Local falconer and animal trainers educate about raptors

Master Falconer Dillon Horger poses with one of his raptors. Courtesy photo

There are few sights as majestic as a beautiful bird of prey on the wing, effortlessly riding the breezes. Hikers appreciate the graceful animal’s flight, often yearning to learn more about its fascinating life.

Warner Springs residents Dillon Horger and his wife Rachel Golub would love to help the community learn more about these birds of prey.

Horger has been involved with birds for over 20 years, working with raptors, parrots, exotics and even rare zoo specimens. He is the founder of Wild West Raptors, a company that specializes in professional bird training, education and services. He is a master falconer, eagle rehabilitator, advocate of positive reinforcement training, published essayist and public speaker.

His wife, Rachel Golub is co-founder of San Diego Animal Training and the chief financial officer of Wild West Raptors. She specializes in canine behavior and training but also works with exotic animals and domestic livestock, as well as birds.

“I’m a certified dog behavior consultant and certified professional dog trainer,” Golub said.

The couple have been professional animal trainers for many years. Along with their two children, ages 2 and 4, they are fully involved in the world of creatures great and small.

Horger described his first meeting with a raptor as a child.

“A lost falconer’s red-tailed hawk landed on my house when I was in grade school. It was tame enough to allow me to approach relatively closely, and I was enthralled,” he said. “My parents called the Department of Wildlife, and they captured the bird and showed it to me up close, explaining that some people are licensed to fly and hunt with birds of prey. From that moment on, I was hooked. I obtained my falconry license in 1997 when I was 15 years old.”

He studied at the University of Nevada, before moving to Florida to work for Natural Encounters, where he became the director of animal training. Since then he was the supervisor of the animal resources department at the Phoenix Zoo, the curator of animal behavior at the Cincinnati Zoo and the curator of raptor free flight at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson, Arizona.

In 2011, Horger collaborated on global projects with high-profile wildlife documentarians, filmmakers and photographers, working on award-winning shows for the BBC, The Discovery Channel and National Geographic. He has also been involved in producing, managing and training birds for shows and exhibits such as “Animal Planet Live!” at Universal Studios, “Soar: A Symphony in Flight” at the San Diego Zoo and “Flights of Wonder” at Disney’s Animal Kingdom.

Wild West Raptors offers a wide range of services, such as falconry-based bird abatement, in which Horger uses birds of prey to protect crops and chase offending birds from areas where they are causing damage. They also offer free-flight shows and demonstrations and perform raptor and eagle rehabilitation – working with vets and zoos exclusively.

Besides years of experience and a keen knowledge of bird communication, Horger holds the following special licenses: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s special purpose: abatement using raptors license; U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s special purpose: falconry education license and California Department of Fish & Wildlife’s falconry license, master class.

Becoming a falconer requires dedication, drive and a willingness to learn, Horger said, and attaining the level of Master Class Falconer is the hardest of all. It requires a closely supervised apprenticeship under an established falconry sponsor for two years. When and if the sponsor decides the student is ready, they can be recommended for a general license, which allows them to practice falconry with a wider variety of birds. After five successful years as a general falconer, the student can apply for master level.

“An interested person should join the California Hawking Club and attend a meet,” Horger said. “There are also groups on Facebook for the curious. Through those avenues, one can try to go out in the field with a falconer and see if they are serious about getting a license.”

He said there are only about 4,000 licensed falconers in the entire United States, due to the fact that one must pass a test, build adequate facilities for the birds, be inspected and purchase annual licensing.

“It is difficult to go on vacation or take a break, as the birds need daily attention and must be flown regularly from around September through February or March. Open land where game can be found is difficult to come by in parts of California, since there is so much private land,” Horger said. “Falconry is really a way of life more than a hobby.”

Horger and Golub enjoy educating people about the animals. “Connecting humans and wildlife in wild places” is the theme of what they do every day. They also help birds that get into trouble through no fault of their own by rehabilitating eagles.

It all started when Horger was involved in helping a golden eagle recover in 2013. This particular bird was released back into the wild just last year, having been fully and successfully rehabilitated. Horger said that many golden eagles are killed or injured in California each year, especially from colliding with wind turbines, fences and vehicles. Some birds become ill through natural causes, and some ingest lead bullet fragments from prey, becoming very sick. Assembly Bill 711 was signed into law in October 2013, requiring the use of non-lead ammunition when taking any wildlife with a firearm in California. The law requires regulations that phase in the statute’s requirements and it will be fully implemented by July 1, 2019.

Very few falconers are skilled enough to rehabilitate golden eagles through falconry, and it requires special experience and resources. Wild West Raptors has that experience, and the ability to implement it. The young eagles are stabilized with veterinary care, before the falconer temporarily tames the bird, rebuilds its muscles through a rigorous exercise program and gets it hunting natural prey again. The two-year process is time-intensive and expensive, Horger said. The eagles require large barns of a minimum 40 feet long, 10 feet wide and 9 feet high, special radio tracking transmitters and must be flown in very open, wild areas where they learn to capture jackrabbits, their preferred prey.

What should an ordinary person do if they see an “injured” or grounded raptor? Horger has very specific advice.

“First, they should be sure the raptor is actually injured,” he said. “It is common during the spring and summer months for young birds of prey to fledge prematurely, especially after a strong storm. Although they might not be able to fly well, the parents will continue to care for them. As long as the raptor is protected from dogs and cats, a concerned individual may place a shallow pan of water for the bird and give as much space as possible so the parents aren’t frightened and will continue to take care of the bird. Raptors grow incredibly fast and can go from being relatively immobile to flying competently in the matter of days.”

Young owls are also frequently caught in this situation. Many owls are unwilling to fly during the day, so many will freeze or posture toward a human if they are discovered on the ground.

“Again, make sure they are safe from predators and otherwise leave them if they aren’t injured, and the owl will probably fly off during the night,” Horger said.

If it is certain the bird is injured, the person should call their local wildlife rehabilitation center or the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. Many veterinarians can help, as well as any local falconers.

“It is best to follow the instructions of the licensed rehab center or the California Fish and Wildlife representative before attempting to handle the bird or take it in one’s possession, as all birds of prey are highly protected,” Horger stressed.

To learn more about Wild West Raptors, visit www.wildwestraptors.com, email wildwestraptors@gmail.com or call (760) 702-1291.

For much more about San Diego Animal Training, visit www.SanDiegoAnimalTraining.com.

For a list of approved wildlife rehab centers, visit www.wildlife.ca.gov/Conservation/Laboratories/Wildlife-Investigations/Rehab/Facilities.

For more information on California’s laws regarding non-lead ammunition, visit www.wildlife.ca.gov/hunting/nonlead-ammunition.

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