A Conversation with Earl C. Schriver | Local Vocal | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

A Conversation with Earl C. Schriver

On Earl C. Schriver Jr.'s business cards, the legend "Birds of Prey" is bigger than his own name. A falconer and bird-bander, Schriver has kept, trained, bred and rehabilitated feathered critters for nearly six decades.

Your golden eagle, Wambli, is 41. Have you had him the longest?
Well, now, yes. My yellow great-horned owl died a little over a week ago. West Nile.

Oh, yeah, that stuff's hammering everything. There's no birds. The woods are silent. People don't realize it. Songbirds are about gone, most of them. [If] we lose 25 percent of the songbirds, the insects are gonna take over. My own opinion is it's gonna end up worse than DDT ever was.

This one's sick, too?
This is the one I'm worried about now. A 10-year-old female peregrine falcon. Here again, probably West Nile. But I've got her on antibiotics. Here today, she took a bath. She's a little more alert, so we might make it with her.

How did you start out?
The Boy Scouts. In my day, to make Eagle Scout you had to have a bird-study merit badge. I was a farm boy over in Butler County. Joined the Audubon [Society] of Pittsburgh when I was 12, but I was also a very avid reader -- still am. Back then I liked medieval stuff: Ivanhoe, the Black Knight. They always talked about falconry; we had hawks on the farm. I was the original falconer in Western Pennsylvania; I made my share of mistakes.

The only time I've been without birds really was the four years in the Air Force, during the Korean gaggle.

How do you catch a bird on migration?
Pigeons and nets. The hawk comes in, grabs the pigeon, [you] pull a net over it. Have a standard policy: Any pigeon that catches five hawks is retired for life. I haven't retired one yet.

Is that a peep?
Yeah. Early Chicken McNuggets.

I can't believe you have a dead peep in your pocket.
I got two of them. I go through 40-, 45,000 of them a year. Your chicken hatcheries drown leghorn roosters by the millions. Roosters don't lay eggs. We have bagging parties here. I get 8,000 at a time. Bag chicks and drink beer, you can't beat it.

Bag chicks?
Put 100 in a plastic bag, seal the bag, and in a minute they're dead. Put 'em in the freezer. And every time the wife has chicken soup, I check for fuzz. [Wambli] eats 15 a day. He loves housecats. He's killed 13 cats in the yard.

These things are killing machines. When I go to a school, I feed the birds these chicks. I get some interesting reactions out of teachers. And undoubtedly I lose schools. Hey -- one of the joys of life. I don't make my living this way. So if I offend someone, that's just too bad.

What's the biggest misconception about birds of prey?
The comment I usually get: "I didn't realize they were so pretty." A lot of people don't realize they're meat-eaters. They just never made the association. And you tell them they can't digest vegetable matter -- "What?!"

You hunt with the birds?
I use them instead of a gun. They do the killing. And the falcons are strictly bird-eaters. I've got a red-tail [hawk] back there that I'll hunt squirrel and rabbit with it.

What about breeding?
This little bird here, that's the semen donator. He mates on a special hat.

On a what?
I'm the female peregrine. I put a hat on. And he flies down and -- on the hat. The semen runs down into a groove. You pick it up with a syringe and inseminate the female.

What's the hat made of?
A helmet liner. I take pipe insulation -- foam -- and make a circle. Wrap it with electrical tape, glue it on and paint the whole thing with rubber cement. And I put it on, and I go in, cluck at him and he comes over and you can hear the tarsus pounding.

How do you convince them you're the female?
Whoever coined the phrase "bird-brain" knew exactly what they were talking about. You raise them young.