E-Mailed photo - requested by Dave Heasting - This is Jeff Finch, a falconer by avocation and an educator by occupation. he lives in Cranberry Township.
Jeff Finch is only one of about 170 registered falconers in the state, which is why the Harmony resident found himself atop an 80-foot tree last week trying to trap two baby red-tailed hawks as their anxious parents looked on. Finch, 44, who also serves as the assistant superintendent of the Hampton School District in Allegheny County, has been deeply involved in the sport of falconry for almost 20 years. He is considered a master falconer, one of only several thousand in the entire country. It’s a title that was earned after years of training as an apprentice as well as rigorous exams and licensure from the state Game Commission. Finch has spent many years trapping, hunting and then releasing young birds like eagles and red-tail hawks, which is why Game Commission officials last week called him into action. A pair of red-tailed hawks had nested in an 80-feet tree in a residential neighborhood in Forest Hills in Allegheny County, and the pair had taken to dive-bombing residents there in an effort to protect the nest. The swooping took on a serious tone, however, when one of the hawks knocked a woman unconscious on the street. That’s when the game officials called in Finch. “They know I have experience handling birds of prey, and it puts the birds more at risk of getting injured if someone is up there who can’t handle them,” Finch said. The game plan was simple, Finch said. He merely had to scale the huge tree, grab each chick and lower them in a basket to officials waiting on the ground. The not-so-simple part was trying to accomplish the feat without getting attacked by the aggressive birds. “My experience told me as I was climbing the tree that I didn’t think (the parents) would bother me a bit,” Finch said. “Sure enough they didn’t.” Perhaps the most inconvenient aspect of the ordeal was the fact that Finch climbed a sappy pine tree, a tree that left its residue all over him. “It felt like I was tarred and feathered,” he said. For Finch, it was just another day of enjoying a hobby that not many people pursue, but a hobby that’s been around for thousands of years. Finch described falconry as a sport where one traps a bird of prey in its younger years and then teaches that bird to hunt. Or simply put, he said, falconry is the sport of hunting with falcons. His significant experience in handling these birds is why he does volunteer work with the Game Commission. “A lot of people are completely unaware that it exists,” he said of falconry. “It has a 4,000-year history and is the oldest recorded sport of hunting. In ancient times it was thought of as a king’s sport because people do it for recreation, not for subsistence hunting.” Finch said there are records of mummies being unearthed with their mummified falcons intact. William Shakespeare was a falconer, as is Robert Kennedy Jr., Finch said. While becoming a master falconer isn’t the most popular hobby around, that doesn’t mean it’s any less strenuous to become one. Finch said he first had to apprentice for two years under a master falconer, during which time he had to build a facility on his property to house birds of prey. He then had to pass a federal exam to earn the title, while officials with the Game Commission also had to come inspect his facility to make sure it was up to code. It was a long and lengthy process to earn the title, and Finch plans on staying certified to keep it. In the meantime, Finch is busy moving his belongings from the principal’s office to the assistant superintendent’s office in the Hampton School District, a promotion he recently received. He’ll also keep an eye out on what’s happening to the two chicks he picked from the nest, although he won’t have an active role in rehabilitating them and getting them ready for life in the wild. Finch said the chicks will likely be ready for release sometime in August and September, and that he looks forward to the time when they can leave captivity. As for the parents, he’s sure they are long gone from the neighborhood and likely won’t ever come back. But he’ll be there the next time the Game Commission comes calling for a helping hand. He just doesn’t expect it to be anytime soon. “People hear these red-tails hit somebody and it’s being covered by the media, so people think it’s this big risk,” Finch said. “The truth is red-tails often don’t bother anybody. This case had to be seen as an anomaly.”