Pasadena Humane Society’s Steve McNall and his lifelong fascination with falcons
Many people may not know this, but Steve McNall, president and CEO of the Pasadena Humane Society and SPCA, could easily be called the Bird Man of Pasadena.
That would not be unusual. “I’ve been called that before,” said McNall. But what most people don’t connect is McNall as both the head of the Humane Society in Pasadena and the guy in La Verne who takes his own two falcons out to fly and takes care of other people’s birds.
“We live in La Verne, but a lot of people by word of mouth will call somebody and say, ‘I found a bird and don’t know what to do’ and they’ll say, ‘Take it to the Bird Man of Pasadena’ and give them our address, and we’ll come home and there’ll be a bird in a box on our doorstep,” said McNall’s wife, Marilyn. “I don’t know if some people even know Steve’s real name.”
McNall, a native of Arcadia, was passionate about caring for birds and animals long before he got a formal job dealing with them. Because the Pasadena Humane Society is the only public animal shelter in California that is licensed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service to rehabilitate and maintain birds of prey, McNall could easily be called the Bird Man of Southern California.
“I’ve always liked the possibility of flight, and with different species of birds you have different flight patterns,” McNall observed. “I was probably 7 or 8 years old when I first got interested in birds. I had my first little sparrow hawk when I was 15. I bought it and I trained it. Back in those days you could buy falcons at your local pet shop, before they became protected.”
At 16, McNall became a falconer, licensed by the California Department of Fish and Game and the federal Fish and Wildlife Service and sponsored by a general or master falconer.
“Once you have those credentials, then you go through a process of apprenticeship and that means you are allowed to keep only one specie of bird. Then from two years of apprenticeship, you go into being a general falconer and you are authorized to keep two different species of raptors,” McNall explained. “After four years, you can become a master falconer and you have to take an oral exam, a written exam and have your house or the place where the birds are being kept inspected.”
McNall is a master falconer and some sort of bird – be it a golden eagle, red-tailed hawk, Cooper’s hawk or owl – has always resided with him and his wife. Currently, two peregrine falcons live with the McNalls: a female named Freedom, who suffered head trauma from flying into a tree at Central Park in Pasadena (and will be released in the next six months), and Louie, a hybrid male who was part of a captive breeding project at Cornell University and has lived with the McNalls and their 21-year-old daughter since 1992.
“Because he is a hybrid he is sterile, so you don’t want to tie up a fertile female wild peregrine falcon and have them not have any young,” said Steve McNall. “He’s going to be captive all his life.”
McNall defines falconry as the general term for training a bird to go out and catch its own prey but remain in the possession of the falconer. Some people use falconry as a hunting program, but McNall and the shelter focus on rehabilitation, preparing birds to be released back into the wild.
“Falconry itself is a lifestyle,” said McNall. “You’re actually living with the bird 24-seven and there’s a process that you go through when training and maintaining the bird, making sure it has all the vitamins and the right diet, making sure you have the proper permits.”
Until the early 1980s, McNall practiced falconry, but while he no longer has the time, he still uses falconry principles in training and other aspects for rehabilitating birds of prey.
Originally hoping to work for the US Park Service, McNall went to Cal Poly Pomona for a Bachelor of Science degree in park administration and then worked as a naturalist for the US Forest Service for a couple of years before joining the Pasadena Humane Society in 1980, where he enjoys doing more hands-on work.
His backyard or open fields in Upland or Rancho Cucamonga serve as training grounds where McNall exercises birds to build up their wing muscles in what he calls an “exciting game.”
To protect himself, McNall dons a large leather glove called a gauntlet and secures the bird by holding jesses, leather straps that are attached to the bird’s legs. He sometimes puts a small hood on the bird to calm it down, especially if they are going on a road trip.
“Falconry equipment is very specific and is usually made by the falconer, and there’s an art to that,” said McNall.
“You throw a falcon off your fist – you cast it we say – and the bird will ‘wait on,'” said McNall. “Falconry has got a whole different language.” Wait on means maintaining a certain height over a falconer, and a bird usually flies a couple thousand feet above McNall.
“Hopefully, it doesn’t find something to go after three miles away because then he’s gone,” said McNall. “Generally, if the falcon is trained right, it will stay above the falconer and it is just a tiny thing up there. These specially made bells are attached to the falcon’s legs so you can hear the bird and can keep track of it. Then you take out a lure with the leash.”
Since falcons are predators, McNall and other falconers have designed fake prey lures over the years – usually a piece of meat attached to a lot of leather on a swiveling leash.
“You whistle – if people don’t know what you’re doing you look a little foolish because you’re in an open field swinging this lure around and whistling – the bird spots it, folds its wings, comes down diving at you at about 180 miles an hour and then at the last minute you pull the lure away,” said McNall.
“The falcon veers off, goes back up again another 1,000 feet and you call him or her down again, swing the lure and that’s the exercise program. It’s quite exciting to watch, and you can tell there’s a relationship between the falconer and the bird – they work symbiotically,” he said. “When you get to the point where you think the bird is losing interest in that game you actually throw the lure to it and it flies down to the ground with it and eats its food.”
The Pasadena Humane Society and SPCA has small parakeets in its aviary, but it does not currently have any birds of prey.
“In another month or two we’ll probably have migratory birds as they’re coming through getting ready to nest. And then in the nesting season (March through June) we’ll get hundreds of birds,” said McNall.
Baby owls or hawks will be brought into the shelter from local golf courses or by people trimming their trees who accidentally cut down a nest. Anxious baby birds who can’t fly may also try to leave the nest early and be found on the ground in someone’s yard.
“Unfortunately, the majority of the birds we see now are injured,” said McNall. “This time of year during the rain, red-tailed hawks’ wingtips will touch the transformer wires on telephone poles and they get electrocuted, or we’ll see hawks that will fly into windows of homes and get head trauma. We see a lot of the red-tailed hawks who are hunting for field mice and gophers along the freeway medians and they’ll go after their prey and get hit by a car.”
A bird may also get poisoned from eating a rat that has eaten rat poison; McNall said there is nothing that can be done for them.
On a lighter note, Cedar Waxwings will sometimes eat fermented mulberries when migrating through Pasadena and will be mistaken for dead. “Our officers respond and pick up the bird and realize it is not dead, but drunk, so we pick it up and bring it to our facility here and let it sleep it off and the next morning we let it take off,” said McNall.
The main thing McNall wants others to know about birds is that there is no such thing as a tame wild bird, something he learned after two hospital visits from bird injuries.
People may assume a bird is tame if they can get close to it, but McNall said that usually means the bird is sick. He recommends that people call the Pasadena Humane Society to pick up a bird instead of trying to handle the bird because West Nile Virus can be transferred.
McNall puts to rest the rumor that the San Gabriel Valley has so many parrots because some escaped from the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden years ago. “In the 1950s, Simpson’s Garden Town, a nursery on Colorado on the east side of Pasadena, had a fire and the employees ran into the pet shop and opened up all the cages and let all the parrots out,” said McNall. “That’s the way the story goes and my grandfather confirmed that is why parrots are flying around the local cities.”
Southern California’s tropical environment and pet parrots escaping because of unclipped wings, said McNall, also contribute to the ever-growing parrot population.
McNall’s wisdom and love of birds and other wildlife has not faded either, despite his parents’ predictions.
“In school, all the guys were playing football and basketball and dating and I was out catching snakes and lizards and bringing them home and my parents said, ‘Don’t worry, Steve will grow out of this,'” recalled McNall. “Obviously I didn’t.”