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Ultimate interspecies cooperation

12/18/2006

In the movie "Murder In The First," I was fortunate enough to play Kevin Bacon's escort guard on Alcatraz.

One chilly February morning, riding the ferry over to Alcatraz Island from Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco, I spotted a man on board with a hooded red-tail hawk sitting on his arm. So I went over to see what was up.

In the script the hawk was supposed to nail a pigeon above the courtyard where the prisoners were working out, foreshadowing the impending killing of one inmate by Bacon's character, which is a pivotal plot point in the film.

"The bird's young, isn't it?" I asked, judging the hawk to be an immature.

The hawker replied that while the red-tail was less than 2 years old, she was well-trained and would do just fine in her starring role.

Later in the day, 100 prisoners are walking in the yard, with a dozen guards supervising. The hawker gets up on the roof and releases the hawk for a rehearsal. The hawk goes up, the dummy pigeon is twirled in the air, and the hawk swoops down and nails the dummy pigeon. Everyone cheers.

OK, now it's time for the real take. The bird gets released again. Cameras are running. Some 125 actors are doing their thing. This time, as the hawk circles to get altitude, a chorus of excited bird cries erupts from just outside the prison walls.

It seems Alcatraz Island is the winter home of several hundred Western gulls and at least one pair of ravens, which don't like a hawk nailing another bird. Suddenly a black and white cloud of very upset birds descends on the poor hawk actor.

The last we saw of that hawk was that it was flying as fast as it could toward the Golden Gate Bridge with a swarm of gulls and ravens in pursuit.

The link between a hunter and his dog is a wonderful act of interspecies cooperation that may result in the dog being a hunter's best friend. But every time that a hawker or falconer releases his bird into the air, that bird makes a choice to come back.

And if it doesn't return, it can (unlike the dog) get along quite nicely, thank you, returning to the wild. That the raptors do return, as well as hunt with humans, is an act of pure interspecies magic.

That natural magic between man and raptor you see in abundance if you watch the video documentary "Kiran Over Mongolia," directed by Joseph Spaid.

Kiran is the Mongolian word for golden, which is used to describe the quality of especially strong spirit in a golden eagle — large, fierce, red eyes; large sharp beak; and long, strong talons. In this extraordinary film, man and eagle co-star.

"Kiran Over Mongolia" is the story of a Mongolian youth in his late teens or early twenties.

Despite wanting to be part of the new, hip, modern scene that is taking hold in Mongolian cities, the youth, Kuma, who is a Kazak, wants to learn the ancient sport of hunting with eagles that his grandfather once did, but his grandfather is too old to teach him.

Kuma journeys many miles to a hunting-eagle festival. The event will astound you as you watch Mongolian men riding horses with huge golden eagles perched on their arms, then competing in thrilling events that test the prowess of both bird and man and catapult the viewer back in time.

The eagle hunters compete for several days and Kuma is able to convince one of the master eagle hunters to teach him.

The movie then follows Kuma's training, including catching his eagle, training the bird and ultimately watching it catch a fox.

The interwoven storylines of the Kazak boy learning the ancient art of eagle hunting, while trying to figure out what to do with modern culture and his co-star — the Kiran eagle — are beautifully blended together into a spell of enchantment that is mesmerizing on the screen.

This union is accomplished with some gorgeous videography in spectacular country combined with authentic Mongolian music and singing.

While the feature film "Borat" is out there looting the box office as it ridicules the Kazaks there ought to be a law that "Kiran Over Mongolia" should be shown as the second half of the bill anyplace "Borat" is shown … to be sure people know the real story about the proud Kazaks.

Hunting with birds of prey, or raptors, dates back at least to 680 BC in China, and 772 BC in the Middle East. Genghis Kahn supposedly had hundreds of hunting hawks, falcons and eagles. Japanese shogun lords carried them into battle.

In the United States, hawks, owls and falcons are legal for hunting (with the exceptions Hawaii and the District of Columbia), providing you have state and federal permits.

To secure a permit, you must pass a written exam, have the facilities for keeping the birds inspected and serve a two-year apprenticeship with a licensed master falconer. Becoming a master falconer takes seven years.

Hawking is a big commitment. Experts recommend spending part of every day of the year with your bird, as well as providing water, space to exercise flight, shelter and lean, raw meat.

In the field, each species has its own style of hunting.

Harriers work best in woodlots and near cover where they can sneak up on prey with their silent wings. Broad-winged eagles and hawks soar to great heights before descending on prey on the ground, like rabbits and foxes. Long-winged falcons demand the wide-open spaces, where they only capture birds on the wing.

It is awe inspiring to watch a peregrine falcon descend more rapidly than a fastball and thrust its talons into the heart of a duck that already is moving 40 mph.

Such sights no doubt moved ancient naturalists to attribute god-like qualities to raptors.

In Greece and Rome, the hawk was the symbol of the sun god, for it could ascend to great heights and see everything.

Like so many symbolic meanings for animals, the basis lies in fact. Many birds of prey have a unique quality of binocular vision, which enables them to simultaneously view the larger field of vision and zoom in for detail on one object in that field.

Considering many falconers ride out on horses, use dogs to locate and hold birds, then launch their raptors for the hunt while the dogs flush the quarry, we now have three species all hunting as one. That's interspecies cooperation!

If you would like to learn more about falconry, check out the Web site for The North American Falconers Association.

And, by all means, get a copy of Stephen Bodio's outstanding books, "Eagle Dreams" (which is about Bodio's journey to Mongolia to learn about hunting with eagles) and "A Rage for Falcons".

James Swan — who has appeared in more than a dozen feature films, including "Murder in the First" and "Star Trek: First Contact," as well as the television series "Nash Bridges," "Midnight Caller" and "Modern Marvels" — is the author of the book "In Defense of Hunting." Click to purchase a copy. To learn more about Swan, visit his Web site.

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