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Dave Stives is the SCV’s falconer

Posted: June 24, 2012 1:55 a.m.
Updated: June 24, 2012 1:55 a.m.

Dave Stives with Orion, a Great Horned Owl at the Placerita Canyon Nature Center.

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When Zippo and Jack twist and turn like F-17s across the desert floor just feet above a pillar of dust, Animal Keeper Dave Stives knows his two hawks are about to close the deal.

A jackrabbit is dodging and zigzagging, throwing up dust beneath their winged shadows.

When the rabbit leaps into a pile of bush, the circling hawks take positions: Zippo up on a cactus behind the bush, and Jacksparrow into the brush to flush out the prey.

Stives hunts his hawks Zippo and Jacksparrow - also known as Jack - every day the birds are not molting new feathers.

However, Dave Stives is more than a hunter.

Stives is also a "rehabber" because he rehabilitates wild animals like Zippo and Jacksparrow.

"Dave is excellent," said Regional Park Superintendent Russ Kimura, Placerita Canyon Natural Area. "We have our animal program because of him."

Indeed, Stives has state certifications in animal care that allow Placerita Canyon Nature Center to rescue, keep, retrain, and show wild animals to the public. But, his first love is falcons, especially training the birds.

Soon he will receive an "eyas" or baby hawk from a hawk breeder.

"It's always exciting to take a new baby bird and mold it like clay. The more you work with the animal, the better the bird and its disposition," said Stives.

When the eyas is 16 weeks old, Stives will begin training the young hawk. Like Zippo and Jacksparrow, the latest addition to Stives' collection is a Harris hawk.

It's a good bet that it will look a lot like Stive's birds. The two birds have feathers of dark brown, chestnut shoulders, with gleaming white tipped tail feathers. However, Stives is less concerned for his birds' beauty than for their safety.

For this reason, Stives keeps his bird's weight at about 600 grams or about 1.5 pounds.

"More experienced birds I can let get heaver. Jack can fly effectively at 700 grams," he said. "Keeping their flight weight right can save their lives. Sometimes out there, they can get into trouble with other predators."

In nature, hawks keep their weight as high as they can because of the very different lives they lead.

"A wild hawk faces a very different set of circumstances. They don't just hunt. They are also hunted," Stives said. "They use up a great deal more energy than my birds."

Hawks are classified as raptors, and Stives is certified to work with and train kestrels, red-tailed and red-shouldered hawks, falcons and the Harris hawk - in fact, any kind of raptor.

A Harris hawk was saved by Dave five years ago. The Hawk was caught in the wheel housing of a UPS airliner, and UPS called the Nature Center to ask for help in saving the bird. Stives pulled the bird out of the wheel housing of the airplane.

Finding it dangerously underweight, Stives rehabilitated the hawk, but because of its condition could not release it back into the wilderness. Now the bird is shown regularly to the public and school children at the Nature Center.

The Nature Center education program offers hundreds of school children annually the chance to learn about hawks and their history.

Training falcons is an ancient tradition, dating back 2,000 to 3,000 years, starting in China.

"Falconing spread to the Middle East, Europe, and fairly late in the United States," said Stives.

In the New World, the Harris hawk lives in marshes, woodlands, and semi-desert areas. They hunt in mangrove swamps in South America. They are not migratory, but rather permanent residents wherever they live. They are not native to the Santa Clarita Valley.

Besides rabbits and other mammals, the Harris hawk dines on birds, lizards and large insects. They are able to capture large prey like jackrabbits who weigh up to 8 pounds because they hunt in family packs.

"Zippo and Jacksparrow are ‘wolves of the sky'," Stives said.

A variety of nature programs are offered at the Placerita Canyon Nature Center, 19152 Placerita Canyon Road, Newhall. For more information visit



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