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Jim Webber, Ph.D., learned falconry in part from his daughter Carrie. Here “Scully,” a northern goshawk, perches on Carrie, while “Smilla,” a red-tailed hawk, gets comfortable with Jim.

Like Daughter, Like Father

by Patricia Quigley

Call James Webber’s outlook, activities — even his family — for the birds, and odds are he won’t squawk.

Webber is into falconry, and that’s a hobby he has just soared with for the last 10 years.

A research scientist with the State of New York Department of Health’s Environmental Laboratory Approval Program, Webber spends anywhere from several minutes a day in the summer to 20 hours a week during the mid-October to March hunting season with his Harris hawk “Skinner.” Accompanied by Webber’s dog “Mulder,” a Vizsla (Hungarian pointer), the man and the raptor generally hunt for rabbits.

Webber, who has never hunted with a gun, has long been interested in birds, and the sport of kings was a natural move for him. “I am a lover of nature. I got my master’s degree at Michigan State in zoology,” said Webber, 54, who lives on eight acres in Delanson, about 30 miles west of Albany, with his wife, Nancy. “And I’ve been a birdwatcher off and on.” Indeed, he started his “life list” — a checklist of the types of birds he has seen — about 30 years ago.

When oldest daughter Carrie, now 26, was just 8, he introduced her to birdwatching, and she loved it. An artist, the child was particularly drawn to birds of prey.

“She loved raptors even before we got into birdwatching. She was always sketching. Birds were a frequent subject of hers,” said Webber, who earned his Ph.D. in environmental chemistry at the State University of New York at Albany.

When Carrie was 13, daughter and dad met a wildlife rehabilitator who specialized in raptors, and Carrie asked if she could sketch the woman’s birds. From there, the Webber duo started volunteering at the woman’s refuge, cleaning, helping injured birds and handling other tasks. At the wildlife center, the Webbers met falconers, and Carrie realized the only way she could legally keep a raptor was as a falconer. At 16 she completed the eight steps mandated by state and federal fish and wildlife agencies to become a falconer. “She became the youngest female falconer in New York state history,” said Webber.

Carrie’s age played a role in Webber’s entrée into the sport. As required, Carrie had entered a two-year apprenticeship with an experienced falconer. Since she had no driver’s license, her father chauffeured her to work with her sponsor.

Those visits piqued the elder Webber’s interest. “I thought, ‘Wow, this is better than dark chocolate,’” Webber said. “[You can] vicariously live the life of a raptor, [having them land] on your glove, having them return to you and just [enjoying] the awe of those magnificent birds being so close.”

When Carrie completed her apprenticeship and became a general falconer, he became her apprentice, learning how to care for and hunt with a bird.

“He was a good apprentice. He usually did what I told him to,” Carrie said. “Probably one of the cool things about him being my apprentice is it gave me leverage for once.”

Today, Webber is a master falconer, permitted to keep three hawks or falcons, and has worked with three apprentices of his own.

“Becoming a falconer is very difficult,” noted Webber, a member of ASTM Committee D22 on Sampling and Analysis of Atmospheres and secretary of Subcommittee D22.07, Sampling and Analysis of Asbestos. “It’s the most heavily regulated outdoor sport there is.”

And it can be moderately expensive. Webber said it can cost $1,000 to build a bird facility, and falconers can spend from $300 to $3,000 on birds. Webber, who adopted Skinner from a falconer in Michigan, prefers to capture the other birds with which he works. Generally he’ll capture another raptor by late October, work with it through hunting season, and release it back into the wild at the end of hunting season.

“I give them free room and board for the winter and they give me a lot of thrills, and I let them go in the spring,” he said.

Today Webber, who is an avid volleyball player and member of the board of directors of USA Volleyball and a commissioner with its regional arm, is a member of the New York Falconers Association and the North American Falconers Association. Carrie, who earned a B.F.A. from the Pratt Institute, works half the year as a professional falconer at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York and half playing with a rock band in the Albany area. Younger daughter Alyson, 23, is in Wisconsin researching the behavior of loons. And wife Nancy, who holds a degree in English literature and periodically accompanies Webber on forays into the forest? She’s no wimp, claims her husband. When he’s away, she’ll defrost the mice stocked in their basement freezer and clean the quail that Skinner enjoys for his dinner.

Copyright 2003, ASTM