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Desert Companion

Profile: Hawk Show

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Civon Gewelber with Raider, a Sonoran Harris Hawk
Photography by Christopher Smith

Civon Gewelber with Raider, a Sonoran Harris Hawk.

She’s a dentist by day. But Civon Gewelber’s lifelong passion for falconry is taking flight on the Strip

Civon Gewelber with Raider, a SOnoran Harris HawkAs Civon Gewelber walks into her living room, it is immediately clear that this is the home of bird lovers, from the ceramic bird decor near the front entrance, to the equipment and ring perches set up in corners all over the house — to the actual falcons sitting patiently atop them.

[An Aplomado falcon, pictured right]

The five birds perched within the house are just a few of the dozens of raptors, or birds of prey, that Gewelber and her husband, Dave Kanellis, care for on their property. With 12 years of experience in falconry, Gewelber is a master falconer, a certification that requires the completion of an apprenticeship, the obtaining of permits, countless hours, and constant devotion and kinship with a wild creature.

Traditionally, falconry is the ancient practice of employing birds of prey, such as falcons, hawks, or eagles, for hunting game in its natural habitat. Although its precise origin is unknown, the sport dates back to as early as 2000 B.C., with evidence to suggest that birds of prey were being used to help put food on the table in Mesopotamia and Mongolia. By the sixth century, the popularity of falconry had surged in Europe, and it became a popular sport among nobles and royalty.

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Like many little kids, Gewelber grew up obsessed with dinosaurs. But rather than losing interest once she faced the devastating truth of their extinction, she refocused her obsession to the next best thing — birds of prey. “Having an actual raptor was just a step closer to having a T-Rex or a velociraptor,” Gewelber says.

Thanos, an African red-headed Merlin; Duchess, a Siberian Eagle Owl; Olive, a Saker Falcon[Duchess, a Siberian Eagle Owl, pictured right]

After discovering falconry at age 11, she began working toward becoming a falconer by taking a written exam and partaking in an apprenticeship with a sponsor falconer. At 14, she was allowed to become an independent falconer and acquired a bird of her own — a female red-tailed hawk named Fayte. Throughout high school, she took Fayte to bird shows and renaissance fairs, where she’d answer questions and pose for photos while dressed in medieval costumes.

Falconry was just an ardent hobby for Gewelber, who is a dentist professionally — she founded and runs a dental clinic for adults with intellectual disabilities. But when she discovered the practice of pigeon abatement using raptors, she realized falconry could become a real business. Eventually, she purchased her own abatement company, which she now runs in addition to working as a dentist throughout the week.

Gewelber’s company, Airborne Wildlife Control Service, was recently hired by the Wynn resort to help control nuisance birds, mainly pigeons and grackles, that surround its pools. Gewelber’s hawks stand guard at the resort to prevent pigeons from stealing food off guests’ plates. With the raptors released to soar high above the pool area, smaller birds recognize their predator, and avoid the area. The abatement hawks are trained not to attack other birds, but simply to scare them off by flying overhead.

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Olive, a Saker Falcon[Olive, a Saker Falcon, pictured right]

On an oppressively sunny Saturday morning, Gewelber strolls through her backyard and into the 30-room breeding facility they call “the barn,” in which she and Kanellis store their extensive collection of raptors. The air-conditioned, 8,000-square-foot facility resembles a storage unit, a long hallway with doors on either side; living behind each door are exotic birds of prey, species from all over the world, including African Verreaux’s eagles, African red-necked falcons, and the only Siberian eagle-owls in the U.S. In addition to their abatement business, Gewelber and Kanellis, who is the director of a national cooperative breeding program permitted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, are also passionate about conservation and education surrounding birds of prey.

“The idea of our breeding program is for conservation of some of these species that are extremely rare in the world and also difficult to breed, so that if something were to happen in the wild, we could help with the recovery effort,” Gewelber says.

The birds molt and raise baby birds throughout the spring and early summer; the birds selected for falconry birds begin training more actively this month and in September so that they will be ready to hunt come October and November. Gewelber often brings her three dogs along for training, as the birds and dogs challenge each other by competing to catch jackrabbits.

With many years of experience in raptor education through doing bird-of-prey shows, including “Wings Over the Springs,” a free-flight bird-of-prey show hosted by Springs Preserve, Gewelber and Kanellis hope to expand their business to launch an education program, in which guests at the Wynn and beyond can learn about and engage with the raptors.

“I love it when people get excited about birds the same way I get excited about them,” Gewelber says, describing how adults often adopt a childlike sense of excitement upon seeing the birds up close. “I just like to share the birds with people and watch them get really excited about them.”

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about witnessing Gewelber and Kanellis’ work is seeing the mutual understanding, trust, and respect they share with their birds. The raptors may be wild, but when given the chance to fly free, they always choose to come home, happy to return to her arm.

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