There are few that have seen a falcon stoop. It happens quickly. A blur of brown streaking toward its prey through the endless blue sky of the prairie like a missile, wings tucked, closing in and then — whoosh — wings out, talons spread, ready to grab, rip or kill its meal, whichever comes first. It’s magnificent, at least it is according to Peter and Riggs Sanchez. They have a front-row seat.
Together with their parents and other siblings — an older brother and a younger sister — the two are part of a team. They catch falcons from the wild. They slowly earn their trust. They teach them to fly higher and higher, so that when the time comes to go hunting, the falcons can look down over the miles and miles of land below for their prey and then dive. Dive faster than the speed limit on I-29, faster than a cheetah sprinting over the savannah, faster than a fastball thrown in a Major League Baseball game.
Fast enough to drop grouse and prairie chickens from the sky.
“Seeing that bird come down at 120 miles an hour and crack a grouse in flight and stone it dead in the air is just incredible,” Peter said. “There’s nothing that tops that.”
Peter and Riggs are a rare breed. They’re falconers. Their father, Gonzalo, cultivated his passion for the sport when he was 16 years old. He passed it on to them.
There are pictures of the boys as children sitting on a bed beside a little eyas, or baby falcon, fluffed out like a little white puffball. Their father would drive them to a gas station where they could pick out one treat to put in their backpacks, and together they would travel to the Fort Pierre National Grasslands to fly the raptors. They spent copious amounts of time, both weekdays and weekends, caring for the birds and training them to hunt.
“It’s a lot of effort for what’s really, probably five seconds,” Riggs said. “It’s so much fun to finally achieve that goal. Just to know that you’ve trained a wild animal to kill this thing, and it’s still going to come back on your fist. Then you do it all over again two days later.”
Falconry was once considered the sport of kings. For millennia it has been practiced: across Mongolia in the fourth century B.C., China in 1,000 B.C., by Assyrians in the seventh century, the Japanese in 355 B.C., the Islamic world in 783 B.C. and later by medieval royalty in Europe. The art has stretched across continents and cultures, wherever falcons fly. Today, it continues on as a hobby for 36 South Dakotans, Peter and Riggs included.
The sport has become a part of the brothers’ identities. If it’s not in their blood, it’s at least in Riggs’ name. Riggs Falcon Sanchez. He wears it like a badge of honor.
“It’s distinguishable, and it does bring up the topic of falconry a lot because a lot of people think, ‘Oh, what’s somebody have the name Falcon for?’” Riggs said. “It’s like somebody having the middle name Eagle or something kind of random. But to have a pretty in-depth background behind it makes it meaningful.”
It’s in Peter’s name as well, just in a different way. His middle name “Hunt” belongs to his grandmother, and he was given the name because of her. But “Hunt” holds a second meaning to him and represents an important aspect of his day-to-day life: hunting.
Looking at the two, you wouldn’t know they were brothers. Peter has straight, mocha-colored hair while Riggs’ curls are a shade similar to straw. Even listening to the two talk, there is a difference. Peter chooses his words very carefully, and Riggs is more matter-of-fact.
They work well together. In the field, they have learned to use hand signals and body language to communicate with one another in silence. They take turns helping their father train, trap and care for the falcons.
Peter is very focused when it comes to falconry. He wants to do things the right way and is willing to put in the work to make that possible. He says his father calls him “the voice of reason for every situation of life.”
Riggs is more of a gambler. He rides the line between success and failure with more abandon than Peter. He’s a bit more willing to try new things, although he’s careful not to push it too far.
Together — with their mother, father and other siblings — they are a team. Even the falcons are members. In this sport, the Sanchezes are not competing against each other; they are working together to equip the raptors for success.
For them, falconry is a family affair.
“It led to lots of interaction with my kids that I think most people don’t get,” Gonzalo said. “I love it for that reason.
Starting the Process
There’s a process to becoming a falconer. Prospective falconers must be 12 years old and must start by applying for an apprentice falconry permit from the South Dakota Department Game, Fish and Parks. Then they need to find a sponsor, a general or master level falconer, that will spend two years teaching them the sport. Both Riggs and Peter apprenticed with their father; Peter recently finished and applied for his general permit in January.
After finding a master falconer to sponsor them, an apprentice must score 80% or higher on a multiple-choice test that asks general knowledge questions about raptors and falconry. Finally, an inspector from the department will inspect the facilities where the falcons are to be housed.
Peter and Riggs catch most of their falcons from the wild. South Dakota law allows for resident and nonresident falconers to take immature raptors in their first-year plumage if they have a raptor collecting permit. The season for taking raptors runs from Aug. 1 to March 31.
In a 2007 environmental assessment, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service found that the taking of falcons from the wild for falconry purposes has no significant impact on the wild population.
“We do not want to take more than 5% of the population that’s being produced per annum and that, we believe based on a paper that was done back in the early 2000s, will protect populations of wild raptors,” said Joel Pagel, a raptor ecologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Usually, the brothers use a device called a bal-chatri to capture passage birds, or immature wild raptors. It’s a rectangular dome of quarter-inch chicken wire with flat ends and a flat base that often contains a pigeon. Nooses made of 16-20 pound test monofilament line cover the top to tighten around the bird’s talons when it lands on the trap in an attempt to grab the bait.
The raptor’s safety is at the forefront of the Sanchezes’ minds when they take a bird from the wild. They are required by law to monitor the traps while waiting for a falcon to go for the bait. After a bird is hooked, they rush to grab it so that it doesn’t have time to break the nooses or hurt itself.
“You don’t want to injure the bird, and that’s kind of the main concern of getting there,” Peter said. “Our utmost concern is really their feathers; you don’t want them broken. Also the less they twist around with their feet, the better.”
Because passage birds come from the wild, they can return to the wild. That’s their natural environment. It is not uncommon for a falcon to fly away during a hunt. The Sanchezes have lost some birds in the past, and it can be tough for any falconer, especially after the amount of work it takes to train and prepare them. But, as a result of their wild upbringing, the raptors can take care of themselves.
Cultivating a Bond
After a falcon has been caught, it needs to be trained. The beginning of the process is about trust. The birds need to be comfortable with the falconers giving them food.
A wild gyrfalcon can range in weight from 900 grams (about 2 pounds) to 1,700 grams (a little over 3-and-a-half pounds), depending on its breed, gender and individual differences. Usually after being trapped, the bird will lose weight quickly because it takes a while to get used to the falconers feeding them. But once a falconer successfully breaks through that barrier, they’ll build trust with the falcon and the bird will begin to eat again.
“Initially the bird is very jumpy. They are constantly staring you down and watching your every move,” Peter said. “But as they become more accustomed to being around you and they get hungry, they will begin to eat. But they take a bite then look at you, take a bite then look at you. Over time, the falcon will learn to trust you and that you are not there to hurt them, and they will begin to eat immediately once you offer them food.”
Once the falcon’s optimal flying weight has been determined and the bird is comfortable being fed on the falconer’s fist, it needs to be trained to pursue food at more of a distance. The falconer slowly moves the meat farther and farther away from the falcon, teaching it to spot the food and pursue it.
They train the falcon to move inches, then feet for the treat. The process can take from two weeks to a month. Eventually, the falconers begin to use a lure — typically a round piece of leather attached to a string. The falconer swings the string in sight of the bird, who then flies a short distance to grab it. Once the raptor begins to fly immediately to the lure, they’re ready to free fly.
Throughout history, there have been many techniques used in the free-flying stage of training: balloons, pigeons, kites. The Sanchezes have dabbled in other methods, but they’ve found drones to be particularly effective.
They start by sending a drone up 10 feet into the air with a piece of bait dangling from below it. If the bird immediately flies to that, they send it higher. 50 feet. 100 feet. By raising the altitude, they train the bird to climb.
“It’s endurance, getting them into shape and working that altitude up,” Peter said.
If the birds aren’t performing well without the drone, they use a Sky-Hero Little 6, a model racing drone that can go 80 mph vertically. When the bird ascends to grab the food dangling from the bottom of the drone, the Sanchezes rocket the machine upward and the falcon is forced to race to reach it.
“Then they learn that if they have the advantage, they’re going to beat the drone,” Peter said. “You’ll let them get the drone before it gets above them, and then they’ll learn, ‘Okay, the higher I go, I’m going to get served [food] versus having to chase that stupid drone up in the air.’”
The entire process can be long. But it takes time to cultivate a bond between the two parties.
“You’re training it, and you’re forming a relationship with it,” Peter said. “Granted, it’s not like a dog relationship where you’re like petting it and that sort of thing. I mean, that’s not what it’s like. It’s kind of a distance relationship, but you’re learning each other and how to kind of read what each one is doing. Because that falcon will learn too.”
The Sanchez Falcons
The Sanchezes work mostly with gyrfalcons. The robust birds come in several different morphs, or color variations, but most have 20-inch long slate grey bodies with a black speckled front. They’re built for the cold. They spend most of the year in the arctic and subarctic climates of northern Canada and Greenland, but some travel to central South Dakota in the late fall and winter. Peter says that he’s seen them around as early as November and as late as March.
One of the biggest differences between gyrfalcons and other breeds, like peregrine and prairie falcons, is their size. Gyrfalcons have a bigger breastbone and are typically much larger than other breeds.
“They have much bigger pecs,” Riggs said. “It’s like some 300-pound guy that can bench press 1,000 pounds versus others.”
“But they’re endurance falcons,” Peter added. “They’re totally built for long tail chases.”
The Sanchezes currently have three falcons: a 5-year-old female gyrfalcon nicknamed Ol’ Crank, a male 2-year-old peregrine-gyrfalcon hybrid that was raised in captivity and a young female gyrfalcon that they caught last year.
Ol’ Crank was caught as a passage raptor and has been with the family for five seasons. According to Riggs, the bird — which flies at 1,280 grams in warmer weather — is all business.
“She knows what she’s doing,” Riggs said. “She knows what she needs to do to get a kill and get rewarded. And you can tell she’s got some stubbornness to her because she wants to do the bare minimum of work.”
Her name implies that she’s cranky. And that’s true. But for Peter, it has a second meaning.
“She cranks,” he said. “She’s a very aggressive flyer … She’s vertical climbing a hundred feet in, like, five, six seconds.”
The tiercel, or male falcon, is a little less mature. Part of that may stem from his age and part from the fact that he was raised in captivity, so he hasn’t developed the same instincts that birds born in the wild have.
“I like to say he’s like an angry teenager,” Riggs said. “Because he’s kind of defiant. I mean, you get him to do what you want him to do, and he’s good at killing, but sometimes he doesn’t like to do what you want him to.”
Usually weighing in at about 980 grams, he is significantly smaller than the other two. It’s typical for tiercels to be smaller than female falcons, but his size makes him well-suited for hunting grouse.
The youngest falcon is new and still getting accustomed to her job. She’s struggling to find the connection between following the drone and being rewarded with food.
“It’s like there’s just a disconnect between the game we’re trying to play,” Peter said. “She does not play the game. [She] doesn’t understand it.”
But now, after the Sanchezes have adjusted their training methods and started flying her at a higher weight, she has made significant progress. She’s not giving them great altitudes yet, but they will build on that over the next year.
“For now, we are reinforcing that every time she comes back to us, she will see game,” Peter said.
Ol’ Crank’s Flight
On Jan. 30, Peter, Riggs and Gonzalo traveled to the rolling hills of central Wyoming, just 30 miles north of Jeffrey City. With them were Augustana students Sydney Weber and Jensen Froelich. The original plans were to fly the falcons in Idaho, but there was too much snow to make it there. So, with the birds along for the ride, they settled for cougar hunting in the Cowboy State instead.
Peter and Riggs spent the morning searching for mountain lion tracks, but by noon, they returned to the house where they were staying in defeat. When they walked into the garage, they were met by some men who were fixing a heater. They struck up a conversation and upon the first mention of sage grouse, one of the men immediately directed them to a place he knew the birds gathered at.
With the falcons in the car, the entire hunting party set off in search of sage grouse. For 19 miles their tan Ford Raptor cut through fresh snow on a 25-mile stretch of dirt road that separated two highways, pulling a camouflage John Deere Gator on the trailer behind it.
They drove north with their eyes peeled, surveying the rural Wyoming landscape. As the name suggests, sage grouse like to hide in sagebrush, a woody shrub that dots much of the area’s scenery. The problem, however, was that the land the group was searching appeared almost like a barren wasteland. No sagebrush — no nothing. There was nothing except snow. Lots of snow.
As they drove on, they noticed more and more patches of sagebrush poking through snow. A herd of antelope shot past and, suddenly, Peter came to a realization.
“I think we just passed some sage grouse tracks,” he announced looking into the ditch. “Slow down, I think those are probably sage grouse tracks.”
Upon hearing the news, everyone perked up from the grogginess induced by the warmth radiating into the truck from the afternoon sun. They were close.
The pickup slowed but continued down the road. A black, jacked-up Chevy Silverado approached. “Hey, stop and talk to that guy,” Peter remembers telling his father, who was the driver. “He’s probably been out hunting. He might be a local that knows the area.”
Gonzalo hesitated, but Peter insisted, and they stopped and rolled their window down. The Silverado stopped as well. Inside was a stocky man in his late 30s or early 40s wearing a baseball cap and sunglasses who, as Peter remembers, was out hunting rabbits.
Peter remembers the conversation to be as follows:
“Hey, we’re out here hunting sage grouse,” Gonzalo said.
“Hunting sage grouse? Season is closed,” the man replied.
“No, we’re hunting them with falcons.”
“Oh, cool. Well, just right down the road, about a half-mile back, I bumped seven of them on my way out here.”
“Sweet. Would you mind showing us where they are?”
“Yeah, I’ll show you where they are, but you’ve got to let me watch.”
They struck up a deal. The man would drive them to the spot where he saw the grouse, and in return, he’d get to see falcons in action.
With about an hour and a half before sunset, the convoy found the spot. Directly east of the road was a thick patch of sage, the very patch where a few had been hidden before the man had bumped them into the air. Peter, Riggs and their father looked around. Northeast of them there were two eagles, one sitting on a rocky outcropping poking up in the distance and the other flying nearby.
For falconers, the presence of eagles can be terrifying. Along with Great Horned Owls, they are natural predators of falcons and are capable of injuring, killing or driving them away.
Keeping their eyes on the eagles, the members of the group decided to wait and weather Ol’ Crank for a bit. They pulled the gyrfalcon, with a leather hood covering its vision to keep it at ease, out of the vehicle and let her perch on a spare tire that they had laid flat on the ground.
She took in the fresh air and fluffed her feathers in preparation for the flight. They wired her up with a GPS unit to track her speed and location in case she got lost.
There was a tight timeline. Sunset was coming and this was unfamiliar terrain for Ol’ Crank. The eagles posed a problem, but if the gyrfalcon was going to fly, it needed to happen soon. Otherwise, darkness would cloak the deep snow and unfamiliar roads, making it difficult for the falconers to find the falcon.
Peter took off on the tracked gator to see where the grouse were. There were tracks everywhere. As he was observing, he saw the two golden eagles and two ravens descend, sending 150 grouse into the air and about a mile away.
“We were like, great, we’re just coming up there to fly them and they all bust,” Peter said.
But they didn’t give up hope. The sage patch was thick. Maybe some of them stayed hidden. So he got closer and, sure enough, he spotted about eight or nine of them inside.
They let Ol’ Crank loose. Right away, the two ravens took up pursuit and dogged her as she mounted higher and higher into the January sky. But she didn’t let them bother her. She ascended 668 feet, twisting and looping until she was high enough to survey the land — and the creatures — below with vision eight times better than the average human eye.
From far below, Peter and Riggs watched her as well, waiting for the right time to flush. If they moved in too early, Ol’ Crank would notice and start her descent without climbing to the height that she’s capable of. So they waited and watched as she mounted into the sky and, when she was ready, turned back towards the group.
As she flew in their direction, Peter and Riggs started creeping toward the brush while their father and the others watched from the road. When Ol’ Crank was overhead, they burst into the brush and startled a group of grouse about 10 feet away, who erupted from their hiding places in a mass panic.
“Sage grouse are cool because they let you get in really close,” Peter said.
After bursting upward, they flew west over the road and past the cars and the group of watchers. Ol’ Crank stooped and followed in hot pursuit, the tracker on her back clocking her highest speed at 100 mph. She flew a few yards past the road and — Wham! — collided with a grouse, ripping feathers off with her talons.
The hit wasn’t hard enough to stop her prey in flight. As the grouse continued to flee, the falcon pitched up and turned sharply, back toward it. She closed in and once again struck. Hit number two.
Again, the grouse didn’t stop. But neither did Ol’ Crank. She chased it for a half-mile, flying over where she had been weathered earlier, and then about 100 yards past it. She brought it down right below the outcropping where the two eagles were sitting earlier. Luckily, they had left after chasing the grouse.
“It wasn’t the greatest flight,” Riggs said. “She didn’t go up super high. But we got a pretty decent flush and she made a pretty good initial hit.”
Both Peter and Riggs have seen better flights. A pitch of 600 feet isn’t too impressive when the bird is capable of rising 800 feet or higher into the air. And they can dive at speeds faster than 100 mph. Despite the disappointing results, this was a flight when the two were able to spend time with their father, participating in the sport they love.
An Uncertain Future
Neither Peter nor Riggs know if they will be able to continue with the sport after they leave Augustana — at least not right away. Peter’s planning to go to medical school, and he’s still not sure if he’ll have enough time to devote to caring for a falcon. Riggs hopes to, but he’s still got another year left of school and the future is always uncertain. At Augustana, they both try to go home and fly the birds with their father during breaks and J-term, but time is limited in college.
“It’s not like other hunting where you can put your gun away and you don’t have to worry about it,” Peter said. “It’s just something that’s always there. You’re always going to have it on your mind.”
But for them, the sport has provided a way to bond with their family in a way that other sports haven’t. No matter what the future brings, they will never forget the moments that they spent together.
“Some of the best memories that I have with my parents have been either hunting or flying the falcons,” Riggs said. “That’s one thing that I really cherish about the sport, is it creates memories that are going to last a lifetime.”