Outdoors: Bird in the hand

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AUGUSTA — Animals dominate the crowded scenery of the State of Maine Sportsman’s Show.

Dog trainers demonstrate their skills to a captive audience of owners. Bear and moose stand in museum majesty, preserved by a taxidermist’s touch. Even the mighty boats for sale along the periphery flaunt a different variety of horse power.

But there’s only one peregrine falcon.

She perched Saturday afternoon on the gloved left wrist of trainer Larry Barnes, unfazed by the hustle and bustle of the 30th annual outdoors showcase at Augusta Civic Center.

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“I don’t name them, because they’re not pets,” Barnes said of his birds. “And I’m not really good at coming up with cute, little names.”

Cute probably wouldn’t be appropriate, either.

Barnes, who is one of fewer than 20 licensed falconers in the state, trains his falcon to hunt ducks.

When one of the raptors is in a stoop — the steep, 500-yard descent toward its prey — it may travel at speeds approaching 270 mph.

The peregrine falcon has been described as the fastest creature in the world. Barnes once lost a bird when it broke its neck upon the violent impact.

“This is really consuming,” Barnes said. “It’s a lifestyle. It’s been called ‘extreme bird watching.’ You get the satisfaction of seeing it work.

Barnes lives in Wiscasset but does most of his hunting in the marshland surrounding Popham Beach.

He called the neighboring Phippsburg Sportsmen’s Association intending to alert local hunters to his bird’s presence. Barnes feared that someone might accidentally shoot the falcon. When the conversation was over, he joined the group.

Saturday he stood dutifully at the association’s kiosk at the north end of the civic center auditorium. Barnes posed for pictures, patiently answered questions and subtly spread the gospel of outdoor activity in a state ideally suited to it.

One child asked why the bird appeared agitated.

“She’s getting hungry,” Barnes explained.

“I have a brownie,” offered the youth.

“Well, I think a steak might be better,” the trainer replied.

Such exchanges are commonplace. Barnes takes his show on the road to meet with students and their families in schools, at the Maine Wildlife Park in Gray, the Swan Island wildlife management area in Richmond and the Bryant Pond 4-H Camp and Learning Center.

“I grew up outdoors, but it was a different time. Anything we can do to compete with nature deficit disorder is important,” Barnes said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s this, as long as it sparks an interest in something to do with the outdoors.”

As evidenced by the small participant pool, it’s unlikely that any kids or adults walking through the big, swinging doors this weekend will become falconers.

The birds remain an endangered species in Maine after being removed from the national list just over 10 years ago. Being entrusted to keep and train one is an arduous process.

“You need a federal license and a state license,” Barnes said. “You are required to take a 100-question test. You have to participate in a two-year apprenticeship.”

That’s followed by the demands of building a relationship with the bird.

“It’s done with the positive reinforcement of food,” said Barnes. “There is no social component like with a dog. She needs nothing else from me. She knows I’m a guaranteed meal.”

Some birds are more agreeable than others.

Barnes and the peregrine have been partners for two years. It usually takes three to four years for a falcon to reach its full maturity as a hunter, he said.

“It’s a team. If you don’t work hard, the bird’s not going to be successful,” said Barnes. “It’s attractive to people until they know what’s involved. It is very time-consuming, 365 days a year. It‘s the only hunting I do now.”

For those interested in all forms of hunting, fishing and water sports traditional and non-traditional, the sportsman’s show will wrap up its three-day run from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. today.

koakes@sunjournal.com

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