Gunnar the Ambassador Gyr
Occasionally, an animal can touch the lives of many and make a profound statement. Gunnar the Gyrfalcon fits that description. Rescued from euthanasia, he is now an ambassador for all falcons and friend to countless children and adults.
I have an educational program in Western Montana called Raptors of the Rockies. Now in our 15th year, we have provided over 750 programs to an audience of 65,000. Our teaching team of 20 hawks, falcons, eagles and owls are permanently disabled, but do very well in captivity. Last year we relocated to the Bitterroot Valley south of Missoula and built all new and safe enclosures. It was a dream come true to hire carpenters and start from scratch with our own building designs. I am also a falconer, and had recently bought a chamber-raised Harris's Hawk after her sister was killed by an owl the year before. I was in the second week of manning, or bating as a better term, when the phone rang and to my surprise it was Bob Berry calling from his breeding center in Sheridan, Wyoming. He was relocating as well, and had a bird that he thought we might want to take in. That spring he had produced a white jerkin with developmental problems. Not wanting to euthanize this bird as some had advised, he sought an educational center and our name came up from friend Ken Sterner. Bob explained that this Gyr was not exactly biosymmetrical, and perhaps he was blind in his right eye. Bob was moving and had to decide what to do with this bird right away, as this jerkin was starting to wander further and further in his yard. What an opportunity I thought, with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. So the Gyr was flown up to Montana by Delta Cargo, and to my horror left out in the sun on the airport tarmac. I immediately took action, for which I would be arrested in this day and age. After security dragged me inside, the kennel was retrieved and I had my first look at nearly hard-penned white Gyrfalcon. Through the open kennel door, I saw the hissing, panting, ball of white feathers and down that would dominate my life for many months to come. On the way home he was situated in the car's front seat, air conditioner blasting, and I wondered what had I done to assume the responsibility for this wondrous bird.
The initial problems were many. First he wouldn't eat on his own, so was force fed ground quail for several days. With wing tips and legs removed, the coturnix was run through the meat grinder twice to make better "mush". By the second week he was thankfully feeding himself, stripping a quail clean first thing in the morning. The next problem was keeping him cool, with our new enclosures out in the blaring Bitterroot sun. The combination of shade cloth, R Board insulation in the ceiling, two reflective "space blankets" tacked to the roof, a fan in the corner and finally a water mist drip system lowered the temperature 15 degrees. Of course the biggest hurdle was to see if he would be comfortable with his disability. He finally preened out his feather sheaths, lost his down and settled in to a daytime tame hack around the edges of the house. We determined that he could see out of that right eye, but not well. This was apparent when he did one sweeping flight around the yard and crash-landed into the roof of a building. After that, in his short flights he keeps his landing gear, or both legs extended in front and to either side which is quite a sight. My husband named him Gunnar, a fine Nordic name for the national bird of Iceland. Each day he joins us inside to attack and tear up balls of paper, or outside to bathe in the sprinkler and harass the Golden Retrievers. And best news of all is that Gunnar has adapted after all.
Gunnar, like our other non-releasable raptors, is held under a federal and state Possession Permit and the eagles under an Eagle Exhibition Permit. These birds are actually on loan from the Federal Government, specifically the Fish and Wildlife Service. It is only with their permission in the form of these permits that we may keep them. Each bird is to be used in a minimum of twelve programs each year, and strictly for educational purposes and not for promotion of a business. Annual reports to the government keep close track of our activities, plus our facilities are inspected. It is truly a privilege, and now Gunnar has joined the list as one (1) Gyrfalcon (Falco rusticolus), right after DotCom the Northern Pygmy-Owl.
Our first educational program together was on KUFM live public radio on a daily children's show, probably with more adult listeners than kids. Broadcasted all over western Montana, this show was the perfect debut for a long line of live appearances. Radio is a wonderful way to test your descriptive powers, and Gunnar brought gasps of incredulity from the show's host, Marcia. Since then Gunnar has joined us for more than 50 discussions on raptor biology and falconry, and always these gasps are heard as he hops out of the kennel to his perch. How many people have the opportunity to see a white Gyrfalcon an arm's length away, or even in the field for that matter? Occasionally Gunnar is accompanied by his neighbor at the ranch, Deja the Harris's Hawk who provides a flight display with the lure, telemetry, and bells and whistles. Audiences especially like her beautiful hood, which has been called a "helmet", "hat", "cap", "mask" and "blinders" by the audience. Now Gunnar will be joined by an imprint anatum Peregrine from Springhill Falcons of Bozeman, the newest member of the Raptors of the Rockies crew. Dulce the Peregrine holds the upper hand already, and darts out to confront a startled Gunnar while both are exploring the yard. Some of our favorite program appearances are those for the archery clubs in the state, a sport very similar to ours. Both are considered "non-traditional" ways to harvest game, even though they are the oldest and most traditional.
In our programs I don't promote falconry as such, but discuss the long history, techniques and strategies, and regulations relating to the sport. Of course the most often asked questions are, "why do they come back" and "you mean they bring the pheasant/duck with them"? We are often asked to attend "Medieval Days" at our local middle schools, a yearly event. Students are divided in to different castes or social ranks, and are in costume. Starting with the kestrel, we show the knaves the bird they would be allowed to keep in the Middle Ages, then the Merlin or "ladies hawk" for the ladies of the court, then for the priest the Sparrowhawk, or in our case Cooper's Hawk named Alice. Working our way up the social ladder, we finish with the king and Gunnar. We ask the chosen student if he was an important king, therefore the white Gyr. This is a history lesson along with the biology of raptors, and is always a program favorite. After every falconry program, several students ask that I sponsor them when they turn 14. Next week it may be fly fishing or macramé as their interest. But there are a few devotees whose passion was sparked at an early age, as it was for so many of us.
Gunnar fared the Montana winter very well, ironically right next to the Harris's Hawk with the heated perch and 100 watt red bulb on for four months of the year. He had never bathed in his water tub, but went through the motions in the first snow, diving in and rustling his feathers. After the snow disappeared he continued the same activity in the dust and dirt. He is molting beautifully, with the black and white feathers looking great despite the persistent dust baths. With our new location and enclosures, this bird has given us a new spark and optimism to our educational message.
I am thankful every day to have a content and playful Gunnar with us here, thrilling and educating whoever meets him. He appears in our new book Raptors of the Rockies and on our web site, is the subject for my artwork of etchings, and will be in an upcoming educational film. He is indeed an ambassador, and we are grateful to Bob Berry for allowing so many to meet one of the finest species on earth, up close and personal. As the word raptor comes from the Latin raptare, which means "seize and carry away" we hope that by people viewing these regal masters up close, we can seize their imaginations and carry them away with a new-found respect for our wild neighbors, the birds of prey.