Tom Beaver gives the students a close-up look at a Gyrfalcon that was hatched at Alan Pollard?s falcon facility in Pennsylvania.
?I?m in Kansas because of the amount of wildlife that?s here.?
Pollard brought some of his best friends with him. One was a man named Tom Beaver, a high school biology teacher from the Lancaster, Pa., area, and one was Pollard?s dog, named Zeb.
But the guests of honor were the pair of falcons Pollard has nurtured and trained to hunt in the Flint Hills and beyond.
The Gyrfalcon perched on Beaver?s gloved wrist was hatched and raised under Pollard?s care back in Pennsylvania. But the bird perched quietly on Pollard?s wrist was in fact a Marion County native.
?This Prairie Falcon was trapped wild two months ago from outside Tampa,? Pollard said. ?I trapped her off a bale of hay. She is one of the finest birds I?ve ever had.?
And Pollard has managed plenty of birds over the years.
?I?ve trained Red-tailed Hawks, Kestrels, Cooper?s Hawks, Sharp-skinned Hawks, Merlins, Prairie Falcons, Perigrinne Falcons, Gyrfalcons?all kinds of birds,? he recounted as fact, not boast.
?I?ve captured game with about every wild hawk in the United States.?
Pollard said his passion for the majestic birds began when he saw his first Kestrel at age 12. Within two or three days of that first sighting, Pollard caught the bird?and he?s been smitten ever since.
?That was the beginning of a fever that has lasted me until now?I?m 51,? he said. ?I?ve had falcons and hawks every day of my life.?
A full-time commitment
Pollard said caring for falcons and hawks is not a decision a person should make on a lark.
?It?s a major, major commitment to take a bird of prey and train it, hunt with it and keep it healthy,? he said.
And it requires a variety of personal skills.
?You have to be a leather craftsmen to be able to build hoods (that slip over the bird?s eyes). You have to be a vet to be able to take care of it when it?s diseased, if it should get sick. You have to be a carpenter because you have to build a facility so the bird can live there.?
And you have to pass rigorous requirements to be credentialed by your peers. ?To get into the sport you have to have an expert sponsor you, you have to pass a test of 100 questions, you have to have all the gear you need to keep and care for the bird, and you have to have a facility,? he said.
?It?s every day that a hawk needs to be taken care of.?
The love of the hunt
Pollard said he loves to watch his birds do what they love to do: hunt. The kind of prey he chooses to hunt determines the kind of bird he?ll take along with him.
Squirrels and rabbits are common prey, but his favorite?and a key reason he comes to the Flint Hills?is the prairie chicken because they?re so difficult to catch.
?I?ve been trying for 20 years to catch prairie chickens with Gyrfalcons and I?ve only caught two,? he said.
The reason? Prairie chickens have developed a bone plate on their back that enables them to survive the forceful hit of a dive-bombing falcon.
?Any other bird would fall out of the sky,? Pollard said.
Why they return
During a time for questions?and there were many?one student asked what probably every casual observer of falconry has wondered: Why do the birds come back to their caretakers once they?ve been released to hunt?
Pollard said the principle is simple: Falcons and hawks want to expend the least amount of energy for the most amount of gain.
?All birds really want is food and shelter,? Pollard said. ?This bird knows she can always come back to me and I will feed her. She also knows that when it?s pouring down rain outside, she?s in a nice, dry spot (inside the facility).?
And it doesn?t take long for a wild bird of prey to figure out those benefits, he added.
?It takes literally 10 days,? Pollard said. ?I can take her out of the wild and in five days she?ll be eating off my fist; in eight days she?ll be flying to me from across the room; and in 10 days I can let her go and she?ll come back to me. It?s because I give her everything she wants.?
As much as the proximity of the live majestic birds, Pollard?s passion for his feathered friends kept his listeners spellbound for the 30-minute presentation.
?My interest in falcons and in raptors has offered me a huge opportunity to experience wonderful and great things,? he told them.
?For me it?s the ballet of the beauty of being out in the wild, experiencing a beautiful cold day, and just enjoying nature,? he told them. ?I live it and I breathe it every day of my life.?
And Pollard encouraged his listeners to do the same.