As dawn breaks over the stark mountains and scrubland of California’s Eastern Sierras, falconer Shawn Hayes can be found striding across remote fields with a powerful bird of prey on his gloved wrist, hooded and waiting to fly. 

A world-renowned falconer and fly-fisherman—and the subject of a new documentary entitled ‘Game Hawker’—Hayes sees himself as both a falconer and a conservationist. “The moment you begin caring for a falcon and helping it hunt, you become a conservation advocate,” he says. Indeed, the chances of young birds of prey in the wild are grim: By some estimates, 85% of birds of prey don’t live to be a year old. Hayes believes that falconers can improve those odds. “If a falconer trains a bird and then releases it, they’re more likely to survive, because they’ve been taught how to do so,” he says.

Hayes’ modern-day falconry journey began when he was eight or nine years old, and neighborhood kids brought him an injured juvenile red-tail hawk. “I don’t know if it was the bird or me, but even if I tried, I couldn’t recreate that experience today,” he says. “I think the bird must have imprinted on me because I never caged or tethered it. I just had an old welders glove, and I would take it out, walking miles to help it find prey.” Hayes and a friend kept the bird fed and then taught it how to hunt until it could fend for itself and return to the wild.

Beyond his early connection with the hawk, Hayes’ youth in Riverside, California, was marked by both typical childhood activities like Little League baseball, and hardships. His single mother worked three jobs to provide for the family, and he lost a brother to gun violence. But his interest in falconry, ignited by his early connection with the injured raptor, was formative. At a falconry meeting when Hayes was still a teen, he happened to meet Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia, who was impressed with Hayes’ skills. 

After graduating from high school, Hayes moved to the Eastern Sierras in 1983, and pursued a falconer’s license shortly after—United States laws require aspiring falconers to complete a stringent process before keeping a bird of prey. Hayes now visits several countries a year, speaking at conferences and flying falcons with local groups. “Japan, Russia, South Africa, The Middle East, France, Qatar, Abu Dhabi, England,” he says. “It’s part of the culture in so many places.”

No one truly knows when falconry first began, though it’s been traced back over millennia in cultures around the globe: pottery shards depicting the sport dating to 3,000 B.C. have been found in Syria, falconry gloves have been recovered from ancient graves in Asia, and there’s evidence that early cultures in African countries kept birds of prey to help feed their community. “I think about it every day,” says Hayes. “I’m able to do something that’s been practiced for thousands of years.”

Shawn Hayes with his peregrine falcon in Bishop, California Ken Etzel

Despite his global reputation, Hayes has encountered pockets of racism in the falconry community of his home country. He no longer attends meets in the United States. At one, an attendee stole one of his falcons. At another, someone hurled racial epithets. “I feel like I’m more wanted in other countries than I am in my own,” he says in the documentary, which was released in February.

Filmmaker Brett Marty, who co-produced “Game Hawker,” says that they wanted to highlight not only Hayes’ journey and struggles, but also the role of falconers in saving raptors. “When we started making the film, we didn’t know the depth of falconers’ involvement in conservation efforts,” he says. But the falconry community has long had a connection to conservation. In the 1960s, a sudden catastrophic decline in peregrine falcon populations might have gone unnoticed but for falconers and rock-climbers. “It was really falconers who noticed the problem first,” says author, wildlife photographer, and falconer Tim Gallagher. “Suddenly, the birds weren’t producing young. “

A few dedicated rock climbers—like Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard, then a young climber and falconer, long before starting his iconic outdoor company—risked invading peregrine nests to collect eggshells for analysis. “A lot of people don’t know that Yvon was one of the first falconers to climb into a peregrine nest and come down with thin-shelled eggs,” says Hayes. Laboratory testing of the shells revealed a previously unknown problem—the chemical DDT was interfering with the raptor’s calcium production, causing their eggshells to become so thin that they broke before hatching.

Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard marvels at Shawn’s peregrine falcon in Bishop, California Ken Etzel

By 1975, there were an estimated 39 breeding pairs of falcons left in the United States, and only two known pairs in California—one nesting on Morro Rock by the Pacific Ocean, and one on El Capitan in Yosemite. A group of dedicated falconers and wildlife biologists, led by falconer Tom Cade (who passed away in 2019), formed The Peregrine Fund. Falconers across the country donated both money and their own much-loved peregrine falcons to laboratory-based captive breeding programs to help revitalize the species.

Lee Aulman, a rock climber and raptor biologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, was one of the “nest attendants” that guarded the two remaining pairs of California peregrines. “We slept on top of Morro Rock,” he recalls. “We had to make sure people didn’t try to climb up there and disturb the birds, or even try to steal them.”

In the meantime, an urgent effort to save the species was underway. Rock climbers would make their way up steep cliffs to the nests and take the thin-shelled eggs, replacing them with dummy eggs. Any still viable eggs were hatched in the lab, and the hatchlings were fed with puppets mimicking adult peregrines, so the baby birds didn’t become accustomed to humans. When they were old enough to survive outside, climbers ascended to the nests again, carefully carrying a box with the baby birds—a climb fraught with peril. “When the adult peregrines saw us get close to their nests, they would start dive-bombing,” remembers Aulman. “They almost tore the shirt off one of the guys and bloodied him up.” Falling rocks from the unstable cliffs were also a hazard. Aulman recalls during one particularly risky ascent, a stone falling hard enough to tear a hole in his helmet. “If I hadn’t had that helmet on, I wouldn’t be here today,” he remembers.

Advocacy work by the falconry community also played a significant role in the ban of DDT, leading to a resurgence of wild breeding pairs. “They’ve made an incredible comeback everywhere,” Gallagher says. “New York City now has one of the densest peregrine populations in the world. Every bridge between New York and Albany has peregrines nesting beneath it.” Today, there are over 2,400 breeding pairs of peregrines throughout the United States.

A young peregrine falcon on a training flight in the Eastern Sierra of Bishop, California Ken Etzel

The stunning success of the bird’s recovery has had rippling effects for the conservation movement. “The peregrine falcon’s comeback is iconic beyond just the bird itself,” says John Goodell, director of the non-profit The Archives of Falconry. “It marked the beginning of the conservation biology field. It was arguably the first effort at this scale to recognize a species that was in peril, implement a plan, and see a full recovery.”

Today, the Peregrine Fund has built on that success, venturing far beyond their namesake falcon with programs that safeguard birds of prey around the world. President Chris Parish says, “We’re like a global aid organization for raptors.” Their work has helped raptors ranging from golden eagles to vultures in places like India, Madagascar, Puerto Rico, and the Arctic. The organization also cares for the world’s largest breeding population of California condors and played a critical role in bringing them back from the brink: In 1982, there were only 22 condors left. Today, there are over 500. “The conservation techniques that falconers helped develop have been really key to our programs,” says Parish.

The connection between falconry and conservation programs is mirrored in other groups around the globe. “Falconers are continuing to save raptors all over the world,” says Hayes. “It’s not just the peregrine—it’s kestrels, eagles, condors. If falconry is done right, it can benefit everyone.”

As more and more species begin to decline due to habitat destruction and climate change, a key lesson can be taken from the falconers that helped save the peregrine. “What’s amazing about the story of the peregrine is that it’s an example of a relatively small group of people making a big difference,” says filmmaker Josh Izenberg, who co-produced the Game Hawker documentary. “They saw this bird about to go extinct. So they banded together, used their knowledge from falconry, and changed the trajectory of the species. With all the animals at risk now, this is the time for more of that out-of-the-box thinking on how we can help species in danger.”

This film is about more than what humans can train birds to do—it’s about what those birds can teach us about living in partnership with wild creatures and wild places.