Editor's Note: Mount Joy borough officials have since taken the first steps toward implementing multiple rules to prohibit falconry at Little Chiques Park.
The sun had barely risen on March 21, but Laura Bickings was already out the door, awake with excitement while making the hour-long trip from her Chester County home to Mount Joy.
There, a great horned owl had nested in a sycamore tree with two of its babies, and Bickings, an amateur wildlife photographer, was eager to snap a few shots of the family.
“All my life, I have loved nature,” she said, “but owls have always been something I’ve adored.”
But when Bickings and her husband, Herb, arrived at the popular spot in Little Chiques Park, those feelings of admiration quickly turned to horror as they looked up to see what appeared to be climbing equipment hanging from the tree.
A group of men was there, and Bickings said one of them scaled the sycamore to get to the nest. Then, he removed one of the babies.
“We were dumbfounded because we didn’t know what to do,” Bickings said, recalling her initial fear that the man had illegally stolen the young bird. “It was very emotional.”
In reality, the man was legally permitted to remove the owlet and train it for use in a rare, ancient form of hunting called falconry — a fact Bickings said the men told her while still at the park that morning.
She guesses the explanation was meant to quell concerns, but when she later wrote about the experience online, it only inspired a torrent of outrage and misinformation.
And it spread quickly by word of mouth and on social media, angering locals and members of the wildlife photography community who said they view the removal as an affront to a natural wonder that attracts visitors from hours away.
Legal but not right
“It may be legal, but I say that doesn’t make it right,” said Allen Schiavoni, a retiree, who regularly visits the site from his home in Berks County. “It is a wonderful thing to see.”
On Thursday, Michael Kuriga, the leader of a statewide falconry group mostly agreed, worried that the highly visible taking of a bird from such a popular nest without advance notice could tarnish the reputation of the sport, which already is little understood.
And Kuriga, president of the Pennsylvania Falconry and Hawk Trust, was quick with criticism for the falconer who removed the Mount Joy bird.
“He’s persona non grata,” Kuriga said, explaining that he’s heard from falconers as far away as New Mexico who are discussing the incident. “We don’t want to have anything to do with him.”
Now, Mount Joy leaders are considering what steps they can take to prohibit the taking of young birds from the park in the future, according to Joshua Deering, vice president of the local borough council.
“I would like to try to do something,” he said, adding that he’s been “bombarded” with questions and complaints in the days and weeks since the owlet was removed. “It was just very frustrating.”
Speculation continued at the park as recently as last week, as a group of visitors trained their camera lenses on a hollow knot in the sycamore, where the adult owl was still nesting with its single, remaining baby.
State Game Warden Dustin M. Stoner later helped to dispel rumors, explaining what he knew. Specifically, he revealed that the owlet was taken by a licensed hunter who is permitted by the Pennsylvania Game Commission to practice falconry.
Falconry is the centuries-old technique of using trained birds of prey to hunt other animals, and it’s still practiced by a small number of sportsmen in Pennsylvania. That’s only after they submit to a rigorous permitting process, which, among other regulations, requires them to first learn as apprentices under experienced falconers.
Out of the state’s more than 800,000 licensed hunters, only 207 possess falconry permits, Stoner said last week.
State law allows those few, specialized hunters to capture and train a limited number of wild raptors — hawks, falcons or owls — each year for use in the sport. That includes eyases, young birds that can be taken from nests.
That’s what happened March 21 at Little Chiques Park, where an experienced, permitted falconer removed the young great horned owl, Stoner said.
No violations found
Falconers are required to report to the commission any time they take a bird, and the Little Chiques owl was reported the following day, he said.
The removal was then investigated by a local game warden, who found that all related laws and regulations were followed, according to Stoner.
“There were no violations,” he said.
But the way Mount Joy resident Sandy Christian sees it, the falconer must have had a serious lapse in judgment.
She lives close to the park, and Christian said she’s often gone out of the way to speak with visiting photographers and bird watchers — learning that they had driven in from out of state, sometimes from Canada.
And that’s not just recently — the owls have been nesting in the area for generations, she said.
“It’s always been a haven for birdwatchers down here,” Christian said.
Backing her claim, Christian showed off a local birding guide published in 1991, highlighting a reference to the park.
“For the past few years, a pair of great horned owls has nested in the large cavity in the big sycamore to the left of the parking lot,” it reads.
Impact on future nesting
Christian acknowledged she knows little about bird behavior but said she fears the falconers’ removal of the owlet could discourage the birds from nesting in the area in the future. Others gathered at the park said they worried about the same thing.
It’s a possibility, according to Aaron Haines, an associate professor of conservation biology at Millersville University who is knowledgeable about the birds.
“Would the experience deter the owls from nesting at the same spot again next year? Only time will tell,” he said, later elaborating. “If this type of activity occurred year after year, I would not see a nesting pair staying in that area.”
However, Haines also pointed out that owls could become similarly discouraged by other human activities, including photography.
“If there is consistent mobbing of a nest, this could be stressful to the owls and cause them to leave,” Haines said. “That said, great horned owls are becoming more used to people and are being found in more urban areas that have ample food supply to raise young.”
Possible borough action
It’s unclear whether owls have been taken from the park by falconers in the past, locals said. Even this year’s taking could have gone unnoticed if Bickings hadn’t been there to witness it, Christian said.
Either way, their intention now is to ensure that it doesn't happen again. Some even initially reported what they thought was an illegal theft of wildlife to police.
And in the weeks since, they’ve petitioned borough decision-makers, including Councilman Deering, who chairs the local public works committee.
Deering said he expects it will be a point of discussion when the committee meets at 6:30 p.m. Monday.
Speaking personally, he said he hopes borough officials can find a way to prohibit falconry at the park. He also talked about possibly installing surveillance equipment in the parking area, so that any future activity near the nest can be recorded.
Local restrictions allowed
According to Stoner with the Game Commission, falconry can be restricted by local code or ordinance.
Deering made sure to note that he isn’t against falconry as a whole. He just wonders whether it might have been smarter for the falconer to target a more out-of-the-way nest — one that doesn’t serve as a popular destination for bird-loving tourists, who often spend money at local businesses while visiting.
“Though we might not agree with it, it is a legal activity,” Deering said.
Whatever the decision, Kuriga, with the Pennsylvania Falconry and Hawk Trust, said he hopes those who enjoy the Mount Joy nest won’t let this incident sully their opinions of falconry.
Kuriga said the vast majority of falconers are lovers of wildlife who have even been instrumental in endangered species’ recoveries.
Haines, the conservation biologist, said much the same.
“Regarding falconry, many falconers are conservationists and invest time and effort to help the conservation of birds of prey,” he said, adding that he’d worked with them in the past.
Still, he too gave a critical opinion of the situation at Little Chiques Park.
“Falconers taking an owlet from a nest that is popular among the general public without first communicating with the people in the area was a poor choice,” he said.