White Gyrfalcon – Yet another escaped falconry bird!

/, Birds, Davis County, Gyrfalcons, Peregrine Falcons, Salt Lake County, Utah/White Gyrfalcon – Yet another escaped falconry bird!

In the four and a half years I have been in Utah I have seen and photographed four escaped falconry birds, one in 2009, two in 2012 and yesterday I photographed another one, an escaped White Gyrfalcon. Just last month another escaped Red-tailed Hawk was found hanging by it’s leashes in a tree by my friend and fellow photographer, Jeff Cooper.

The night before last a report came on in UBIRD of a Snowy Owl nearby but when a description by the spotter of the bird came in I suspected that it wasn’t a Snowy Owl and that it might have been a very light Barn Owl. The description included stated the bird had a small head, narrow tapered wings and that the bird turned its head in an owl-like fashion.

People went looking for the bird yesterday without anyone spotting a Snowy Owl and some time in the afternoon a photo was sent in to UBIRD by Sean Jorgenson that clearly showed a Gyrfalcon in the same area that the Snowy Owl had been reported.  I hurried to get my gear together and Ron and I headed to the Mick Reilly Golf Course in Murray.

Gyrfalcon getting ready to lift offGyrfalcon getting ready to lift off

Before leaving for the Golf Course it was reported by people with the Gyrfalcon that it was an escaped falconry bird but we wanted to see it any way. It was a gorgeous white Gyrfalcon sitting on a power pole! By the time we got there the clouds had rolled in so my images are not what I would have hoped for them to be of the largest falcon of North America.

There was a large group of birders and bird photographers looking at the falcon that included people I knew and people I had only previously known through communications on UBIRD and via email. The Gyrfalcon was the star we were just the paparazzi.

Gyrfalcon lift offGyrfalcon lift off

Mike Shaw arrived with his gear to recapture the escaped Gyrfalcon and while we were there the falcon made several passes at the bal chatri trap. It was recaptured after we left and was transported to a mew at Hawk Watch International to be fed and housed until the “owner” claims it and if they don’t a decision will have to be made about the Gyr.

Gyrfalcon in flightGyrfalcon in flight

One of the biggest concerns for escaped falconry birds is that their hardware; anklets, jesses and leashes, can become entangled and the bird will die by starvation. The Red-tailed Hawk that Jeff located was found hanging upside down by its leashes. The Red-tailed Hawk was rescued thanks to Jeff finding it.

It bothers me greatly to have found three escaped falconry birds myself. It bothers me that without Jeff finding the Red-tailed Hawk it might have suffered and died. It bothers me that the Gyrfalcon escaped and could have come to harm.

Seeing this spectacular Gyrfalcon was amazing and sharing the experience with other people was great.

The number of escaped and found falconry birds in this area is disturbing, damages the reputation of the falconry sport and to be entirely honest I’d rather see these birds flying free and wild.




  1. Christine April 20, 2014 at 12:44 pm

    Thanks for the photos. It’s interesting to note that the gyr does not appear to be wearing any telemetry and is wearing slitted jesses, which suggests accidental loss, e.g. while being transferred to/from a vehicle or in/out of the mews. When being flown, a high-value bird like a gyr will wear a transmitter and will often have jesses removed for flying/hunting (things dangling from the feet looks like prey and invites attack from wild birds). At the very least, most falconers will change to slitless jesses for flying specifically because they won’t get tangled on branches and stuff. And all jesses, slitless or not, are *required* by law to be removable from the ankle portion.

    It’s hard to say if these are Utah falconers’ birds or not. Gyrs and peregrines fly big — they can travel 50 miles in a matter of an hour or two. Temporary loss of falcons is surprisingly frequent. This happens when you let something fly free 🙂 . A falconer can find a nice setup with game ready to be flushed, loose their bird, and if it has other ideas, as soon as it gains some height it simply heads off in some random direction… which is why I fly hawks and not falcons 🙂

    • Mia McPherson April 20, 2014 at 12:56 pm


      From what I understand the owner of this Gyr was from out of state and had brought his bird here to Utah. Through DWR and HawkWatch International they were able to track the owner down and he got his bird back. There were tons of people though wanting the Gyr.

      As far as I know the female kestrel was never recaptured. The Peregrine and male kestrel were. The male kestrel was eventually released by his owner and I believe the Peregrine as also released back into the wild.

      I really hope I don’t spot any more escaped falconry birds.

  2. Jed Petersen February 22, 2014 at 10:02 pm

    I am relieved as well that the gyr has been recaptured. The photographs are awesome and they make me wish that I could have seen the bird for myself. However, after reading all of these posts, I feel constrained to comment as well. I was introduced to birding by my 6th grade science teacher who was a falconer and had a harris’ hawk and a male gray-phase gyr that he brought to class every day. He took the gyr from a nest legally in Alaska. This teacher gave me the assignment of watching birds. For a grade. Which was awesome.

    That gyr was sent to a breeding program every spring to produce other falconry birds with the hope that there would be a supply of these raptors in captivity. The idea was to make these birds more accessible to other falconers and decrease the number of wild birds taken every year. That was his hope anyway.

    I have to say that the majority of falconers that I have met are very, VERY careful and responsible with regard to safety of their birds. The fact of the matter is that birds used in falconry are still wild birds (even the imprinted birds which are bred in captivity). I don’t say this to inflame anyone, only to emphasize my point. And that given the chance, ANY bird in captivity will make a bid for freedom if given the chance.

    That being said, I am surprised that there are not more escapee falconry birds flying around out there. With as many practicing falconers that there are out there, the fact that there are NOT more escapees should be taken as evidence that the vast majority of falconers are indeed very responsible. Federal and state law require that all birds being flown at quarry are to have field jesses in place (the gyr pictured does not have them however). These jesses prevent the bird from becoming entangled should the falconer fail to recover the bird. But some escape with the leash and swivel still attached, like the red-tailed hawk that was previously mentioned. I would venture to say that no one regrets this more than the falconer when such a thing occurs.

    Again, I don’t post this with the intention of starting a fight, I just feel that we should be informed and not judge all falconers because some individuals have had the misfortune of having the birds escape. If the non-birder were to judge all birders by the behavior of those of us that are a little less scrupulous about the unspoken rules of birding, how would we be viewed by the public as a group collectively? I don’t think that any falconer wants their bird to escape, quite the opposite.

    Again, I am relieved that the bird has been recaptured and I wish that I could have seen it. I hope this post finds the reader in good health.


    Jed Petersen

  3. Utahbooklover February 22, 2014 at 2:48 pm

    Having worked with a falconer at Utah’s Hogle Zoo (World of Flight Show) I would defend falconry by asking, what is falconry? “Falconry can be defined as the taking of wild quarry in its natural state and habitat by means of a trained raptor. This ancient art is a very demanding endeavor, requiring a serious dedication of time and energy from the falconer. On November 16, 2010 the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) added falconry to its list of Intangible Cultural Heritages of Humanity.”

  4. Elephant's Child February 22, 2014 at 1:23 pm

    Oh how magical. And yet, like Patty and others my heart aches for the birds we capture and condemn to a life with very limited (if any) freedom.

  5. Nicole February 22, 2014 at 10:51 am

    Incredible photos of a stunning falcon… I am so sad to read this… It’s my understanding that people have to go out into the wild and take a bird from the nest in order to have a bird to work with?? Thieves….

    • Mia McPherson February 22, 2014 at 10:55 am

      Nicole, there are breeders for falconry birds who raise them for purchase. Not all falconry birds are taken from the nest. Still if I knew where there was a falcon nest I would not disclose its location because falconer wannabes might go to the nest and take the young illegally.

      • Sarah Mayhew February 22, 2014 at 11:06 am

        In their defense I will say that there are not that many falconers out there and that the mortality rate of wild raptors in their first year is 60-90% which is very high. So falconers may be saving some raptors. That said, I could never be a falconer and wouldn’t want a captive bird. Even worse are all the other captive birds which don’t get taken out to fly.

  6. Sarah Mayhew February 22, 2014 at 10:28 am

    Beautiful shots! They are gorgeous falcons. I have a falconry friend who had one. I’m heading out to a falconry meet today to photograph. We have a falconry lost and found bird e-mail list out here in CA. So see reports come in on a fairly regular basis.

  7. Lois Bryan February 22, 2014 at 8:40 am

    oh Mia … he’s glorious!!!! Thank heavens he was spotted and rescued!!!!!

  8. Ilze Long February 22, 2014 at 7:41 am

    Birds are meant to fly free not tethered to someone’s ego.

  9. Jennifer B February 22, 2014 at 7:28 am

    Mia, thank you for the stunning images and the detailed report. For those of us who couldn’t make it down, this is the second best thing. This bird is awe-inspiring.

    I have very strong feelings about the use of birds as entertainment, workers, or keeping them in any capacity whatsoever unless they are unable to go free due to permanent injury. I am deeply concerned about the large numbers of irresponsible falconers who have let this happen so frequently in such a small, concentrated, populated area. I hope that the Utah DWR is investigating these escapes and taking necessary action to keep these birds safe.

    Thanks again for this beautiful report.

    • Mia McPherson February 22, 2014 at 7:30 am


      I may send this post (and the others) to the DWR. Maybe it will open some eyes to this disturbing trend.

  10. Ricky Jones February 22, 2014 at 7:20 am

    Gorgeous bird, what a beautiful bird. Nicely done as always Mia! Glad to see it re-captured!

  11. Patty Chadwick February 22, 2014 at 7:15 am

    My heart aches…

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