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See birds of prey in Brown’s Canyon

Greg Marshall, Of the Record staff

Wednesday was a blustery day behind Roger’s Ranch, more commonly known as the white barn two miles down the road from the Brown’s Canyon turnoff in Summit County.

It was a good day for flying a kite, and an even better day to fly a falcon.

Jeff Shelburg, a bird trainer, was busy throwing gyr and peregrine falcons into the air. It’s a hobby he took up as a boy in California more than 40 years ago.

Shelburg first became fascinated with birds when he was six years old. Today he uses the aggressive creatures to hunt pheasants and to dazzle spectators at his twice-daily Birds of Prey show in which trained falcons wheel around on command and land on the heads of willing participants.

Shelburg has been putting on the shows intermittently since he moved to Woodland in 2000. They run Monday through Friday at 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. with special events on the weekends, says assistant Cindy Frazier.

Shelburg shows off as many as eight different falcons in a single show. The born hunters dive, dip and swoop at Shelburg’s behest. He wears a cowhide glove and uses a lance-like lure attached to chicken bone to recall the falcons from their heights.

Sylvia, a two-year-old grey and brown Gyr falcon, perches on Shelburg’s gloved hand and springs away when he thrust her from his hand.

Sylvia has a fierce gaze, streamlined body and curved beak. She weighs about three pounds and has been clocked flying at 325 miles per hour. The females, Frazier explains, are bigger and stronger than the males. She has worked with the falcons for two-and-a-half months and says that one day she wants to be a professional falconer like her boss.

"I’m surprised how many people are standoffish with the birds," she said. "I dive headlong into it. Once you see how powerful they are, how they are in nature, it’s empowering to have them on your head. It’s like being friends with King Kong."

Sylvia cruises a few hundred feet above the group and becomes a speck on the horizon. Just when it looks as though she may not be coming back, Shelburg swings his lure in a circle at his side as though he were a cowboy whirling a lasso.

Sylvia turns and rockets in Shelburg’s direction.

"It’s all visual," Shelburg explains. "The lure simulates them going after prey. All this does is keep them in shape. If this were cold weather she would fly a lot quicker."

Falcons strike their prey in midair, often plummeting from thousands of feet above to pierce pheasants with their long reptilian nails. Sylvia isn’t hunting for prey today, but she does swoop within inches of those watching on the ground as she returns to Shelburg’s hand.

"One of the things I like to do is to get her close to people so they can really see," Shelburg explains. "It’s all about food. It’s just like people with a paycheck. Why do you get up in the morning? So you can get paid. It’s the same with these birds."

Shelburg’s performances usually attract a few spectators at a time. Tickets are $10 for adults and $5 for children. The smaller groups make for a better show than people see at most aviaries and zoos because they can ask questions and participate in the performance, according to Frazier.

Shelburg says it takes about two weeks to train a falcon and Sophie, one of the stunt birds in Wednesday’s demonstration, is just two months old. Shelburg says he has performed in Jackson Hole, Wyo., England and France. Although Shelburg enjoys the bird shows, he says his first love is hunting. He will start taking paying customers on falcon hunting excursions in October.

"We breed our own birds," he said. "Or we take birds that are already there and use them."

The Currie family is visiting the area from Imperial Valley, Calif., and ran into Shelburg displaying his winged companions on Main Street.

Megan, 3, watches Sophie as she flaps up to the ridgeline and disappears behind a hill. "What does she want?" she asks.

Megan’s mom, Pat, can’t help but smile. "She wants to land on your head," she replies.

Pat Currie helps her daughter tuck her hair under her Gap baseball cap and Dean Currie, Megan’s dad, suggests that Megan should put a piece of chicken on her head to attract Sophie.

Preparations completed, Shelburg swings his lure and Sophie comes thundering from the hills. She flaps onto Megan’s head. The Curries snap a few pictures and Shelburg collects Sophie and rewards her with lunch, a chicken scrap.

To attend Birds of Prey show call Cindy at 659-6272. Shows are 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. daily behind Roger’s Ranch in Brown’s Canyon.


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