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Special Section Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, August 18, 2011

A man with a mission
Keating loves birds of prey and teaches others about their habits and habitat

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

ALTAMONT — An eagle perches on Larry Keating’s gloved hand and looks him in the eye.

“Like all birds of prey,” Keating tells the score of fair-goers who have gathered outside his tent, “eagles are opportunists; they look for what’s available.”

Prior to 1970, Keating says, there were just 400 mating pairs of eagles left in the lower 48 states, now there are over 11,000 pairs.

“We’ve cleaned up our water and restricted our pesticides,” he says of the reasons for the resurgence of eagles.

Keating has devoted his life to teaching others about the birds he loves.

When Keating was 12, he read Jean Craighead George’s My Side of the Mountain about a boy who lives off the land. “That was my downfall,” said Keating. “He has a peregrine falcon. I said, ‘This is my life.’”

Keating is 50 now and works as a middle-school science teacher in Massachusetts. Summers, he travels to fairs like Altamont’s with the “Raptor Project: Birds of Prey” show owned by his friend Jonathan Wood. Wood lives in the Catskills and is a friend of author Jean Craighead George, now in her 90s, who first inspired Keating.

“I never forgot the dream,” he said.

This is Keating’s first visit to the Altamont Fair. In addition to the eagle, he brought a variety of falcons, hawks, and owls. The birds sat quietly on Tuesday afternoon, chained to their perches, for most of his 45-minute talk as, one by one, he brought them out to show the onlookers — who ranged from pigtailed toddlers to gray-haired elders.

The birds, he said after the talk, come from across the country and around the globe. Some of them come from rehab centers where they’ve been nursed back to health after being shot or hit by cars; others had been kept illegally as pets and are no longer able to survive in the wild.

“They agree to become ambassadors for their species,” he said. “A lot of people love these birds. They just don’t know about them.”

Talons and wings:

Form follows function

The red-tailed hawk is Keating’s favorite bird of prey. Their population, too, is increasing as “they enjoy what humans do to the habitat,” he said. Highways flanked with short grass are like a private hunting preserve for the red-tailed hawk, he says, as the roadside trash attracts rodents.

Cars are the hawk’s number-one killer as it hyper-focuses on its prey and doesn’t see a car coming.

He holds a bird named Rocky, although Keating explains afterwards the names are for the benefit of kids, who come year after year, looking for a particular bird; the birds themselves don’t respond to their names.

Keating fans out Rocky’s large, wide wing and explains it is meant for soaring on thermals while the red-tailed hawk scours the ground for prey.

He also points out Rocky’s thick, powerful talons that show he hunts mammals. “He drives through the skin to the vital organs,” says Keating, “and can take animals as large as rabbits, skunks, and even the occasional baby fox.”

Oscar, a Harris hawk, is up next. Harris hawks are frequently featured in television shows and movies, recently “King Arthur,” says Keating, noting this is inappropriate since they’ve never lived in England.

They are the smartest of the hawks, and hunt and live in family groups.

Keating fans out Oscar’s tail, to show how it can be used as a sun umbrella to protect its chicks.

“The fastest creature on earth,” a peregrine falcon is displayed next. “They travel well over 200 miles per hour in a full dive,” says Keating. The peregrine’s long, pointed wings are designed for speed.

Keating also displays the long, delicate feet of the peregrine — so different than the short, strong talons of the mammal hunters — which mark it as a bird hunter. “A rabbit could kick this bird dead,” said Keating.

Next, he focuses on the bird’s nasal posts. Aeronautical engineers studied these, he says, to see how to prevent their early jets from crashing. “They pierce the boundary layer and allow the air to stream through its nostrils,” he says.

After peregrines were pushed to the brink of extinction by DDT, says Keating, they were re-introduced into large cities. “Skyscrapers look like a cliff, and there’s an abundant food supply — pigeons.”

Finally, Keating urges the crowd, “Look at the face; they all have a mustache mark through their eye. They take their prey in mid-air and the black stripe allows them to see their prey in the glare of the sun.”

Native Americans copied this practice from the hawk centuries ago, and football players use it today. “Tom Brady puts peregrine stripes on every Sunday,” says Keating of the New England Patriots’ quarterback. “It cuts down on the glare so he can see the ball.”

The kestrel is the smallest falcon, says Keating, as a kestrel named Rusty perches on his leather glove. They eat mice as well as, this time of year, crickets and grasshoppers.

Kestrels are often confused with mourning doves as they sit on rural light posts, he says, but kestrels are more upright and they bob their tails. Kestrels are one of the few birds of prey — there are five — where the males and females have different coloring.

“With birds of prey, girls rule,” says Keating. “They are bigger to cover the eggs.”

Birds of prey grow very quickly and are full size in five weeks. Each summer, by the end of August, the young are getting ready to leave the nest, so the parents cut back on feeding them.

“If you hear screaming then,” quipped Keating, “it’s a juvenile, saying, ‘Give me the car keys and the credit card.’”

Final lessons

Keating finishes his presentation by introducing the crowd to a series of owls — the familiar great-horned owl; the world’s largest owl, the eagle owl; and the once-common barn owl, disappearing from our midst as farms with their barns disappear from our landscape.

The owls all have large eyes and sensitive ears for night hunting. The barn owl has a distinctive disc of feathers on its face that amplify sound so it can successfully hunt rodents — several thousand a year. All the owls have thick layers of feathers — “nature’s stealth technology” says Keating — that muffle sound. The silent flight comes with a cost, though — speed.

The Professor, a great-horned owl, perches comfortably on Keating’s gloved hand, turning its neck clear around to gaze with steadfast eyes at the crowd that gazes back but blinks.

The most common owl in this area, the great-horned owl is recognized by its deep, booming hoots. It hunts in the twilight between night and day.

“How tough are great-horned owls?” asks Keating. “They eat skunks,” he answers himself as some in the crowd moan, “Ooooh.”

“He’s a proficient cat hunter as well,” continues Keating. This assertion is met with a few gasps.

“How many of you own cats?” asks Keating. About a dozen hands go up.

“How many of you let your cats outside?” he asks next. About a half-dozen hands go up, tentatively.

“Do everything humanly possible to make your cat an indoor cat,” Keating advises. “Cats kill millions of songbirds every year. They’re not part of the natural cycle.”

He also says, “Cats are the only animals besides humans that kill for pleasure.”

If a cat bites a bird, bacteria in its saliva will kill the bird, says Keating. “It’s 100-percent fatal to birds unless they are treated with antibiotics.”

Besides owls, Keating says, outdoor cats can encounter fox, coyotes, fishers, skunks, and porcupines, all of which can carry disease.

“If you love your animal,” Keating asks, “why let him loose in a hostile environment?”

Keating also advises the crowd, in case someone is tempted to make a raptor a pet, “Birds of prey make lousy pets. They are solitary animals and potentially very dangerous.”

He concludes, “It’s against the law to keep a bird of prey without a license, even the feathers…. For many years, we shot these birds for fun….We finally recognized they have an integral role to play in the balance of nature.”

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