Flying by 

Falconer details how birds saved his life

Tim Gallagher spent his childhood moving from place to place, coping with his father’s violent, alcohol-induced outbursts. His mother would move them out of the abusive household only to move them back in later; friends changed or moved away, people turned on him. But an early fascination with falcons, in capturing and taming them, gave Gallagher discipline and stability.

Later in life, however, Gallagher was caught in a marijuana drug sting and spent several months in federal prison. He says it was falconry that got him back on track. Today, he is the editor of Living Bird magazine at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, N.Y. His new book, Falcon Fever: A Falconer in the Twenty-first Century is part memoir, part falconry history. It chronicles Gallagher’s life, from his early childhood trials up through his more recent travels in Italy, where he studied Roman Emperor Frederick II, an independent and rebellious man who maintained up to 50 hawkers in his court.

This week, Gallagher will attend the annual Raptor Research Conference in Missoula and hold a reading at Shakespeare & Co. First, he spoke with the Indy about how falconry saved his life.

Indy: How was it writing Falcon Fever, having to go back and unearth these personal stories?

Gallagher: I think in some ways it was a harrowing experience and I didn’t know I was going to do that when I started working on the book. I sort of had the idea of just traveling through Italy and flashing back on things that happened. But, you know, I just started thinking more and more about what it was like growing up…It’s almost like two books. There was that whole part up to the age of 19 and then jumping years ahead to what the book was originally supposed to be about: going through Italy looking for Frederick II.

Indy: What makes Frederick II so fascinating to you?

Gallagher: He had really a pretty tough life as a kid, had been a street urchin and spoke all kinds of other languages, and he had a lot of charisma…I like his openness to other religions and to science. I always felt a personal connection with him because I learned the first stages of falconry from him.
 
Indy: In the book you say only positive reinforcement works for training falcons.

Gallagher: Yeah, and that’s because they’re not a social animal. They don’t run in packs or anything so there’s none of this dominance and submission or a pecking order. It’s just not even in their genetic makeup that if you hit them they’ll stop doing something that you don’t want them to do. It’s interesting to me that thousands of years ago falconers worked out positive reinforcement without any knowledge of psychology or anything.

Indy: You experienced punishment through federal prison and you talk about how falconry essentially saved your life. How do you explain that?

Gallagher: People talk about prison [as] rehabilitation and it’s really not, it’s pure punishment. And in some ways it’s a school for sociopaths [in that] they turn people away from society. There was a danger of that in my case…I’d spent so much time indoors and away from the things I really loved. I got another bird when I got out and I just started working on it. I didn’t want to do anything that would lead me [back to prison]. I remember running into a guy I’d known in prison about five years later and he had been more or less like me—not a hardcore criminal, but he had become one. And I just thought, “That could have been me really easily.”

Indy: How do you think falconry is viewed these days?

Gallagher: There are a lot of birders who just sort of have a knee-jerk reaction against falconry because they just don’t understand what it is. A falconer is another kind of birdwatcher; it’s the most intense kind of birder. For me it’s not enough just to watch birds, I want to learn about their behavior but I also want to get close to them…and I want them to know me.

Indy: Your current falcon, Macduff, you’ve had for 10 years. Early in your life you’d let birds go. Why’d you keep him?

Gallagher: When I was young I had this idea that these birds needed to be free and that I was just a stage in their life. And it was really hard for me because I loved those birds and I wanted to keep them, but I made myself let them go.  I don’t know if that was a good thing or a bad thing. My views have changed as I’ve gotten older. I’ve seen how hard the world is on birds of prey…There’s nothing really glamorous about being a wild hawk in some ways. They live day-to-day just trying to scratch by, [so] the life of a trained falcon is pretty good. In the case of Macduff, he’s a captive bred bird so there’s no reason to release him. People weren’t breeding them in captivity when I was a kid. There were plenty of wild hawks to fly.

Tim Gallagher reads from Falcon Fever at Shakespeare & Co. Thursday, Sept. 25, at 4 PM. Free.
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