Rare Bird | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Rare Bird

Birds-of-prey expert Earl Schriver has spent 40 years ruffling feathers with his maverick, tell-it-like-it-is approach to stamping out the Bambi complex

Earl C. Schriver is standing casually at one end of his perchful of birds. He's waiting for the kids.

Schriver has tethered a peregine falcon, a gyrfalcon, a red-tailed hawk and a golden eagle to the sturdy, 15-foot-long wooden perch, and he's almost shoulder-to-shoulder with the big eagle. At 73, he's even got something of the bird about him, with his longish, prominent nose, watchful eyes under tufted eyebrows, and cheekbone-high salt-and-pepper beard.

About 70 kids, Penn Hills seventh-graders, enter from the rear of the Linton Middle School auditorium, chattering. It's 9 a.m. Some of their eyes widen, and they point. Not at the wry-looking, bespectacled old man in a shapeless orange knit cap that's like a touch of colorful plumage, but at the dangerous-looking creatures lined up at his side.

"He's scaring me...that big one," says a boy in the second row of seats in front of Schriver (the first row is kept empty). The boy gestures toward the eagle.

"Do they live in your house?" a girl asks Schriver. Schriver -- part Marlon Perkins, part Bob Hope -- deadpans, "I'm married."

The eagle, named Wombli, spreads his 6-foot span of wings, and the kids gasp. The birds, Wombli especially, make remarkably small noises, just yips. Annie, the peregrine, squirts a line of white waste. It plops onto the plastic tarp. Ewwww, say the kids.

"You ought to see the inside of my van," says Schriver. Ewwwww.

Schriver starts the talk. He's been giving some version of it for decades: How a Butler County farm boy grew up loving the outdoors and mastered the ancient and demanding sport of falconry. He tells the kids the birds are killers -- and jokes about them snuffing unwary cats. Yes, they're majestic, he acknowledges. They're also not too bright: Tiny-brained killing machines. Then he makes his key point.

"Take your books such as Bambi. Read them, enjoy them, and get rid of them," Schriver says. "Because the birds and the animals don't talk to one another in the woods. They eat one another. There's no difference at all between a robin in your yard in the summertime, pulling out a worm and eating it, and one of these birds killing a rabbit and eating it, and you sitting down to a chicken dinner. The only difference is normally you let someone else do the killing for you."

He adds, "The next time you bite into a Quarter Pounder with Cheese, you just bit into a cow." Ewwwww.

Schriver introduces the birds. One of his peregrines, Tweetie, was filmed for a 1993 made-in-Pittsburgh TV movie called Blind Spot. Schriver relishes recalling one shot up on Mount Washington. He let Tweetie fly and threw out a pigeon. Cameras rolling, Tweetie dove. "She whacked that pigeon down in a cloud of feathers right in front of the camera crew. They were from Los Angeles. ‘Oh my God, she killed it!' I'm still trying to figure out what they expected her to do with it!"

The kids, newly wise to the ways of nature, laugh.

Half an hour into Schriver's talk, he says, "People always ask, ‘What do you feed them?' I feed them all the same thing," he says, reaching into his pants pocket. "Early Chicken McNuggets," he announces, extracting a fuzzy yellow chick, quite dead, its little head lolling on a neck limp as a wet sock.

"Awww, that's not Chicken McNuggets," a boy corrects him. "That's a chick!"

"You killed a chick!" one girl accuses. A few others shrink in their seats. "Oh...my god."

Schriver drapes the chick on the perch next to Wombli, who picks at it with his beak, trying to secure it with his foot. Ewwwww! A ruckus of yells and squeals erupts as the students watch one animal rip another apart. A chubby boy up front leans over the seatback between he and Wombli, pumping a fist like it's a pro-wrestling smackdown: "Eat it! Eat that thing!" Wombli takes hold with his talon and tears off a leg. Purplish blood wells. "Yesss!" says the boy. Some girls gasp. A few cover their faces. Wombli gulps the chick down, fuzzy little skull and all. "Oooh, that's nasty!" says another boy.

It's the sort of thing that makes Schriver controversial among both other birdmen and the people he exhibits to.

The uproar subsides. Schriver finishes his talk. The kids ask questions until the bell rings. Schriver enjoys these shows, bringing his birds to the public, fighting the Bambi complex as, generation by generation, kids get further removed from nature, from the truth of how they themselves are fed.

The mission of Western Pennsylvania's longest-practicing birdman is far from accomplished. As the first class streams out, a new group trickles in. One seventh-grade girl says to her friend, "Is that real?" No, she decides, looking 50 yards away at the perchful of motionless birds. "Those are fake."

Fledgling falconer
"So long, dear. I'm off like a herd of turtles." Schriver says bye to Eleanor and heads out to his 1998 white Dodge Maxivan, license plate "4DBIRDZ." They've been married 46 years, and living in the same house on three wooded acres in Baden, Beaver County, for nearly 40. Their street -- a bumpy gravel road when they moved here -- is just beyond the reach of the sprawl of Cranberry Township. In the front yard are seven tall metal perches where Schriver leaves his birds during the day -- and where Wombli, though secured by an 8-foot tether, has swooped down to kill a dozen or so neighborhood cats. In the side and rear yard are the mews: whitewashed sheds where Schriver houses and feeds his 17 birds of prey.

Schriver's on the road constantly. He does presentations and displays not only at schools but also Boy Scout functions, sportsmen's shows, AARP chapters and nature centers -- some 200 annually, sometimes two a day. Tonight he's headed for the McKeever Environmental Learning Center, near Slippery Rock, where he's done a couple dozen talks a year for 30 years.

Driving toward I-79, Schriver's a little preoccupied. Wombli hasn't been eating. Schriver is worried the 42-year-old golden eagle might be sick like last year, when Schriver hand-fed the eight-pound bird electrolyte fluid until its intestines unblocked. "I didn't think he was gonna make it. He was hunched over, always drooping down." He's owned Wombli (Sioux for "eagle") since buying it off a Washington County man who kept the bird in a cage the first 13 years of its life. Two years ago, Wombli, whom Schriver claims is the oldest golden eagle in captivity, was blind. Schriver got him the first cataract surgery ever on an eagle. He always gets a laugh telling how the bird flies beautifully but never learned how to land -- and how it consider him its mate. "We have a very interesting spring," says Schriver.

On the road and talking birds, Schriver's in his element. He gives presentations mostly in the tri-state area. He's also long been a bird-bander for the federal government, covering Pennsylvania and New York, tagging goshawks and ravens so their numbers can be tracked. (He used to climb the trees himself, a task he lately leaves to younger banders.) His van, perches lining its interior and shallow wooden sandboxes on the floor, has nearly 200,000 miles on it.

Even behind the wheel, he's observing: Along this stretch of interstate, for instance, he's counted eight red-tailed hawk nests. That's a big decline from the old days, before West Nile Virus started taking its toll on birds including his great horned owl, Marigold, a bird he'd kept and shown for 33 years. "Everybody's concerned about its effect on people," says Schriver, who's successfully inoculated many of his own birds from West Nile with a horse vaccine. "Nobody's digging into its effect on wildlife."

Schriver grew up just a few miles east of here, near Cooperstown. His father, a coal-miner, also owned a farm abutting some 2,500 acres of forest. Schriver took to the woods. He fished in the creek, caught crayfish and cooked them in tin cans over open fires. An undersized kid, he was a bit of a loner. "I was a senior in high school before I broke 100 pounds...I can't tell you how many times I lost my pants," he says. "Of course I was out chasing birds. If you didn't play football, you were just nothing." The night of his senior prom, he was busy photographing barn owls.

He joined the Boy Scouts and gravitated toward older mentors, including his scoutmaster, Hal Harrison, and Dr. Frank W. Preston, the English-born glass expert who helped found Moraine State Park. Preston also established near his Butler home a 100-acre preserve where he'd spend weekends studying birds. In the 1940s, a fellow enthusiast was the teen-age Schriver, who took Saturday bus-and-trolley trips to the preserve, spent all day scouting birds, and traded Preston a written report for his fare home. Through Preston, Schriver met local experts including Clyde Todd, the Carnegie Museum's longtime curator of ornithology. Preston also gave Schriver his first pair of real tree-climbing irons.

Though he cut the head off his first chickens at age 6, Schriver considers himself something of a romantic. He traces this to the literature of chivalry he devoured as a youth: Ivanhoe, The Black Knight. Often, falconry figured in the tales. Schriver gave it a shot. At 13 he and Doc Preston took five kestrel hatchlings from a nest on Harrison's farm. Schriver kept three females. "I just put them in a cage out in the back yard," he says. "I didn't know what I was doing." When the birds looked like they wanted to get out, he opened the cage. For six weeks they came back to be fed, then he never saw them again.

At 14, Schriver and some other camp counselors tried to tame a Cooper's hawk like he'd read in The Swiss Family Robinson: by bagging its head and blowing tobacco smoke in its face. "Don't believe everything you read," Schriver says today. The boys got sick. The hawk died.

It would be a couple decades before Schriver would meet a real falconer. But eventually, years before the government regulated the sport, he used trial and error to learn the basics of falconry: the hunting of live game in its natural state with trained raptors. Except for his three years as an Air Force electronics technician during the Korean War, he hasn't been without birds since. That includes his years at Penn State, when he hunted with a Cooper's hawk and a kestrel he'd caught, and nearly three decades as a production foreman for J&L Steel (and later LTV), at its Aliquippa and Youngstown plants, until his retirement in 1985. He's been showing birds for nearly as long, ever since Scout packs first asked him in the early '60s.

It's a benign route into something that's gotten Schriver into so much trouble. "Falconry -- the majority -- is some of the elitest group of people I've run into," he says. "Of course I'm an outlaw because I show people my birds. I take pride in that."

Schriver arrives by dark at McKeever, an cozy subdivision of rustic modern buildings. He's wearing a blue "Bald Eagle" sweatshirt, depicting an adult delivering a fish to its fluffy white chick.

Tonight's talk, to Keystone Oaks middle-schoolers on a four-day enviro-camp, takes about 90 minutes, including questions and photos. Feeding time gets the predictable noisy response. Some in the audience, including at least one female teacher, cover their eyes as the chick vanishes down Wombli's gullet. "That happens thousands of times a day in the woods," lectures Schriver. "You not watching it doesn't mean it doesn't happen."

"Fifth-graders are at the level of emotional development third-graders were 25 years ago," says Schriver on the drive back. "Could be they're getting further and further away from reality. You don't run into many farm kids any more."

Back home, Schriver leaves the birds in the van for the night. He opens the side door and drapes two limp chicks over the perch for Wombli. The eagle usually eats 15 a day but today has downed only three. Wombli cheeps. "You tell 'em, Wombli."

Pecking orders
Falconry, it's believed, has been around for thousands of years. The oldest surviving text -- also the earliest scientific book on birds -- was written by the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, in the 13th century.

But Schriver's hobby isn't at all common, and even less so the way he goes about it. Falconry was practiced worldwide; it all but vanished with the advent of shotguns. Nurtured by European enthusiasts, it experienced a revival after World War II. But the North American Falconers Association, founded in 1961, today claims only about 2,400 U.S. members (out of some 4,000 registered with the federal government). About 180 falconers are active in Pennsylvania.

Modern falconers have typically kept to themselves, and with some good reason. As recently as in Schriver's youth, he says, "The only good hawk was a dead hawk." Hawks and eagles were considered vermin that preyed on livestock and competed with hunters for small game; even some bird sanctuaries banned raptors. The 1940 Bald Eagle Protection Act was the result of a 20-year lobbying effort by bird enthusiasts fighting bounty laws and the national bird's then-bad rep. In the '60s, with raptors declining because of pesticides including DDT, falconers competed among themselves for birds that were first scarce, then highly regulated. Some falconers (Schriver included) still resent Operation Falcon, a massive 1980s federal undercover sting that targeted alleged bird-smuggling and produced dozens of arrests but hardly any convictions. And some just don't want to risk trouble by letting their neighbors (or any stray animal-rights types) know they keep, and hunt with, flying taloned guns.

Schriver, by contrast, has never been shy about his avocation. Ambridge native Jeff Finch remembers Schriver and his birds visiting Highland Elementary in the '70s. Finch's dad and uncles worked with Schriver in the mill, where he was "the guy that would bring the hawks down to chase pigeons around." (Schriver's avian extroversion, however, wasn't total: His wife, Eleanor, says they were married several years before she knew he owned more than one raptor.)

In 1984, a NAFA leader wrote an article in the group's magazine "and just tore me to shreds, because I was showing my birds in public and saying that the birds kill," says Schriver. "They don't want to tell people they kill, because that's not politically correct." NAFA wouldn't let him write a rebuttal, he says, so he quit the organization. He left the Pennsylvania Falconry & Hawk Trust (a group he'd helped found) for similar reasons. When Schriver speaks of raptors, he might be talking about falconers: "These birds are all of them very intolerant of other species in their territory."

Schriver is widely known in regional falconry circles, but not everyone praises his approach. "Falconry to me is about hunting," says Scott Shirey, PFHT's 34-year-old vice-president. "Falconry is not educational displays, falconry is not showboating."

Shirey, who lives near Harrisburg, has never met Schriver. When asked about him, he responds that falconers should stick to hunting -- Shirey spent the winter bagging squirrels and rabbits with his red-tailed hawk -- and that the PFHT should keep focused on laws directly affecting the sport, and on issues such as habitat preservation and raptor reintroduction. (Falconers played a key role in the captive breeding of peregrines, popular falconry birds that by the early 1970s were near extinction in the U.S. and U.K., but by 1999 had recovered enough to be removed from the U.S. endangered-species list.)

"If you're gonna represent yourself as a falconer, you do that in the field," says Shirey, who runs a small business seling post-operative splints. "The rewards of the sport are intrinsic, and don't require someone patting me on the back saying I did a great presentation."

Bird-of-prey presentations, Shirey adds, run another risk: They make the sport look easy enough to try. Newcomers unaware that it takes vast knowledge, skill and -- perhaps especially -- patience to keep, train and hunt with raptors could hurt the sport. Not to mention the birds. "Unless people are very dedicated to the sport, falconers by and large aren't interested in them becoming part of the sport," he says. "The wrong message coming from the wrong person can be a very bad thing."

Other falconers say Schriver's message is right on. Bob Gleeson grew up in O'Hara Township, and as a teen-ager stumbled across Schriver giving a presentation at the Downtown YWCA, where he'd gone to swim. Gleeson had an interest in birds and ended up not only a falconer but a family friend. "He actually bought me a pair of climbing irons that I use today," says Gleeson, 55, an oil-and-gas industry geologist living near Meadville. He still hunts with goshawks. He's also the designated climber on Schriver's annual spring bird-banding expeditions.

"I think Earl's a tremendous asset to the falconry community, and he gets people interested in...what we do," says Bob Voegele, a geologist and falconer who also bands birds with Schriver. "I'd like to see a lot of people out there giving presentations the way Earl does." But state exhibition permits are considered difficult to get, and the PFHT actually lobbied against looser requirements because it was "very concerned about how the programs are presented," says PFHT President Michael Kuriga.

"I don't want to come off negative about Earl," says Kuriga. "There's a little tension between him and organized falconers in the state." Kuriga adds, "He's a very flamboyant person."

Drop down a generation in Schriver's orbit and you'll find Jeff Finch, the Ambridge kid who was awed by Schriver's birds back in grade school. Some 20 years later he took up the sport himself. He now keeps an American kestrel (to hunt sparrows and starlings) and a northern goshawk (rabbit and pheasant). "I don't know without Earl if I would have found my way into this," says Finch, who's 33 and principal of Hampton High School. Finch agrees some falconers don't appreciate what Schriver does. But he says that's because "they really value the sport and don't want to mess it up."

Of falconers, Kuriga adds, "They're all intense and they're all obsessive-compulsive when it comes to the birds."

Gunning for Bambi
Schriver's feed chicks are all discarded males he buys by the thousands from a hatchery near Harrisburg. "It's a waste product I use," he says. Purchased live, they cheep all the way to Schriver's driveway, where Schriver holds "bagging parties" with friends to suffocate them in Ziploc baggies.

Schriver's utilitarian view of most animals gets under some people's skin, which he seems to delight in. One of his T-shirts reads "PETA," for "Please Eat The Animals."

While actual complaints about Schriver are rare, however, the squeamishness that prompts them is not. "Schools would always call me up and ask if I was actually going to feed the birds to the kids," says Chuck Tague, a local naturalist who's been doing birds-of-prey talks for 20 years. "Some schools don't think that's the lesson the educators should be giving to the children."

It's usually adults whose feathers are most ruffled by that lesson. Schriver says a local grade-school principal once handed him his check and showed him the door after just the first of several planned presentations. "These children cannot handle the fact that these birds kill," she said.

Such attitudes fuel his mission. "If I can convince a few of these kids against the Bambi complex, I'm happy."

The anti-hunting phenomenon known as the Bambi complex can be traced to the 1923 novel Bambi: A Life in the Woods, by Felix Salten, a journalist, theater critic and member of Vienna's celebrated coffeehouse culture. The book has an anti-hunting theme, but as Ralph H. Lutts noted in a 1992 article titled "The Trouble with Bambi: Walt Disney's Bambi and the American Vision of Nature," it's positively naturalistic compared to its famous cinematic fawn. In Walt Disney's animated Bambi (1942), the critters all have saucer eyes and snouts foreshortened to suggest human children. In Salten's novel, predation happened; Disney's film imagines a world where Owl regards Thumper the rabbit as a friend rather than as lunchmeat, and where the only killer is man.

Hunting groups were up in arms about the film even before its release. But the film's message fell mostly upon unprecedentedly receptive ears, says Mark Barrow, an associate professor specializing in environmental history at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. The animal-welfare movement, born in the 19th century, had matured (along with the art of anesthesia, tendering the dream of a world without pain), and by 1920 U.S. Census figures showed for the first time that city denizens outnumbered rural people.

One long lifetime later, the farm mentality Earl Schriver was born to is nearly extinct. Only about 5 percent of Americans hunt, and the number who believe animals have rights continues to grow. Nature today is more a distant, kindly uncle than a rough-and-tumble brother. "There's a fair degree of sympathy for the idea that deer are Bambis of one sort or another," says Barrow. "They're cute and cuddly and we should take care of them."

Just like the little yellow chicks Schriver wants you to see his raptors gobble. That makes him a rarity even in the world of live nature presentations. "Sometimes [presenters] even [feed birds] rubber or fake things," says Jim Bonner, executive director of the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania, which hosts birds-of-prey talks. "Out of current political correctness or sensitivity, they tend to use something fake."

The peregrine falcons nesting on the Gulf Tower, Downtown, offer another example of how people like their nature packaged. Last year, the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy had set up a video camera so people could keep watch online over the little bird family. But then the male was killed (by either another peregrine or, as Schriver believes, a great horned owl) and the decapitated body fell in camera range. "At that point," the Conservancy's Charles Beir told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, "we shut down the camera because people were getting upset."

Which might have been a good reason to keep it on. At least if you're Earl Schriver, a man who tells audiences that every teen-ager should spent "a minimum of four hours in a slaughterhouse." (Ewwww.)

"The trouble anymore is people are overprotective, and the kids get exposed to nothing," Schriver says, citing parents he sees disinfecting restaurant tables before they'll let their kids sit down.

He's not worried about a little criticism. "I made up my mind when I was about 13 years old: I really don't care what people think about me. That's their problem. As long as I'm happy with me, that's all I have to worry about."

Bred in the bone
On a chilly morning late in March, Schriver steps into his large cluttered basement. At right angles in one corner are two freezer chests full of bagged chicks. One 10-pound bag (120 chicks) sits on top of one rusty lid, defrosting. Next to the bag is a microscope.

Schriver dons a special hat, one he uses only during breeding season. It's a military helmet-liner whose crown he's painted white with liquid cement and encircled with half-inch cylindrical foam pipe insulation. It resembles a traditional Arab headdress, with camo earflaps hanging down.

Schriver enters the chamber of his 13-year-old male peregrine, a bird hand-raised, or "imprinted," to believe Schriver is the female. Schriver turns his back to the bird and gets down on one knee. The bird clucks, but won't move from its gravel-filled box. Someone's watching. "Go back out," Schriver tells a visitor. "Ta-gip ta-gip ta-gip ta-giiiip, ta-gip, ta-gip," Schriver tells the peregrine. The bird's squawks peak. Schriver emerges with three drops of thick, translucent yellow fluid on the puckered surface of the hat.

Back in the basement, he syringes off the semen. "It's a load," he says. 12 cc. "That's a lot for a little bird." Schriver rinses off a glass slide in his utility tub and wipes it on a grubby pink towel. Through the eyepiece of the microscope, among the bigger blobs of yeast, he sees tiny dark flecks wriggle.

Inseminating Fran, the gyr/sakr hybrid, is a remarkably casual matter -- as long as Schriver brings the chicks. There's a truism among falconers that you don't train the birds, they train you, and it holds with propagation as with hunting. If Schriver doesn't feed Fran, she makes him bleed. So Schriver injects a couple chicks with vitamins and strolls into her chamber. Fran lifts her rear to accept the snubbed plastic syringe in her cloaca. Earl injects the semen then rubs the opening, just like a male bird would do.

Timing is crucial to fertilize the eggs. Schriver has a clutch right now in his basement incubator. A few weeks later, he'll have learned that two peregrine eggs and four of the gyr-sakr hybrid eggs are fertile. "It shows signs of being a good year." Kept at the right temperature and humidity, they'll hatch. He'll give some hatchlings to adult birds and imprint others. Grown ones get sold, with the larger hybrid females fetching up to $2,000.

Breeding raptors this way is a fairly solitary enterprise, and except for the birds' peeps it would be quiet here, around the house where the Schrivers raised four sons and three daughters. The girls were never interested in falconry (though Eleanor is a trained, if nonpracticing, falconer), but Schriver trained all his sons to fly the birds, to teach them patience. They all became Eagle Scouts, just like he'd done, and he became an enthusiastic scout leader, organizing Appalachian trail hikes, canoeing trips in Canada. When his boys were grown, they all went deer hunting together in the fall, enjoying the outdoors as he'd taught them.

In 1990, on a hunting trip up around Kinzua, a canoe tipped and Schriver's youngest son, 24-year-old Paul, drowned in icy water. Eight years later, Mark, the only son who'd stayed active in falconry, committed suicide at age 38. Schriver said Mark's death came days after Mark was confronted by federal officers who told him he faced jail time for a paperwork error he'd made transporting a falcon from another state -- an error Schriver says he later learned would have meant only a small fine. Schriver himself has never been in trouble with federal regulators, but Mark's death fuels his deep bitterness toward them. Mark built Schriver's main mews. Most of the birds in it used to be Mark's, too.

This past winter was the first in decades Schriver didn't hunt with his birds, partly because of all the snow but partly because he's feeling his 73 years. It's also getting harder to fly the birds free without traveling: His house is four miles west of Route 19 in Cranberry, but it sits barely outside the spill of industrial parks and residential subdivisions with names like Freedom Way. And Schriver -- the old farm boy who knows these still-wild creatures are not pets, and that you shouldn't get attached -- says he'll probably quit showing birds once Wombli dies. Whenever that might be: Since the bird's appetite flagged a month earlier, he's again begun eating more like his old self.

Schriver recalls successfully hatching his first peregrine two seasons ago, after a decade of trying. The hatchling was killed by an opossum. Schriver caught it. "I wanted to tear that thing apart leg by leg," he says. "But then I got to thinking, it was only doing what it was built to do. Then I threw it in with the eagle and [the eagle] did what it was built to do."

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