The Falconer!

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This weekend the Bwog’s John Shekitka interviewed Peter Capainolo, a curator of ornithology at the American Museum of Natural History and a licensed falconer. That’s right, he’s a licensed falconer!

How did you first become interested in falconry?

I grew up in eastern Long Island, which at the time had all oak forests and farms. As a kid I hunted, fished, and collected insects in little jars. Gradually, I got interested in sketching all these things and making watercolor paintings. Then my mother paid for some taxidermy lessons, so I learned how to preserve skin and mount birds. I was always particularly interested in birds. I had a pigeon coop and belonged to club that raced homing pigeons. This one time, a hawk came down out of the woods and ate one of my pigeons on the lawn, and rather than being horrified, I was intrigued.

What was the training process to become a falconer?

Back then, the only books on falconry were from Europe or the United Kingdom. So at first I learned what I could from books. Then in 1977, New York State adopted falconry regulations. You had to take a test and get your facilities inspected. I wound up getting one of the first falconry licenses in New York State. At the time, there were really only a handful of people who practiced falconry in the United States. Now there are probably 5,000 or so licensed falconers.

How expensive of a hobby is falconry?

To keep birds healthy and flying, they need to be well fed, and they have to have a place to live, so you need to construct a hawk house. Those things aren’t cheap, especially if you can’t do it yourself. We used to get day old baby chicks from farms to use as feed for free, but now there are quail breeders who breed the quails for falconers. Food alone is at least a few hundred dollars. The bigger investment though is in your time. Right now I don’t have any birds, because you need to fly them every day.

What sort of prey do the falcons go after?

Loosely there are two groups of raptors, long wings and short wings. Long wings are true falcons and they are essentially bird eaters. They fly way up and they circle up high. Then they fold their wings and they come down really fast, and knock their prey out of the air. Then they will bind to it and take it the ground, or else let it fall and finish it off on the ground. The other group is loosely called short wings, and this includes red-tailed hawks, and they feed more on mammals, rabbits and squirrels in particular. Hawks though, will sit and a tree, and you have to go out there with a dog, beating the shrubs with sticks, and trying to rustle out some prey. The hawks will follow you from tree to tree, unlike a falcon, which stays way up in the air. Falcons really need to be flown in open country, out in Montana or Wyoming. With hawks, the kind of terrain you find in the Northeast is perfect.

Can falconry be done in New York City at all?

I wouldn’t do it. There are local ordinances against keeping dangerous animals. Falcons do nest in the city though, because they just naturally lay their eggs on ledges. So for centuries in cities, peregrine falcons have laid eggs. They finally started to come back to New York about twenty years ago. Some people think they were brought back to get rid of the pigeons, but that isn’t true.

The second part of our interview included a tour of the ornithology collection of the Museum of Natural History, which includes over one million specimens that represents nearly every species of birds that exists in world, all stored in six floors of the museum. It is the largest collection in the world.

How does one collect and prepare a bird specimen?

The birds used to be shot or netted but not so much anymore today. There is some localized collecting in other parts of the world, but under strict regulation. Most are stored as study skins, which is where the preserved skin is wrapped around a stick covered in cotton. Each specimen has a label with all the relevant data.

How often are new species discovered?

Not very often. There are only about 10,000 species of birds, which is a very small number when you take into account that there are over one million beetle species. Do you have any particular species you’d like to see?

Cardinals. Do you have cardinals?

Yea, we have those. Let me see what floor they are on.

The interview finished up in the basement laboratories where the birds are cleaned for preservation. At the time of our interview, the freezer contained a penguin, and a bald eagle, which had been removed of its feathers and meat. The eagle was about to be sent over to be facility that housed a type of beetle which would clean away the rest of the meat from the bones. This facility was separate from the Museum itself, lest the beetles escape and eat up all of the specimens and displays of the museum. On the way out, we looked at some partial skeletons of the Dodo bird.

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1 Comment

  1. Kristina R.

    Peter Capainolo is a brilliant man.

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