Society Adventures: Raptor Encounter with a Master Falconer - Atlas Obscura
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Society Adventures: Raptor Encounter with a Master Falconer

article-imageMaster Falconer, Vahe’ Alaverdian, lure stooping in the high desert near Lancaster, CA. (Photograph by the author)

Weighing less than two pounds, the peregrine falcon is a stealth killer graced with extraordinary eyesight and speed. Patrolling from the sky, it attacks its prey with a spectacular aerial maneuver called a stoop, a vertical dive that can reach speeds of over 280 miles per hour. It is the fastest living creature on earth. On June 1, Obscura Society LA traveled to an open field in the high desert to meet this incredible creature. Arriving just before dawn, we joined master falconer Vahe’ Alaverdian and his team of raptors, Falcon Force, LLC, for a flight demonstration.

article-imageAt 4:45 am, attendees began to arrive at the flight field. (Photograph by Rachel James)

article-imageCars parked on the flight field, lead by Falcon Force’s white truck. Trekking in from the city, many attendees left their homes as early as 3 am. (Photograph by the author)

Turning off the pavement onto a dirt road, we drove under the high tension power lines, passed a wooden shack, and looked for Alaverdian’s white truck. We had entered the desolate highway landscape, a sandy stretch inhabited only by stink beetles and tumble weeds. The air was cool and crisp and there was almost no wind — ideal conditions for flying. Due to the extreme temperatures of the desert, we only had a few hours before it would be too hot for the birds to fly.

article-imageSleepy attendees assemble to meet Alaverdian, his wife Klodia, and their four falcons, Pepper, Little East Texas Red, Shaman, and Genghis. (Photograph by the author)

article-image Alaverdian and three of this staff members. The Falcon Force truck has been customized specifically for bird abatement, allowing the birds to ride climatized in the back seat. (Photograph by Ansgar Siemer)

Falcon Force, LLC is the result of a passion that was sparked over 29 years ago. At the age of seven, Alaverdian and his brother purchased a raptor and brought it home in a paper bag. They knew that falcons ate smaller birds, so they trapped a sparrow and released both in the living room for a hunt. Their mother was not amused. Today, Alaverdian and his wife have 12 birds and spend six months of the year traveling to farms across the western United States providing bird abatement services. At each farm, they work 30 days, flying the falcons from dawn til dusk to scare nuisance birds away from crops.

article-image Alaverdian sends a bird sailing above our heads during the flight demonstration. We were instructed to trust the birds and be very still if they flew close as sudden movements would force the bird to recalculate the flight path. (Photograph by the author)

Alaverdian demonstrated the aerial talents of his birds with a game called “lure stooping,” a basic training exercise, in which a bird attempts to catch a lure (a winged tennis ball fastened to a length of rope) in exchange for food. Stepping away from the crowd, Alaverdian released Shaman, a two-year-old male peregrine falcon.  Untethered, Shaman seemed happy to stretch his wings. Before engaging Alaverdian, he surveyed his new surroundings for something better to eat. No such luck. He began to hone in on the headless yellow-bodied bird spinning in circles below. Pulling his wings into his body and morphing into a bullet, he dove towards his victim, nearly grasping the rope. After a dozen or so magnificent stoops, Alaverdian let Shaman capture the lure and gave him his reward — fresh pigeon.

article-imageWe lean backwards, trying to keep our eyes focused on the falcon. (Photograph by the author)

article-image A falcon catching the lure. (Photograph by Joe Russo)

article-image Pepper, an Aplomado falcon, landing victoriously with her lure. (Photograph by Joe Russo)

article-imageAlaverdian calls down the bird. (Photograph by the author)

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Genghis perched on Alaverdian’s glove, enjoying his fresh pigeon reward. See the brass tag on his foot? That is a serial number registered with the US Department of Fish and Wildlife. Raptors are tightly regulated by the government and possessing a bird without a tag is a felony. (Photograph by Joe Russo)

Falconry is an ancient practice that originated in ­­­Central Asia thousands of years ago. Today, there are about 4,000 falconers in the United States. Falconers fall into three different categories: apprentice, general, and master. To become an apprentice, one must first find a sponsor who is a general or a master. After two years, an apprentice becomes a general, and after five years, a general becomes a master.

article-imageEach falcon is equipped with a hood, a radio transmitter, and a brass ID tag. Here, an attendee examines one of the beautiful handmade hoods. The purpose of this tiny hat is to pacify and calm the bird. Without their eyes, they are completely shut off from the outside world. (Photograph by the author)

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Post-flight demonstration, we had an opportunity to try on the glove and hold a falcon. (Photograph by the author)

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Attendees pose for photographs with falcons. (Photograph by the author)

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Alaverdian, Field Agent Erin Johnson, and Editor in Chief Rachel James pose with their new falcon friends. (Photograph by Rachel James)

By seven o’clock, the sun had cleared the horizon and the temperature had jumped to 75 degrees. We bid adieu to Alaverdian, Klodia, Pepper, Little East Texas Red, Shaman, and Genghis, and continued on our way to the Civic Musical Road and the Vasquez Rocks.

article-imageRoad map leading attendees from the flight field to the Civic Musical Road and the Vasquez Rocks.

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The Civic Musical Road (Photograph by the author)

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The Vasquez Rocks. Plumes of smoke from the Powerhouse Fire loom in the distance. (Photograph by the author)

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Vasquez Rocks Natural Area Park (Photograph by the author)

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Obscura LA picnic at the Vasquez Rocks. (Photograph by the author)

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Picnic under the Pepper Tree at the Vasquez Rocks. (Photograph by the author)

Thank you, Vahe’ Alaverdian for sharing your birds, stories, and falconry expertise! To learn more about Alaverdian, his falcons, and the practice of bird abatement, visit his website, Falcon Force, LLC.

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