|Heinz Meng in the 70s.|
Dr Heinz Meng of New Paltz NewYork, a long -time professor of Zoology at the State University there and the man who first bred falcons in captivity in the US (Not in the WORLD as many news reports chauvinistically state; Renz Waller bred several in Germany before the war, and Ronald Stevens and young John Morris actually bred a Saker- Peregrine hybrid clutch in Ireland in the sixties. But Waller and especially Stevens were gods of falconry, and Stevens had an entire huge estate in Ireland where he often let his falcons range free, and pioneered training methods and attitudes in his modest little Observations on Modern Falconry that were to change the ways of everybody from Harry McElroy to me.
While Heinz was a modest professesor in a state college who bred Peale’s Pergirines in his backyard, making it look so easy that in a very short time, his friends Tom Cade and Jim Weaver, driven by the DDT crisis and the disappearance of the anatum- race Peregrine from its eastern eyries, cranked up what became the a kind of falconry Manhattan Project in their quonset huts at Cornell. This in turn would lead to the Peregrine Fund being founded by the late Frank Bond, future Republican gubernatorial candidate of New Mexico : Jim Weaver, born in Illinois and now a rancher in eastern New Mexico; Bob Berry, then of Philadelphia’s Main Line and now of Wyoming, where he endowed the Berry Center for Biodiversity at U Wy Laramie, run by my friend Carlos Martinez del Rio, and Tom Cade, born dirt poor in there Depression in New Mexico’s Bootheel, professor at Cornell and the only poor man among them. For the next (approximately- I would have to look it up) twenty years, hack teams would receive their precious hatch of “Cornell chickens” (a derisory term coined by, I believe, the birding writer Pete Dunne– write to me, Pete!- and adapted with pride by those of us who worked the hack, including me) and nurse them to maturity, enduring everything from lightning storms to yellowjacket stings to rattlers to tourists to, even, slightly misinformed federal undercover agents. My partner, John Tobin, Vietnam vet, grad student, falconer, recently retired Massachusetts Game warden, and I survived all of the above, plus drunken races down the Mount Tom Alpine Slide, in which you would sometimes find trapped copperheads, which could flip into your lap…
All to be told, soon, and in the blog, but not here.What Heinz Meng did was deceptively simple: by his own knowledge and patience, he bred a threatened glamor species, a “charismatic” if not mega- faunal species that had captured the imagination of humans in many cultures for hundreds if not thousands of years. He was a scientist and so recorded his information in reproducible ways.The result was not just one revolution but several (think of the importance, and money, devoted to falcons in Arab cultures, for a hint; think of the blow to the egos of at least some traditional Arabs when they found the larger, braver “male” migrant falcons they were so proud of, that they had never seen nesting on their remote Central and Arctic Asian homes, were FEMALE!)
Meng’s simple brilliant act of husbandry was to give the east back a relatively common Peregrine, if not precisely the one it started with; start entire industries, up to and including Robo- Falcons; extended to virtually every falconer’s bird, including a new one, the Harris’s hawk, possibly the most popular hawk in the world today*, and a rediscovered one, the “Alethe”, better known as the Aplomado; make modern falconry possible (most European countries, unlike the States, do not allow any wild “take” at all); employ semi- unemployable types such as me and Helen Macdonald, at least on occasion, and give us stories to tell; and generate a truly amazing amount of myth and counter myth. And it all started in Heinz Meng’s garage.
I only met Heinz once. Although most reports of his first successful breeding give the dates as 1971 or 1972, I am for various external reasons sure that the date was 1970, when my friend Mark, a long time falconer who met me that year, and Mike Conca, my oldest friend, who still lives in the hills of western Massachusetts, went to a very off-the-radar “meet” in central New York. Heinz was there with a young and very vocal Peale’s falcon (the choice of that difficult sub-species makes his breeding more remarkable). Others present included that old bandit Victor Hardaswick, then a young bandit; then and forever he resembled a rather sinister version of Seinfeld’s George. He was to become a celebrated breeder of falcons himself, and then the only breeder of Siberian goshawks in the U.S., but then he was a bandido from Bridgeport, as well as a second generation fighting cock fancier, the son of a great pouter pigeon breeder. His friend Fran Lynch, another bandit, was there, and a biologist who would later have an extremely savage Golden eagle, which nearly caught me, confiscated and sent to Martha’s Vineyard, where it would live out its life in the household of Vineyard falconer Gus Ben-David, who is best known for flying Great horned owls (THAT falconer was alleged to have consorted with “escorts” at falconers’ conventions, one of whom supposedly answered the phone in a motel with the news that “Bill can’t come to the phone right now — he’s tied up.”) In addition to the legal birds there, there were the first two “blonde” beach peregrines I’d ever seen up close, who were sitting on blocks on the lawn. Mark said “I’d sure like to have some lawn ornaments like that”. Their owners too are long dead, so I’m not worried about repercussions.
Later they were flown successfully at bagged pheasants. They were two weeks out of the trap; that’s how tame the Arctic birds are. I coveted them fiercely, and have still never flown one now that they are legal.
Later, Heinz flew his bird, and he would not come down. Victor killed a pigeon and threw it in the air to see if he would return. He didn’t. He vanished behind the trees, still calling, and I don’t think he ever came back. He might have been taken by a horned owl, an all too common end for birds left out overnight, especially in the days before electronic transmitters. It appalls, and on some level, blackly amuses me, to think that I saw one of the very first clutch of falcons bred in the United States fly away.
Autre temps, autre moeurs. Here’s to you, Heinz, for starting a whole new world.
|Dr. Meng more recently, with a Peale’s|
*Leaving ultra- traditonalists like England’s Roger Upton to grump that they went very well with pit bulls and tattoos!