Al Nye keeps a 17-year-old peregrine falcon and two Harris hawks in special cages in his yard in McLean. Without the falcon, he'd be lost.

"I wouldn't want to live without a peregrine," said Nye, 72, a former all-America college lacrosse and football player who has flown hawks after game for 60 years.

"You can't hawk in the style we love with anything else. They peregrines have the capacity to catch game birds on the wing, in the spectacular style that makes falconry so exciting. Without them, the sport would be nothing -- the pits."

Nye and about 50 colleagues came to Washington from as far away as California last week to defend the right of 2,500 registered falconers in the nation to keep peregrines and other birds of prey.

They testified at a hearing held by the Interior Department, which is considering revising federal regulations on birds-of-prey ownership and propagation. Falconers fear the government will make the rules for their arcane sport, which they already consider to be excessively restrictive, even tighter.

Among other things, current rules make it illegal for Nye to replace Kate, the falcon he caught 17 years ago, with a young one from the wild. Catching wild peregrines has been illegal since 1970, when the bird was declared endangered because of reproductive problems blamed on the pesticide DDT.

"She's one of the last," said Nye of his aging Kate.

But tundra peregrines such as Nye's rebounded after the nationwide 1972 DDT ban. With more than 30,000 wild tundras now on the wing, the species has been upgraded to threatened status, and Nye and his colleagues in the North American Falconers Association want to start taking a few each year to use for sport, which they suggested to Interior officials.

How would they catch them? By a refinement of a hair-raising technique Nye pioneered in 1939 on Assateague Beach, where peregrines come during fall migration. "You bury yourself in the sand," he said, "and hold a live pigeon in your hand. When the falcon comes down to strike, you capture it."

While falconers hope to liberalize regulations, they fear the government will go the other way.

Falconers have been fighting an image problem for two years, ever since Interior's law enforcement branch culminated "Operation Falcon," a three-year undercover investigation of trade in birds of prey with a day of arrests for illegal possession, purchase and propagation of birds.

"June 29, 1984, was the blackest day in falconry," said Kitty Marconi of Thurmont, Md., NAFA's regional director.

Since then, 58 persons have been convicted, but NAFA maintains no American has been convicted of selling a bird of prey illegally taken from the wild, and claims some of the worst misdeeds were by agents working for Interior, who trapped and sold the wild birds used in the sting operation.

The dispute over the seriousness of violations and the need for reform has polarized the falconry community and the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the falconers believe they will wind up paying the price.

"There's guys out there whose lives would be complete if they could get a peregrine falcon," said Nye, "and they're being withheld for no good reason. That's what's painful."

What's so special about peregrines?

They were the hawks of nobility in the Middle Ages, Nye said. Long-winged peregrines and their rare close kin, gyrfalcons, fly so fast they can overtake any bird, and they dive at more than 200 mph when attacking terrified quail, grouse, partridge or pheasants.

Broader-winged birds such as Harris hawks, red-tailed hawks and goshawks also are used in falconry, but usually to catch ground game such as rabbits. These were the "meat-hunting" birds of peons in the past, Nye said. Only the long-winged birds have the capacity to soar above their prey, then dive like bombers for an airborne kill, considered the apex of sport falconry, he said.

"The peregrine is a tremendous air-to-air interceptor, like a fighter jet," he said. "When it flies, you fly with it. That's what the boys at law enforcement don't understand. This is a sport of passion."

Without the World Series of peregrine hunting out West or in Europe to dream about, Nye said, the regular season of rabbit hunting locally with his Harris hawks two or three times a week, fall and winter, wouldn't be worth the bother.

Interior maintains that it respects the right of U.S. falconers to pursue their sport and has no intention of banning falconry or regulating it to death.

"Probably the vast majority of falconers are honest," said Tom Stiegler, special agent in charge of investigations for Fish and Wildlife.

But he said Operation Falcon uncovered an international trade in birds of prey, with particularly eager buyers in the Middle East and Europe, where a wild gyrfalcon might command $30,000 to $80,000 on the black market, officials said.

"It wasn't so much American falconers in export" that Operation Falcon uncovered, Stiegler said, "as it was foreign traffickers coming here looking for raptors to place in the international market."

John Gavitt, special agent in charge of special operations at Fish and Wildlife, agreed the percentage of U.S. falconers involved in illegal business probably is small and their effect on the resource also probably is small, "but take as a parallel the idea of a guy shooting a deer at night with a light. The doe he kills has no significant impact on the resource, but if you ignore the small percentage of wrongdoers, you risk letting that element increase."

Gavitt thinks U.S. falconers felt betrayed by the undercover sting operation and, as a result, dug in their heels to fight Fish and Wildlife rather than conceding a problem existed and setting to work to fix it.

Interior insists it has made no decisions about regulations changes and that it has an open mind, but NAFA worries that the voice of organizations such as the Audubon Society, which opposes both possession of wild peregrines and captive-rearing of them, will win out.

If so, said Nye, the peregrine will be lost to the falconer, and the 4,000-year-old practice of falconry would, at least in this country, essentially be dead. He'll fight. "It's the bird that gave our sport its name," Nye said. "You can mess with my house, mess with my horse, mess with my wife. But don't mess with my hawks!"