Hope is The Thing With Feathers: Tiffany White on Falconry and Social Change

When Tiffany White tells kids to reach for the skies, she means it. As a professional falconer — yes, that’s a thing — she and her raptors protect our food supply from pests while reducing the use of harmful pesticides. However, the part of her jobs she loves most is bringing the majestic birds into Title I schools. For many students, it’s their first time seeing a bird of prey up close, though White does much more than show and tell. She not only teaches the youth about birds and desert ecology, but also potential career paths in biology, ecosystem management, agriculture and, of course, falconry-based bird abatement. She also serves as a role model, being a woman of color and successful green entrepreneur.

Though falconry has been practiced throughout the world for thousands of years, falconry-based bird abatement is much younger. Wineries throughout California adopted the practice in the 90s while looking for more environmentally friendly options to manage the starlings and other birds pilfering their vines. Farms, resorts and golf courses began to follow suit, as have some airports and other locations where errant birds pose hazards. There’s even a program in France to train eagles to attack terrorist drones. White herself uses drones to train and support her birds, combining the high tech with the high flying.

Morpheus’ first season. Photo courtesy of Sonoran Desert Falconry.

White and her partner Sally Knight went full time in 2015 when they founded Sonoran Desert Falconry, a nonprofit, and Sonoran Desert Bird Abatement, an LLC. Before it was White’s profession, it was her passion. White first experienced falconry while working as a biologist for the state of Florida in the early 90s. After witnessing a coworker hunting with a bird on a lunch break, White knew it was something she would do for the rest of her life. She read every book she could find on the subject and sought out a sponsor, as to become a falconer one must first apprentice to one. “It’s much easier now, but then I had to send out letters,” White said. “I went to a falconry meeting. Within six months, I was a falconer, which was pretty good for that time.”  

White and her team not only bring natural experiences to underserved youth, they’ve also created a self-perpetuating model where profits generated doing something good supports their other missions. The work done at resorts or farms across the state through their business arm subsidizes their educational endeavors, though White would like to increase the latter through grants and additional funding sources in the future. Through experience, she has learned how the spellbinding charisma of raptorial birds can be harnessed to help even the most recalcitrant urbanite feel the call of Dame Nature. “There was a little girl in one of the classrooms who came in and, I swear, she looked like somebody right out of a gang banger movie from the 80s. This little girl had these hooped earrings on that were huge and a shirt straight out of ‘Sons of Anarchy,’” White recalls. “I thought, ‘she’s frightening,’ and she’s only a kid, but five minutes into our talk, she was my favorite student. She was sitting in the front and was like, ‘oh my god, I didn’t know this sort of world even existed.’”

Tiffany White at an educational event. Photo courtesy of Sonoran Desert Falconry.

However, White laments the difficulty of following up with such youths. Though she has built enduring relationships with teachers, she has yet to have one of these students follow up with her, despite her encouragement for them to do so. However, now that the nonprofit has an established track record, such as the recent successful completion of a two-year pilot program studying bird abatement funded by a $380,000 grant from the Center for Produce Safety, White is optimistic about securing funding to increase educational programing. “I have not been able to get a lot of the grant funds for the kids who can’t afford to pay for our services, but as soon as I can, I will spend most of my time with those kids,” White explained. “I haven’t been able to get the word to teachers as much as I want either.”

Knowing well about the early bird and the worm, White is continuing to build and innovate. She is currently finalizing the establishment of a bird sanctuary in Sedona that will allow her to significantly expand operations. For instance, she hopes to breed barn owls that could be released in agricultural areas to passively control rodent populations without resort to poisons that spill into the natural world and aggregate up the food chain. She also hopes to use the space to host a wizarding summer camp integrating magic to teach kids about nature and science. Despite her entreaties to Warner Brothers, White has yet to secure the right to use names and terms from “Harry Potter,” though she hopes direct appeals to J.K. Rowling through social media may do the trick. Though she may not have Hedwig, she does have, with her team, a small parliament of Athena’s birds, her Eurasian eagle owl Newt and nearly a dozen other raptors. “We’ll be doing potions, defense against the dark arts and they’ll be learning about the critters in the desert. They are going to have robes and everything,” White said with a smile. “It’s going to be awesome.”    

Jeff Kronenfeld is an independent journalist and fiction writer based out of Phoenix, Arizona. His articles have been published in Overture Global Magazine, the Psychedelic Times, Echo Magazine, Arizona Contractor and Community Magazine, Seema.com, PHXSUX and others. His fiction has been published by Four Chambers Press, Ripples in Space: A Sci-Fi Journal, and is pending publication in the upcoming issue of So It Goes: The Journal of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library. He wrote the introduction to Cabinet of Curiosities, a book of photography by artist Ryan Parra, and was featured in The Sharpened Quill, an anthology. His writing can be found at http://www.jeff-k.com.