May 24, 2022
Dr. Cody M. Yager, DVM
Supervisory Animal Care Specialist, Animal Care, APHIS 4700 River Road Unit 84, Riverdale, MD 20737
RE: Proposed Rule for 87 FR 9880, Docket No. APHIS-2022-0068, Standards for Birds Not Bred for Use in Research Under the Animal Welfare Act
The Professional Falconers Association was created to help falconry-based businesses grow our industry, improve our business practices, and improve overall raptor husbandry. We believe there is always room for improvement in our field, but we feel that education rather than regulation will bring about the changes that will produce better falconers and healthier and happier birds of prey. We value the welfare of all raptors, both in our care and of those in the wild. It is our respect for birds of prey that draw us into the industry in the first place. We are concerned that USDA regulations, on top of already existing and effective U.S. Fish & Wildlife (USFWS) regulations will harm our industry and have an adverse effect on the welfare of birds of prey.
We agree with the comments provided by The North American Falconers Association on how these regulations will affect falconers in general and will therefore minimize parroting points they have already touched upon. Instead, we will focus on issues that directly affect our members in a commercial capacity.
The primary source of birds of prey in our industry is through raptor propagation, as the majority of birds that we hold on our USFWS permits come from captive breeding projects. In fact, some commercial activities can only be done with captive bred birds wearing closed-ring bands according to existing USFWS regulations. Also, we would like to point out that under USFWS regulations all birds of prey are considered wild and falconers are issued permits to handle them. That includes raptors that are bred in captivity. Breeders cannot sell birds of prey to the general public, only to licensed falconers and other permitted facilities, such as a zoo. There is no raptor pet trade. Captive bred raptors are bred by permitted individuals who have had their breeding facilities evaluated by USFWS and sold to permitted individuals who have also proven to state and federal agents that they are qualified to have them.
Any new regulations or permits imposed on breeders should be issued to each individual that has qualified for a USFWS permit and should not be issued per facility. Every permitted individual keeps their own records of their birds separately and already submits annual reports to their state and federal departments. It will create an unnecessary administrative burden to report individually to some agencies and together for another in the case where two permitted propagators share a property. We are asking for an exclusion for U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
Raptor Propagation permit-holders, or if they will be included, to have the exclusion limit set at $250,000 net income (after expenses), or to exclude anyone for whom breeding raptors is not their primary source of income and is therefore a hobby.
Due to their concerns over inappropriate species-specific requirements being imposed upon them and the very real concern of burdensome, expensive paperwork and facilities modifications, some breeders have opened up the possibility of discontinuing breeding altogether. The reduction in the number of qualified propagators and the additional expenses the remaining propagators will face will drive the prices of young birds up. Additionally, raptor propagators–especially those who are approved members of USFWS-permitted Cooperative Breeding Programs–must hold back a certain percentage of young produced to protect the genetics of aging birds and assure appropriate genetic diversity within their projects. The proposed low number of breeding pairs allowed is extremely counterproductive to the mandated goals of the Cooperative Breeding Program that require planning ahead to achieve genetic diversity of a species and maintain it for at least 100 years. The proposed 4 and even the recommended 12 from other falconry-related individuals and organizations are much too low. If you force people to shrink their projects, you will effectively destroy the ability of breeders to hold back the number of young they need to to keep their project healthy and genetically diverse. The repercussions of this will negatively affect captive birds of prey, especially when it is already so difficult to import birds into the country to bolster the existing population and improve the gene pool that’s already being maintained. When new species are imported through CITES, one of the requirements for approval is that enough pairs are brought in to maintain genetic viability. With fewer breeders, and breeders already under CITES and USFWS Cooperative Breeding Program scrutiny, genetic diversity may not be maintainable and the health of existing populations will be at risk with these newly imposed regulations.
$500 Gross Income per Calendar Year Exemption
Our members who hold Raptor Propagation permits are generally not in it for financial gain. The purchase price of one bird is rarely much greater than the cost of maintaining the breeding pair and raising the chick. The $500 dollar gross income per calendar year exemption is unrealistically low and would not even apply to a single breeder, as $500 is currently the lowest price for a raptor, and some may be worth many times that amount. A pair of average-sized hawks may cost $1000 a year to feed farm-raised quail at the current average price of quail. As soon as the first bird is sold, any raptor breeder would be over the threshold, and they still would not have made up for the expenses they incurred for the year for food alone. We are asking that the threshold be increased to $250,000 net profit if we are to be subjected to APHIS regulations, or that only commercial breeders who rely on breeding as their primary income be covered so the majority of small and backyard breeders who do it as a hobby would not be affected. Raptor breeders–especially large commercial breeders–are THE experts here, yet they stand to lose the most by these proposed regulations that will undoubtedly cause more harm than good.
A propagator’s primary concern is the health and wellbeing of their birds since unhappy or unhealthy raptors simply do not breed. We ask that you reconsider defining standardized housing requirements. Birds of prey are very individualistic and breeding pairs can also vary greatly in their sensitivity to environmental stimuli and disturbances. It is quite common for raptors of the same species and even of the same clutch to have very different personalities. The same applies to the breeding pairs. Some pairs will happily breed and rear young in an open breeding chamber, while others of the same species require enclosed chambers with only
skylight openings and very little human contact. Species-specific housing does not allow for the flexibility required to address the individual needs of the birds. The standards already in place at the USDA quarantine centers are an example of how a system designed with the best of intentions can fail birds of prey. Our members have repeatedly voiced their frustration over the condition of birds coming out of these facilities. It is not uncommon for perfectly healthy birds to enter quarantine, only to come out physically and mentally damaged. We understand that this is not due to malice, negligence, or lack of care by the facility, but is the direct result of inflexible housing and care standards clearly designed by people who aren’t raptor-care experts. As falconers, we have learned through thousands of years of practice that raptors can be quite different in personality and what works for one bird may not work for another.
The majority of birds of prey kept by falconers do not require indoor housing with climate control. The birds we have are predominantly North American species that are able to handle a wide variety of climates, and exotic species or those that are not native to a region will acclimate to their environment if they are kept there over a long-enough period of time. Individuals who have birds that require heat sources in the winter or air conditioning in the summer are already providing that for their birds, because it’s necessary to keep their birds healthy. In general, the majority of raptor species prefer housing that has plenty of airflow and access to shade and sun at their preference. None of these things require electricity. Most chambers do not have electricity, and those that do, generally do so for lighting for the falconer’s convenience rather than as a necessity for the birds.
Falconry-based bird abatement is another industry at risk of over-regulation in the future. Although this activity does not fit the criteria to be included within the Animal Welfare Act, without a specific exemption there is a strong likelihood it could cause confusion for inspectors when they inspect someone that holds multiple migratory bird permits. We are asking for a formal written exemption for holders of a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Special Purpose-Abatement Using Raptors Permit.
Falconry-based bird abatement is a well-established wildlife control method, often replacing methods that are deemed harmful to the environment such as poisoning, or lethal methods such as shooting. For decades, falconers successfully protected runways from bird strikes on airfields across the United States. A decade ago, bird strike hazard programs transitioned from small business contracts open for bidding by both falconry and border collie companies to the USDA. Under the USDA directive, shooting has become a common form of bird control for airfields. Meanwhile, in Canada, companies have continued to successfully maintain falconry-based bird control programs, such as the ones at Toronto Pearson International Airport and other civil and military airfields. There is no reason to employ lethal shooting when non-lethal means are proven to be effective and are successfully ongoing elsewhere. We ask that you consider the consequences for wild birds as well as to small businesses before you add your own regulations on top of existing USFWS regulations for professional falconers.
Concerns for Raptor Educators
Our education and falconry school permit-holders will also be negatively impacted by the Animal Welfare Act. These educators have made careers for themselves from sharing their passion for birds of prey with others. They help the general public understand the needs of species of concern, such as the peregrine falcon, California condor, and spotted owls. They also help
educate the public on the environmental and ecological dangers of the use of rodenticides and lead ammunition. It is well known that people will always care more for animals they actually see in person, over those they only see in books and photographs. In fact, research shows that education with live animals versus other methods significantly increased retention of information and “only students who participated in live animal contact experienced significant affective gains.”1 For many, these programs may be the only time in a person’s life that they will see a bird of prey up close.
The inclusion of these permit holders into the Animal Welfare Act will increase costs that many will not be able to afford, limiting their outreach potential, or putting them out of business entirely. Also, many permit-holders are individual falconers who are passionate about sharing their love of birds of prey and want to protect them. When we have educational programs with birds that free fly, we have to rotate through different teams or at least have understudies when some might be molting, for example. For that reason, we believe the proposed exception limit for exhibitors and the number of birds they can have is too low. We are asking for an exclusion for U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Special Purpose Possession-Live Migratory Birds for Educational Use permit-holders, or if they will be included, to have the exclusion limit set at 25 birds to minimize the burden on these vital educators.
Concerns for Falconry School Educators
Falconry school programs are a great way for the general public to learn about the sport of falconry, which is a form of hunting, how to properly handle a bird of prey, and to determine if they would like to become an apprentice falconer. Since the sport of falconry is not included within the Animal Welfare Act, we are asking for U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Special Purpose-Falconry Education permit-holders to be exempt as well. Their educational work is purely focused on teaching the art of falconry and bringing awareness to people about the importance of birds of prey in the food chain, conservation of predator and prey species, natural and man-made issues and factors that affect native wildlife, and tried and true husbandry, handling, and equipment techniques that date back thousands of years.
Falconers receive far more training than other professional bird handlers or pet keepers before they are even allowed to become a general class falconer. USFWS regulations require a housing inspection and the person to pass a written exam before they can even become an apprentice. That apprentice is then required to be mentored for around two years under a general or master class falconer. The sponsor then has to sign off that the apprentice meets the requirements to become a general class falconer. During the apprenticeship, the apprentice will encounter common health and safety issues that a falconer and raptor will come across while learning the art of falconry with their own bird of prey. As falconry is not generally practiced alone, the apprentice will often join a local falconry club and learn from a variety of falconers and encounter a variety of raptor species. This kind of exposure to the practical handling and maintenance of a bird of prey is not part of the general veterinary curriculum. Often, finding a vet who is even remotely familiar with the needs and common ailments of birds of prey is very difficult. Falconers have to travel long distances, sometimes even to a neighboring state, to get to an experienced raptor vet. Treating common ailments and injuries often falls on the falconer and the local falconry club. As a response, there is a wealth of literature on the subject and master falconers make a point of educating apprentices and general class falconers firsthand
1 Sherwood, K.P., Rallis, S.F., & Stone, J. Effects of live animals vs. preserved specimens on student learning. Zoo Biology 8:99-104 (1989).
when the situation arises. There is generally no need to use a veterinarian, except for serious cases of trauma and uncommon or advanced disease.
Apprentices who work professionally as a falconer receive even greater training and handle a wider variety of birds of prey. Full-time apprentices can gain years of handling and maintenance experience over a sport falconer, as they work with a crew of professional falconers for bird abatement. These individuals learn how to triage injuries, and more importantly, how to avoid them while in the field. Abatement jobs often take place in remote agricultural areas, where there simply is no access to an avian vet. Proper medical and nutritional care is one of the basic skills that professional abatement falconers must learn for their trade, since unhealthy birds cannot fly well and without the birds, they cannot perform their jobs.
Raptor propagators maintain their breeding birds with minimal disturbance and interaction as it is very possible for nervous or agitated birds to break eggs, underfeed or abandon chicks, for males to refuse to copulate, or females to shut down egg production entirely, not to mention developing common illnesses like aspergillosis or coccidiosis from the stress-induced immune-system hit. Birds are rarely if ever netted or grabbed except to perform necessary beak copings or if illness or injury are suspected based on behavior and food intake changes. Birds–especially breeding birds–should never be grabbed arbitrarily for “wellness checks” as that is far more likely to cause harm or injury to the bird than any slight possibility of good coming from it. Breeding raptors need peace and quiet, not physicals, and certainly not to be handled by someone who doesn’t have the necessary training and experience to handle them. All birds of prey should be handled by trained and licensed professionals–falconers. Also, the means by which we handle them should not be decided by animal rights activists, biologists, or even veterinarians who have no personal or professional experience working with birds of prey.
Requiring veterinary oversight will cause serious and unnecessary financial burden and may not even be feasible for falconers living in areas without access to an avian vet, let alone one who is even familiar with birds of prey and their unique needs that are different from other types of birds. We are asking that veterinary oversight not be made mandatory for professional falconers holding USFWS permits.
It is apparent that the facility requirements were written with large pet breeding and distribution businesses in mind. First and foremost, birds of prey are not pets. Their use is regulated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and are treated as wild animals that falconers are given permission to possess through a system of state and federal regulations and permits. These falconry regulations (beginning at 50 CFR § 21.29) are well established and detailed, covering everything from the apprentice to the master falconer, as well as hunting, breeding, education, and abatement, both commercially and voluntarily. Facility inspections are already required before one can become a falconer or obtain a permit for commercial activities including propagation. Further regulation by the USDA is unnecessary and duplicative.
The falconry community is small, specialized, and passionate about the welfare of both wild and captively-held raptors. We are a close-knit community that loves to share our passion and knowledge of birds of prey with the public. In addition to existing USFWS and state regulations, we self-regulate as well, because we care about our birds and in general we know what’s best for them and how to take care of them, in sickness and in health. This is partially due to the extreme lack of raptor-experienced avian veterinarians in the country, and partially because falconry is thousands of years old and the available knowledge required to care for and handle
birds of prey is enormous, but not readily taught in veterinary schools. In short, we believe USDA’s resources would be better used to regulate people who aren’t already inspected and subject to state and federal oversight. Since there is no pet trade in raptors and raptors are transferred from one qualified permit-holder to another, all raptor activities performed by USFWS permit-holders should be exempted from the Animal Welfare Act.
If professional falconers are going to fall under the AWA despite excellent arguments against it, then we request the following to be considered: The $500 gross income per calendar year exception should be removed as there is not a single person who will fall under that number; instead, consider imposing regulations only on people who do not already hold state and federal propagation permits or those whose sole income is from breeding raptors. Additionally, we ask you to please consider raising the exclusion limits to 25 breeding pairs per propagation permit-holder, 25 birds for education permit-holders, and to add clear exemptions for abatement and falconry school permit-holders to prevent confusion for inspectors.
We would also ask you to reconsider the aggregate nature of the bird limits for exception. Oftentimes, falconers will visit or live together for a time while working. The exclusion limits would be better applied to each individual permit-holder rather than to the property address to prevent confusion and unfair penalties to individuals who possess fewer raptors than the exception limits but happen to live with someone else who also has raptors.
We are requesting the USDA to consider providing online workshops for those who will be affected by these regulations and a grace period to allow affected people necessary time for modifications to their facilities to become compliant with the new regulations, even though their facilities are already meeting USFWS standards. Lastly, we are requesting that you provide these training materials and allow organizations such as The North American Falconers Association, local falconry clubs, and our own organization to educate our members on the changes they will be facing.
We sincerely appreciate you taking the time to consider our comments. We hope our comments are received with the spirit that they are given and will be considered constructive in this monumental task you have been given. We also hope that our comments will carry greater weight than those provided by animal rights activists and average citizens who have no personal, professional, or formal training on raptor husbandry, behavior, or medicine. We are the experts on these subjects. Lastly, if at times we seem harsh on past USDA endeavors, it is only because we want to show the negative consequences of otherwise good intentions.