Background image of A falcon perches on the gloved hand of a young Spencer Beebe with the bright blue sky behind them

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Learning from birds

Spencer B. Beebe's passion for falconry began on a family trip to Central Oregon's Metolius River in the summer of 1956.

Editor’s Note: On March 31, 2015, Ecotrust founder and chairman Spencer B. Beebe will receive The National Audubon Society’s Dan W. Lufkin Prize for Environmental Leadership at the annual Audubon Gala Dinner in New York. In celebration of Spencer’s 40 years of work to redefine the environmental movement, we are running weekly excerpts from his 2010 memoir Cache: Creating Natural Economies. These posts represent pivotal points in Spencer’s journey to build economies that restore nature and invest in people. And they are five moments that made Ecotrust.

By Spencer B. Beebe

I don’t know how my parents did it. They’d somehow load up the ’52 Chevy station wagon with five screaming kids and a dog or two, hook up the old teardrop trailer Dad built Mom for a wedding present, and head up to Three Creeks Meadows or Takhlakh Lake for a three-day weekend. We’d usually arrive at night and climb right into our sleeping bags. The next morning, by the time it was light, I had to be up and figuring out where I was. I’d climb the highest tree or the closest hill to get my bearings. “A ha, that’s where we are.” I’d mentally check off the landscape: there’s the mountain, there’s the meadow, there’s a little creek that goes down that way. Only after identifying north and south could I return to camp and settle down. I had to get the aerial view — I was in a tree as often as I was on the ground. Surely, I was supposed to have been a bird. Little wonder that I was flying Dad’s airplane by age 17.

A black and white photo shows a young Spencer Beebe looking directly at a falcon that sits perched on his gloved hand

Once, when I was 10 years old, we were camped at cousin Erskine Wood’s big pine meadow on the Metolius River in Central Oregon. Sitting on the bank, I noticed a beautiful yellow, black, and orange-headed bird in a pine tree across the river. I remember thinking, “Wow, that is really cool!”

Dad said, “That’s a Western tanager.” From then on it was birds.

My grandparents took me to Sauvie Island to see Sandhill cranes. I did the Audubon Society Christmas bird count every year. Then, in seventh grade, an art teacher at Hillside School, Byron Gardner, noticed that I spent most of art class drawing birds. He didn’t have any kids of his own and he, too, had a fascination with birds, so he took me out in his three-wheeled Pugeot to Eastern Oregon some weekends to look for falcons and hawks. Falconry is the most rarefied extension of an avian obsession.

When I was about 14, Byron sent me over my first cliff. We knew there was a prairie falcon eyrie a few miles east of Arlington, Oregon, and were determined to find it and bring our first young falcons home. We’d been searching all weekend, unsuccessfully, and Sunday afternoon — the sun was just starting to go down — we were still tramping on the cliffs above the Columbia River, trying to find the white droppings below a cavity that betray a nest site.

“Go up to that cliff and shoot the .22 rifle into the air,” Byron said. “That’ll usually get the bird off screaming if they’re nesting there.” We hiked to the cliff, shot the .22. Nothing. So we went up a little farther, shot the gun again, and sure enough, off came a male prairie falcon, kek-kek-kek-keking his high territorial call.

A grainy photo shows a falcon sitting and eating on a log with a old VW van in the background.
A falcon named Tundra sits and dines on a log.

We got on top of the cliff, and could see five young nestlings just about the right age — about three weeks old.

“Well, you gonna climb down and get them?” I asked Byron. “No way!” he said. “I’m scared just looking down that far! You need to do it. I’ll tie a rope around your waist, we’ll throw the thick one over the side and we’ll just hand-over-hand you down.” He handed me a basket in which to put two of the young falcons.

“Much of what I know today I learned from birds.”

The female, or “falcon,” prairie falcon, had now joined the male, or “tiercel,” and they were diving at us at 70 mph, just 10 feet from our heads, carving parabolas in the desert air around the eyrie. Their cries came in an increasing crescendo. Okay, I thought, I guess I’m going over the cliff.

I tied a rope around my waist, slung the basket over my forearm, and grabbed the big rope and hung my terrified rear over the edge and tentatively climbed down to the ledge that nested the five downy, big-brown-eyed, startled fledglings. The sun was setting over the Columbia River. There were high cliffs and talus slopes across the river, rolling wheat fields in distant hills. I was scared, totally excited, feeling guilty and sorry for the adult falcons — eager but unsure of plucking two of their young from their rightful ancient home into a basket headed for a very different place.

In a black and white photo, an owl staring directly at the camera sits on top of Spencer Beebe's head. Spencer is crouched in a field with the black cloth of an old camera covering his head while he takes photos

We drove home with the young falcons, one male and the other female, and from then on it was full-time. Once you have responsibility for such a wild but dependent creature, it’s all constant care and companionship. My little tiercel prairie falcon, Baron, was a handsome square-headed falcon, dark naral stripe down his face, both gentle and pugnacious with quick temper and agile flight. Baron was always keen to fly hard on the tail of whatever I could scare up, from pigeons to blackbirds, robins and ground squirrels.

He taught me what he wanted to chase, how often he wanted to eat, and when he was secure enough to sleep. When he cocked his head and looked high in the sky, there was always a small dot, an eagle or hawk, circling high overhead. He sat on my gloved fist and preened, sneezed, shook his head, and scratched his cheek with a taloned foot. He roused his feathers and bobbed his head when trying to improve his focus on some indiscernible (to me) distant movement. I was a naive, impressionable youth, wide-eyed, and constantly in awe at the beauty and accuracy of the young falcon’s every move.

Baron went everywhere with me. At first, he slept in my room, on a perch at the foot of my bed; later, Dad helped me build a hawk house in the yard. After school, we’d go to nearby fields to fly Baron. I would ready a padded leather lure with bits of fresh meat, hold him high on my fist, loose the swivel and leash, and off he would go, flying free but circling higher and higher, then stooping on the lure swung carefully past my body, just ahead of him as he feathered by, back and forth until he was tiring. And before he thought best to set out looking for something over a near horizon, I would slow the lure, let him take it and land on the ground to feast on a fresh morsel. Then I’d pick him up again carefully, slipping him more morsels from a leather bag at my waist. A slow-building relationship of mutual trust and understanding.

Instead of homework, I read bird books and made hoods, jesses, perches, silver bells, and other falconry accoutrements. Over the course of a year together, I watched Baron go through a molt, so I had every individual feather in a collection. I could pick up a falcon feather and tell you exactly what part of the body it came from, and whether it was from a prairie falcon or a peregrine.  Much of what I know today, I learned from birds.