Flights of fancy

Sky's the limit for hands-on lessons at area school

Posted: Wednesday, September 10, 2003

Students in Jason Daniels' fourth-grade class at Kalifornsky Beach Elementary School got an up-close lesson in biology Tuesday when Jim Robinson of Nikiski came to visit.

Robinson, a friend of Daniels' wife's family, came to teach the students about birds of prey, as well as the art of falconry.

But while students listened intently to the information he presented, the real highlight of the morning was his guest, Pepper, a 3 1/2-month-old gyr falcon.

Robinson is a falconer and has been raising birds since he was in fourth grade. Today, the practice is far more regulated than in the past, with three levels of falconer designated by law. Apprentices must be at least 14 years old and can raise only one bird at a time under the watchful guidance of a general or master falconer. They must be apprentices for at least two years and reach the age of 18 before stepping up to the general level, at which time they may raise two birds. After five years as a general-level falconer, a person may become a master and raise as many as three birds.

At present, Robinson is a general-level falconer, so designated due to his age and experience when state laws on falconing went into effect. After another year at the practice, he will become a master.

Robinson raises falcons from a young age, teaching them to hunt in conjunction with humans as a sport.


Jim Robinson displays his 3 1/2-month-old gyr falcon, Pepper, for students in Jason Daniels' fourth-grade class at Kalifornsky Beach Elementary School on Tuesday.

Photo by Jenni Dillon

Falcons are found throughout most of Alaska, including the Kenai Peninsula, Robinson told the children. However, they are most abundant to the north.

Large birds of prey built for speed rather than soaring, the birds have pitch black eyes and long wings. They nest on rocky cliffs, refusing to build their own nests and opting instead for rocky ledges or stolen eagle or raven nests.

Pepper came from the Nome area, where Robinson and a friend found her in June. At 42 ounces, she is full grown, though she still wears her grey speckled juvenile plumage. Gyr falcons the largest of the species come in all colors, and Robinson said he believes Pepper is a silver, but he will know for certain in about a year, when she grows her adult feathers.

Pepper eats quail for her meals but eventually will help Robinson hunt birds as large as ducks or even Canada geese, flying free of a tether with Robinson tracking her via an electronic transmitter on her tail.

Though Robinson said her peers in the wild would fly and hunt actively at 3 1/2 months, Pepper is not ready for such activities. Most of the time, she lives in a large room without windows ("She doesn't know what glass is, so she could hurt herself," Robinson told the students). Each day, Robinson takes her outside at the same time each day to learn to fly and hunt, and she should be strong enough to do so alone in two to three weeks, he said.

In captivity, Pepper will live up to 15 years, as opposed to the eight-year lifespan of a wild falcon.

And she will have the constant care of Robinson.

"She's very, very tame because she was raised as a baby," he said. "She thinks I'm mom and dad."

Still, he said, she is a wild animal in need of constant care.

"It's not like going home and saying, 'Mom, dad, I want a puppy,'" Robinson told the students. "This is 24-7."

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