Flight of Freedom
Dec 24, 2010 | 1114 views | 0 0 comments | 7 7 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Flight of Freedom
Robert Benson releases LaCross, his Peregrine Falcon last week. Benson has been hunting with the bird about a year now and, following the tradition of falconry, released LaCross, shown below, back into the wild.
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Without a sound or a glance back, LaCross took to the air.

The Peregrine Falcon was free.

Robert Benson watched as his hunting partner soared away Dec. 10, flying high over its familiar hunting grounds at the Bee and Karnes county lines.

But this was not a time for sadness but instead one of joy as Benson was carrying on a tradition that started thousands of years ago.

“Falconry is a very old sport,” he said. “Traditionally, people trapped wild birds and flew them for several months as hunting partners and then released them back into the wild.”

Benson said this is the first release in Bee County of a legally trapped falcon in at least 40 years.

Having spent a year with Benson, this bird has a better chance of surviving in the wild than if it had never been caught.

“It turns out young birds just out of the nest — like this bird when I first caught him — have a high probability of dying because they don’t have hunting skills,” Benson said. “In the first year, he might have had a 10 percent chance of surviving. Now he is likely to survive.”

Beating the odds

John Karger with Last Chance Forever, the Bird of Prey conservancy out of San Antonio, said, “The survival rate of a young raptor is pour. Most of them don’t live to be more than five years.

“Eighty percent of all young birds are killed off each year.”

Many of these birds, only a few months old at the time, don’t survive the 2,000-mile migration to South America.

The odds of LaCross surviving were likely even lower than that as he required treatment for a foot problem early on.

“He is completely healthy now — way better off than he was several months ago,” Benson said.

A legacy bird

Karger also has a love of this type of bird as he has been hunting with it for years.

“I call this a legacy bird. I practiced falconry when no one cared about these birds,” he said. “You could go out and get one whenever you wanted one. Then they became endangered and it became very difficult to fly them.”

The number of falcons, like other birds, began diminishing because of the widespread use of DDT in the 1970s.

However, because of the ban of this insecticide and the efforts of falconers and conservation groups, the bird was removed from the endangered list about five years ago.

“It was falconers that put most of these birds back into numbers so we could use them again” Karger said. “This says that the environment is in pretty good shape when the birds come back. They have come back to the point where they are a renewable, usable resource.”

A migratory stop

This type of falcon is popular among falconers because of their docile nature and, for Benson, finding it only meant a short drive.

“I trapped this bird in mid-October of last year,” Benson said. “I caught him about seven miles up from South Padre Island on the beach.

“I have no idea where he may been fledged. It might have been northern Canada or Alaska.”

These birds migrate south from the northern reaches into South America; however, they do not cross the ocean which means, in about mid-October, they are hitting the Texas beaches.

“I went down and trapped him during that migration,” Benson said.

The name

Dr. Benson, director of the Center for Bioacoustics at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, named his bird after a spacecraft that crashed into the moon.

“On the same morning I trapped this bird in October 2009, NASA crashed a space probe onto the moon in a search for water on the moon,” Benson said.

“That spacecraft was call LCROSS, (or Lunar CRater Observation and Sensing Satellite.) LCROSS was not a good name for a bird but it sounded like LaCross.”

Thus, he had a name suitable for a bird.

Never a pet

Those unfamiliar with the sport of falconry might wonder how a bird that has been with a human for a year or so would be able to survive in the wild.

“These are not pets,” Karger said. “You really want to fly that bird on the edge — right there where it is almost flying away from you at all times.

“It is always thinking in its mind, ‘If I catch a quail and put it on the ground and eat it and you come towards me, I might just slip away.’”

Benson was happy as he watched his bird “slip away” that day.

The planned release, he said, is just part of the tradition of falconry.

Jason Collins is the editor at the Bee-Picayune and can be reached at 358-2550, ext. 121, or at editor@mySouTex.com.

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