This article originally appeared in the March 16, 2017 issue of the Redlands Daily Facts. View clip online.
On a recent bright, warm and windy Wednesday, in a field in sight of the 210 Freeway, Alex Paredes went hunting for rabbits. But this was no ordinary hunt.
Sure, the Redlands police corporal and Rancho Cucamonga resident was accompanied by his dog Bree, whose role was to flush game. But instead of carrying a rifle Paredes carried two hawks, and they were hungry.
Paredes practices falconry, a sport with ancient roots that he said finds him “partaking in how things happen in nature on a daily basis.” A falconer since an apprenticeship that began in 1996, he was elected in January to a two-year term as a director of the California Hawking Club.
As someone who has owned “basically every animal humans are allowed to have” — chickens, pigeons, parakeets, canaries, doves, all kinds of dogs — Paredes has been close to animals his entire life. By his late teens, he expected to become a veterinarian and enrolled in a vet science program at Mt. San Jacinto College. But after finding biology classes a poor fit, he switched to studying criminal justice, graduating in 1997.
In 1995, Paredes had read a story in a local newspaper about a falconer. Intrigued, he asked the California Department of Fish and Wildlife about the sport of falconry, and was mailed a thick packet of regulations and other materials mapping the path to becoming a licensed falconer.
The first step is serving a two-year apprenticeship. Paredes sought a sponsor from among a handful of local falconers. Describing them as a “really tight-knit group,” he said they’re wary of newcomers.
“Everybody is hesitant until you have proven yourself,” Paredes said, because falconers want to make sure people get involved for love of the sport, not because it seems like a cool thing to do.
The California Hawking Club defines falconry “as the release of a bird of prey after wild quarry,” and notes on its website that “hunting is the difference between being a falconer and a ‘pet-keeper.’”
“The very worst thing you can say about someone in this sport,” the website continues, “is that they are a ‘pet-keeper.’”
Paredes set out to prove he wasn’t aiming to be a pet-keeper. He frequently rose early to meet for coffee with local falconers who’d then organize hunting parties. He became a “bush beater” for the group, poking a stick into the underbrush to flush jackrabbits and cottontails.
After a year of strong coffee and bush-beating Paredes got his wish in 1996 when Charlie Cogger, a falconer then from Ontario, took him under his wing due to, Cogger said, his persistence.
As an apprentice, Paredes could fly either a small falcon called the American kestrel or a considerably bigger red-tailed hawk. He opted for the latter.
There are two ways a falconer can get a hawk or a falcon: purchasing a bird that was bred in captivity — the term is “chamber-raised” — or catching one in the wild, known as passage. Passage hawks or falcons are often caught while migrating and always when the bird is immature, the latter to ensure breeding birds are left in the wild.
“I trapped my first bird in Ontario,” Paredes said. “It was a mid-size female I named Xena Princess Warrior.” He had the bird for little over a year before releasing her back into the wild.
“I went on to trap other red-taileds, but (she) was my most successful hunter,” he said.
Cogger, who has sponsored about 30 apprentices over 28 years of practicing falconry, said Paredes was one of the best. He praised his ability to overcome challenges that included issues with bird health.
“When you’re trapping wild birds, you don’t always know what you’re going to get,” Cogger explained.
In late 1998, his two-year apprenticeship with Cogger completed, Paredes got his general falconry license. His selection of birds expanded to include Peregrine and prairie falcons and Cooper’s and Harris’s hawks. He tried a handful and eventually settled on the Harris’s hawk for its very tame and forgiving nature, he said.
“They require very little attention and are always eager to hunt,” he said.
Paredes bought his two current birds — Chicken and Darkie, both females — in the summer of 2015 from a breeder in Lancaster when they were 18- and 20-weeks-old, respectively. Not long before he had given Sky, his 13-year-old Harris’s hawk, to a friend who started breeding her.
Chicken and Darkie aren’t sisters, but they were nest-mates. Breeders sometimes combine eggs from separate nests, Paredes explained. Darkie got her name because her plumage is darker than Chicken’s. Chicken was known as Princess Leia until Paredes noted to a friend she was as placid as a pet chicken. The new name stuck, even though Paredes is a big “Star Wars” fan.
Paredes chose females because they’re larger than males — a reversal of the sexual size dimorphism of many other birds — and therefore can more easily hunt large jackrabbits. He hunts with Chicken and Darkie about three times a week from late October to early March, stopping when the molt begins and the heat intensifies. Taking the summer off allows the birds to fatten and for their feathers to emerge strong and with no stress marks or breakage, he explained.
Chicken and Darkie were trained to hunt jackrabbits and cottontails and to avoid squirrels, which Paredes said can carry the bubonic plague and have a nasty bite that can clip a hawk’s tail feathers.
His dog, Bree, an energetic 7-year-old Brittany, “does all the work” of flushing game, Paredes said.
“I just walk around,” he said, though he occasionally kicks around in brush where Bree isn’t looking.
Off the hunt, Chicken and Darkie reside in an 8 foot by 8 foot by 12 foot enclosure called a mew in Paredes’ backyard in Rancho Cucamonga. On the hunt they come and go as they please, flying to and from a T-shaped perch Paredes carries. The former nest-mates often follow each other to a tree branch, a chain-link fence or another vantage point.
That Wednesday morning in the Rialto field, Paredes kept a close eye on the pair. When they threatened to fly too far away, he called or whistled and they returned. Each bird wore a radio transmitter around one leg so Paredes could find them in case they flew out of sight.
After almost 30 minutes, Chicken and Darkie quickly dropped to the ground and Paredes rushed to them. In Chicken’s talons was a small cottontail Bree had flushed. Paredes wrested it from her grip to cut it in two and give the other half to Darkie. Each bird then huddled over its prey with wings spread, a behavior called mantling, and picked apart their meal as Bree rested nearby, panting.
Paredes practices what he calls “one and done,” limiting each hunt to one animal so as not to over-hunt and to leave prey for other falconers. He also makes sure not to waste anything. Whatever the birds don’t eat in the field, Paredes bags and brings home for the freezer and another day’s dinner.
After eating that Wednesday, Paredes said, the birds wouldn’t need to eat again until Friday.
Paredes dips into the freezer in the off-season to feed the birds leftover rabbit, occasionally adding quail or a rat to their diet to mimic the variety of prey found in the wild.
As a Redlands police corporal — he’s been with the department since May 2000 — Paredes occasionally has responded to calls involving raptors. Once he removed an immature Cooper’s hawk from behind a planter in front of a house. Guessing it was dazed after flying into a window, Paredes took it home, fed it and released it. He’s also rescued a baby American Kestrel and a baby red-shouldered hawk from people who had found them. Those birds he took to local falconers.
Paredes also occasionally gives “hawk talks” to local scout troops and other groups.
Falconry has become a way of life for Paredes. He tends to his birds daily and often schedules vacations as hunting trips. Because the Harris’s hawk is an unusually social bird of prey — they’re known as the “wolves of the sky” because they hunt in packs — Paredes is frequently joined on these trips by Bill Cuskey, a friend who also has two of the birds and is Paredes’ former apprentice.
When asked what he likes most about the falconry life, Paredes spoke of being out in a field on a crisp morning, enjoying the company of the birds and the dog, being alone but not being lonely.
Being, he said, “this close to the circle of life.”