Michele Losee, PhD CandidateEnvironmental Studies PhD
Raptor Ecologist Shares a Special Bond with Birds
As one of just a few women falconers, Michele Losee raises, trains, hunts, and loves raptors. She is also studying them—golden eagles, to be exact—for her PhD dissertation in Environmental Studies at Antioch University New England (AUNE).
At the time she learned to become a falconer, Michele was deeply involved with raptor rehabilitation, taking care of injured wild birds at a center in Washington, D.C. “My main motive to become a falconer was the opportunity to have a deeper connection with the animal I treasured and to add unique insight as a conservationist,” she said. “I needed to see how physical fitness affected their ability to hunt and fly. I felt I could not possibly believe a raptor was ready for release if I did not understand their needs in the wild. Falconry allowed me to hunt with a wild raptor intimately.”
‘Not for the Faint of Heart’
Becoming a falconer “is not for the faint of heart,” Michele said. First, she had to apply for special permits from the state and federal governments. Then, as an apprentice falconer for the next two years, she was allowed to possess or fly only a red-tailed hawk or an American kestrel.
Trapping the juvenile red-tailed hawk, which she named Guinevere, was difficult. It was even more difficult to free her, after three flying seasons together. “I cried for two weeks after I let her go,” Michele said.
“Some people do not agree with falconry because they feel the birds should stay in the wild. But falconry benefits the bird in the end,” she said. Most juvenile raptors do not survive their first year, and a falconer helps the bird through this trying life stage, providing good food, health care, and a warm, predator-proof place to sleep at night. The young raptor sharpens its hunting and flying skills under the falconer’s protection. “When I released my red-tailed hawk, she was a healthy, accomplished hunter and had a much higher chance of survival than when I trapped her as a juvenile,” Michele said.
After her apprenticeship, in 2007, Michele received a general falconer permit on the recommendation of her sponsor, respected falconer Liam McGranaghan. The permit meant she no longer needed a sponsor and could possess different species of raptors, except for eagles.
Michele had gotten to know Jemima Parry-Jones, whose father, Phillip Glassier, is considered the father of modern falconry and started the International Centre for Birds of Prey in Newent, Gloucestershire, England. Michele moved there to work for her AUNE service project. “Jemima took the center beyond its falconry roots, and it is now a world renowned bird-of-prey center,” she said. The zoo exhibits around three hundred raptors and breeds about sixty-five species of raptors.
For a year and half, Michele did everything from clean aviaries, paint, and garden to hand-rear babies, train birds, and give flying demonstrations for the public. She worked with Robin Pote, the education officer, organizing and creating educational materials, revamping the education room, and educating school children about raptors.
Hand-rearing an ashy-faced barn owl and a lesser kestrel at the center, Michele was teased by some staff members. “I stood by the concept that just because they are birds does not mean they do not feel fear, loneliness, happiness, pain, pleasure, or any of the emotions that we do,” she said. “Trust is the key in the relationship with any bird, whether parrot or raptor. If the trust is broken, the falconer has lost a part of the bird forever.”
Golden Eagle Research in Arizona
Back from the United Kingdom, Michele returned to her home state of Arizona to collaborate on a study of golden eagles and their nesting habits with the Arizona Department of Fish and Game. Unlike in other parts of their global range, golden eagles have seldom been studied in Arizona. But now the state is interested in them because of the growth in proposed wind and solar power development, and an increase in taking eagles by Native Americans.
Michele had begun reading about golden eagles during her first fall semester at AUNE, and found a gap in the knowledge. Coincidentally, Arizona Game and Fish state biologists were beginning their own study. ” I feel like I had no choice because the eagles chose it for me,” she said. “It really was fate I felt and that is what I was supposed to be doing.”
She plans to spend two years in the field, studying the life cycle and habits of nesting golden eagles, as well as the landscape characteristics of their nesting territories to find out which are important to the eagles. She will also investigate nesting productivity by researching such things as how many pairs laid eggs and how many babies fledged. Beth Kaplin, core faculty in AUNE’s Department of Environmental Studies, is her advisor.
Michele chose AUNE, she said, because she is able to design her future as a doctoral student, unlike other programs. She also likes its interdisciplinary approach. “I wanted to be a well-rounded scholar. … I also wanted a school that was really steeped in the ‘green movement’ and had its thumb on the pulse of the latest environmental issues.
“I love the learning domain portion of the program, which I find to be unique. I was able to explore the literature and pull out the research of my own course. AUNE enabled me to follow my heart and not someone else’s."