ancient practice. Evidence of using trained birds of prey to hunt can be found dating back 5000 years in China and (according to a few historians) up to 12,000 years in what is now the Middle East. But the prestige of the practice peaked in the Middle Ages, when laws surrounding which stations of the nobility could own certain birds led to its being referred to as “the sport of kings.”

Despite an abundance of native North American raptors, Native Americans did not practice any sort of falconry. Colonizing Europeans in the New World did very little. But the sport has quietly grown in popularity over the past century, and San Diego is one of its hot spots.

Kirk Sellinger says, “A lot of people think that we starve our birds to motivate them to hunt. No, we treat them like athletes.”

Kirk Sellinger says, “A lot of people think that we starve our birds to motivate them to hunt. No, we treat them like athletes.”

Denise Disharoon “wasn’t into birds of prey, per se,” she says. “I was just into anything animal.”

Denise Disharoon “wasn’t into birds of prey, per se,” she says. “I was just into anything animal.”

One of four falconry schools in the United States, San Diego’s Sky Falconry was founded by Kirk Sellinger and Denise Disharoon in May 2013 as a satellite school of West Coast Falconry near Sacramento. Sellinger was the man I’d seen in the parahawking video. Prior to creating the video (which is now approaching 6.5 million views), Sellinger had been a videographer for National Geographic. After growing up in Seattle, where the urban-dwelling birds are wary of humans, he went to work filming in the Galapagos, where indigenous creatures are not instinctually averse to people, or as he puts it, “are right in your face.” Sellinger estimates his total Galapagos filming time to be around two years spread over many visits. In that time he developed a fascination with birds. It was after he saw a video of a man parahawking in Nepal that he decided to take up falconry.

On the way to Sky Falconry’s remote setting, I swerved around house-sized rocks and chasm-like rifts in the steep and winding dirt road, and then breathed a sigh of relief when, after nearly two miles, we finally reached the flat parking area.

“Probably not the best idea to have gotten the car washed yesterday,” I quipped to my husband, David. We shrugged at the layer of dust obscuring my Mini’s red paint and walked around a rocky hill to join the growing crowd of people in a nearby clearing.

It was a cool and breezy morning, but plenty warm in the sun, which wasn’t hard to find on this hillside in Alpine, where low-lying chaparral reigns. Approximately a dozen people had converged here to see a hawk up close.

Sellinger and Disharoon were easy to pick out from the small crowd of falconry fledglings, both because of their lithe and fit, I-chase-after-birds-for-a-living physiques, and their falconry-appropriate attire (brimmed hats, sunglasses, and multi-pocketed vests). It was 9:45 a.m., and they were wrapping up the early morning Hawk Walk ($140 per participant, $70 per observer), which is a more in-depth version of the Basic Falconry Lesson ($70 per participant, $35 per observer) that was set to begin at 10 a.m.

As we waited for our class to begin, a handful of us killed time by repeatedly commenting on the pastoral view. “Yes, it is breathtaking,” I agreed more than once. At least four newbie falconers were cashing in on gifts. For two 20-something brothers, this was a “random, unexpected” gift from their parents. From their demeanor, I surmised the brothers shared an ironic amusement at their parents’ idiosyncratic present, but their girlfriends appeared excited to be there. One man, who had attended before, was returning with his 12-year-old grandson. Then there was Gary, for whom this class was a birthday gift.

Gary — a stocky man with a snowy white goatee and shiny bald head — wore a U.S. Navy warship ball cap, orange Harley-Davidson shirt, khaki shorts, and white sneakers. Gary’s wife, Nancy, explained how her husband had been reluctant to come.

“I found out about the class online and thought it would be a cool gift,” she said. Because he was “iffy” about attending, Nancy had offered Gary’s ticket to their 18-year-old granddaughter. But in the end, Gary ended up wanting it back. “The more I thought about it, the cooler it got,” he said, and then went on to reminisce about his close encounter with an eagle during a recent cruise to Anchorage, Alaska.

“He loves eagles,” Nancy said, which came as no surprise: loving eagles was as American as everything else about this charming couple, down to the collection of “God and Country” bumper stickers coating the back of their truck, which I’d followed up the twisty road.

Disharoon, a willowy woman with shoulder-length blond hair, greeted everyone and determined who was there to participate and who was there to observe. While she checked off names and collected payments, Sellinger — a sporty outdoorsman type whose prominent nose is reminiscent of his feathered friends — retrieved two birds from their “giant hoods,” or the individual boxes in which they travel.

He introduced us to the birds: a Lanner falcon named Habibi (which means “friend and beloved” in Arabic); and a Harris’s hawk named Shanti Maria. Shanti means “peace” in Hindi, and Maria was for his late stepmother Mary. Sellinger and Disharoon currently keep six birds — three Harris’s hawks, the Lanner falcon, a yellow-headed vulture, and a red-tailed hawk: all their names have been appropriated from foreign languages, most of them evocative of peace, love, and energy.

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