Falconry, which arguably originated in Mesopotamia or Mongolia, typically utilized the raptors to bring in a quarry of wild game. While the sport has undergone variations over the years, the root understanding between the falconer and raptor remains static. That is, however, until man began to take to the skies himself.
David Metzgar has led an extensive career as a scientist. He’s worked in the molecular biology laboratory at the Naval Health Research Center as a researcher and scientific advisor, and also in molecular diagnostics and experimental design data.
Still working in science, he now consults part-time with work in molecular evolution and microbiology and is a Scripps Institute staff scientist. He also spends a great deal of time at the Torrey Pines Gliderport. On most days, he’ll be “parahawking,” or paragliding with the aid of his aerial ace Bunco, a Lanner falcon.
“I had a friend who studied how these birds utilize infrasound to detect changes in the wind at Berkeley about 40 years ago,” said Metzgar as Bunco was flying for what seemed to be 30 minutes. “Since then, NASA has given this some clout as well.”
The birds then show the gliders where to be, a preternatural ability that while humans can try, have not evolved to do.
Metzgar, along with his wife and partner, Antonella Zampolli as well as partner Terry Lockwood, now educate the public on these magnificent animals through their company, Total Raptor Experience. Here, Metzgar’s role is that of conservation educator, providing public and private demonstrations of the raptor’s agility and well-balanced nature.
Total Raptor Experience has a vast array of predatory birds to exhibit, but during La Jolla Village News’ visit to the reserved aviary at the gliderport, Metzgar begins preparing Grace, a Gyr/Saker hawk ‘s creance [light cord length attached to her talons]. Grace is a well-tempered hawk that, despite her being in the early stages of Metzgar’s training, “hops” from glove to glove, at a distance of up to 10-plus yards with ease. Her reward, “tidbits” of quail.
“You know, most in the falconry world will say that they are entirely food-motivated,” said Metzgar. “I believe they honestly enjoy flying. Once they get to soar, the hopping glove to glove is boring for them.”
The next raptor up to train was Leath, A Harris’s Hawk. Leath performs some quick hopping exercises with some encouragement, but really seems to get excited at this fake rodent Metzgar retrieves from his hunting vest.
“I’m going to twirl this bit around quite vigorously,” said Metzgar, as Leath free flies around a limited area of the glider port. “This is a big game to them,” he says, spinning the bit around, pulling it away from Leath despite his dive bomb efforts. Eventually, after a couple passes, Metzgar rewards Leath by tossing the bit in the air, to which he snags as if catching a pop-fly.
The falconer then rewards his raptor – a decent portion of quail carcass – as a trade for the bit. Leath gladly coughs up the bit of leather, preferring to use his tooth-like beak to snap bone.
Last up was Metzgar’s parahawking bird, Bunco. Possibly the most trained out of the lot, Bunco hops between gloves without command, taking different approached each time.
“He’s too heavy to be flying,” said Metzgar of Bunco. “Most people wouldn’t fly their birds this heavy for fear of them being contented, thinking ‘Well, I don’t have to eat for 6 hours so all is well.’”
Despite being over his fighting weight, Bunco darts like a racehorse off the edge of the cliff hits a crosswind and soars (seemingly floating) with an evolutionary design that is difficult to not be awestruck by. Metzgar lets him fly around, dipping into canyons and undoubtedly scouting for prey or potential play victims.
Once Metzgar pulls the bit out, Bunco takes to passing between all people present, within inches of their faces. It is clear now. This is Bunco’s game. He enjoys it and is quite talented.
“I truly believe they just enjoy flying,” said Metzger. “I’m also convinced that they remember individual people,” Metzgar says to his friend and helper, Topher Mira.
“They all have very individual personalities, and seem to have this tangible presence of mind he adds.”
TOTAL RAPTOR EXPERIENCE
Where: Open spaces for free-flight, Torrey Pines Gliderport, one’s own backyard.
*It should be noted that Total Raptor Experience's weekend exhibitions book quickly, so tickets should be purchased in advance.