When I visited Mike Arnold, he showed me a thick photo album chronicling his experiences with birds, primarily falcons. He told me stories about the photos, saying things like, “That one is from when I climbed Mayan ruins to catch a falcon.” He is seventy-four years old now, and he owns and hunts with a peregrine falcon named Lucy and his two English setters Zach and Wyatt.
Me: When did your history with birds begin?
Mike: I used to spend time exploring and playing around my town and in the forest as a boy. My mom worked as a waitress in Beverly Hills and would come home late. Even with her long hours, she supported us boys and encouraged us in our interests. As for me, I always asked for more books about birds.
At age eleven, I discovered an owlet in Griffith Park. I reached its nest and caught my first bird.
Me: An owl at eleven years old. Cool!
Mike: Yes. And the funny part is that soon after, people visiting the local cemetery saw me swinging gophers by a string around my head–they must have thought I was crazy! I had obtained permission to catch gophers in the cemetery, and I trained my owl with the gophers. By spinning them around my head, I taught the owl to hunt moving targets. It just seemed out of place when a funeral service walked by in the background!
Me: How many birds of prey have you owned total?
Mike: Ever since my first owl, I’ve owned about one to three birds of prey each year, mostly falcons. You can do the math yourself.
Me: Have you had jobs by doing falconry?
Mike: I’ve mostly made a living by other trades. But I have had a few jobs in falconry.
For a while, I flew falcons for the cinema. But I didn’t like the movie directors. “Fly that falcon how I want the first time or we’ll find a different guy for the job,” they would tell me; they didn’t have patience for the falcon to retry difficult maneuvers. So I quit working for the movie industry.
In 1970, I got a job at an outdoor recreation resort called Coto de Caza. My employers wanted me to impress rich and famous customers with my falcon. I took small groups to an open field and let my bird zoom through the sky. One time my audience invited me to come to the resort’s bar with them to learn more about me and my spectacular hobby. I went to the bar with them. My manager didn’t like me interacting with customers, though, and said: “Mike, stop interfering with them enjoying their stay.” When I told the customers that I couldn’t be with them anymore, they complained to the resort. In turn, the resort fired my manager. So much for his don’t-offend-customers tactic!
Me: What would you describe as your favorite falconry adventure?
Mike: I don’t necessarily have a favorite but here’s an exciting one:
The Cornell University Peregrine Fund had hired me to find falcon nests because they wanted to study the birds. After searching a jungle in Guatemala, my girlfriend and I found a cliff deep in the forest. It had a nest lodged in it. I had spent hours in locating the nest of eyasses (baby falcons), so when I arrived back at my weathered truck, my girlfriend and I took a break. Night approached, and I realized that I’d better get a move on since bad guys lurked in the forest at night and threatened travellers. As I drove away, I noticed that several expensive trucks were chasing me. Gunshots broke the night air, and my girlfriend cowered in her seat. I drove faster. When it seemed as if my girlfriend and I would die from carbine bullets, a cloud of dust from my tires blocked our pursuer’s visibility. But somehow they kept on our trail. If only I could make it to the nearest town, the people there could help me. Finally, I made it to civilization. I jumped out of the truck and faced my combatants. They jumped out of their cars with their guns. If I died here, at least the townsfolk would witness it. Threatening me with their carbines, my pursuers checked me and my truck. Afterwards, they let me go. Instead of robbers and bad guys, the men had been government agents thinking that I smuggled drugs!
Mike has flown falcons with other amazing falconers such as Ken Franklin, who skydived with his falcon to see how fast it could plummet (visit https://www.fhff.org/portfolio/terminal-velocity-story-frightful/ to learn more!)
He also was part of an environmental project that kept peregrine falcons from going extinct.
All in all, Mike’s love for birds has brought him to a unique hobby and amazing adventures!