As the sun sets into a deep orange over the foothills,a man walks slowly through the sagebrush. Only his breath and the crunch of his footsteps can be heard in these quiet moments of approaching dusk. He stops and slowly raises his arm. There, perched on his gloved fist, is a large bird of prey, a falcon. The bird turns her head in all directions, searching, scanning the area as if to orient herself. She ruffles her feathers, flaps her wings a few times and then lifts off, circling into the sky.
The man starts to run and suddenly, from out of the brush, two pheasants fly frantically into the air, having been flushed out of their cover by his footsteps. Overhead, the falcon has spotted the prey and is already diving at the birds. With wings tucked in close to her body, the falcon jets toward her target at nearly 200 miles per hour. With outstretched talons, she connects with one of the pheasants in midair. Feathers fly, wings flap and the prey drops silently to the ground. The falcon pulls up into a steep rise before returning to earth to seize her kill.
The man approaches the spot where his falcon sits atop her quarry, her wings instinctively outstretched to shield it from the eyes of other predators. He kneels down, reaches out with his gloved hand, and retrieves his falcon. The kill will become a meal for both bird and man.
Who are the falconers?
Falconers will tell you that they are involved in much more than just a sport. For them, it’s a deeply-held passion. Some say it’s an obsession and a way of life. But to suggest that this finely-tuned, intimate relationship between human and wild bird is anything but honorable is an insult to serious falconers.
“Falconers love and respect the birds,” says Kent Carnie, founding director and curator emeritus at the Peregrine Fund, headquartered at Boise’s World Center for Birds of Prey. “There is a feeling between man and bird that is most powerful. You can’t explain it to someone who doesn’t do it (falconry), and you don’t have to explain it to someone who does.”
Falconry, says Carnie, can be compared to fly fishing, a sport in which the preparation and the journey are perhaps more important than the outcome.
“The fly fisher will spend years perfecting his casting technique, learning to tie flies, studying the river, and appreciating the fighting spirit of the quarry he pursues,” Carnie says. “They don’t fish just so they can kill a fish. They fish because it takes them to a beautiful place. We are every bit as ardent and for many of the same reasons.”
The sport of falconry dates back nearly as far as recorded history itself. The use of raptors, or birds of prey, to hunt game has been practiced by kings and noblemen, politicians and paupers, and has been kept alive in its traditional form by generations of devoted falconers all over the globe.
Dave Smith, president of the Idaho Falconers Association, says that it is really the bird, not the falconer, that’s in control of the sport.
“The bird allows the falconer to be a part of its hunt,” he says. “We don’t domesticate the birds, and we don’t really train them to hunt. What we do is overcome their natural fear of at least one person, and then work with them so they will allow us to approach them on a kill without flying away.
“They’re doing what they naturally do in the wild, but they’re letting us be a cooperative part of it, sort of like their flushing spaniel,” he says with a laugh.
A raptor is not a pet, it’s a weapon
Unlike cats or dogs, raptors are not affectionate animals. They don’t love the falconer, and they don’t do particular things to try and please him. Raptors simply learn that life with the falconer provides the easiest and most reliable source of food and protection, a matter of convenience for the bird.
However, as Carnie points out, a sort of provisional bond exists between the bird and falconer that makes the partnership work. The bird learns to trust the falconer not to steal its food, and the falconer trusts the bird to return to him after a hunt.
When you watch a raptor roost calmly on the falconer’s glove, it’s easy, for a brief moment, to want to reach out and pet this deceptively calm creature. But, this is a wild bird of prey, and it was never intended to be domesticated or tamed and you can’t always be sure what they will do next.
In fact, these birds are considered weapons in the hunting world and falconers are required to have licenses and go by game laws, just as if they were hunting with a rifle or a shotgun.
“It is the most highly-regulated sport in the country,” says Carnie, who notes that it was falconers themselves who helped write the rules to ensure the protection of the birds and the sport they love.
It’s not an easy sport to get into. Becoming a master falconer requires two years of apprenticeship, written tests, field tests, facilities inspections, a federal license and several more years of practice and training.
And, unlike a shotgun, rifle or fly rod, a falcon cannot be put away in a corner when it’s not in use. It is a living creature that demands daily care, seven days a week, all year long. Some captive birds live to the age of 20, becoming long-term members of families.
“It’s an antiquated sport—it goes back four thousand years,” says Jeff King, a Hailey veterinarian and master falconer. “Today, it is really more the traditional art form that is practiced, rather than a means of bringing meat home to the table. If successful game hunting is your goal, you should get a gun,” he says.
King, who keeps two gyrfalcons—a female that he caught in the wild and a male that was captive-bred—got his first falconry license in 1975. “I got addicted to it. I guess it just found me,” he explains.
During the season, you’re likely to find King and his gyrfalcons on the other side of Timmerman Hill, where he does the majority of his hunting. Falcon prey might include ducks, grouse, pheasant, partridge—almost any game that is small enough for the raptor to handle. >>>
What they say to Detractors of the Sport
King knows his sport has detractors. “It is an emotionally-charged issue, there’s no doubt about that,” he says. “The perspective of the falconers is that, yes, we remove an immature wild hawk from the wild and take it into captivity, but it is something that we obviously cherish and honor.”
He notes that data collected over 40 years of legalized falconry shows a wild-caught bird of prey actually has a better chance of surviving its first winter if it is in captivity. “The survival rate of wild, immature falcons is somewhere between 10 and 20 percent, and in captivity it’s well over 90 percent,” he says. “Plus, the majority of trapped, wild, immature falcons are released back into the wild after the end of the hunting season.”
King explains that apprentice falconers are allowed to work with only two types of birds—a kestrel falcon or a red-tailed hawk—that are often trapped in the wild. Falconers will release these birds back into the wild so they can learn how to work with other types of birds. In contrast, more experienced falconers will often raise captive-bred birds, which they do not release into the wild, but keep for many, many years as part of the family.
King says that among the detractors have been gun hunters, who used to believe a falconer had unfair advantage hunting with a natural predator. As it turns out, gun hunters are far more successful. That’s because evolution and the natural selection process has given wild game the ability to effectively evade natural predators.
“The grouse instinctively knows a hell of a lot more about escaping the falcon than escaping the gun hunter,” Carnie points out.
One of the main differences between hunting with a bird of prey and other weapons is that there are rarely, if ever, wounded and crippled game in falconry, according to King.
“In falconry, the prey either gets caught by the raptor and killed on the spot, or it’s not caught. We don’t have escaped and wounded.” >>>
Teaching a raptor to accept you
Teaching a bird of prey to allow a falconer to hunt with it takes patience and time. The main objective is to get the falcon to return to the falconer’s glove. This is done by attaching a leash to one of its legs and allowing it to fly short distances, and then return to the falconer’s fist on cue. Upon a successful flight and return, the falcon is rewarded with a small piece of raw meat.
The bird is then trained to come to a lure, a simulated dead prey on a string that the falconer will swing like a lasso. The falcon learns that by coming to the lure it will be rewarded with meat.
After months of training, the bird is ready to hunt. And if all goes well, it will kill its prey, and allow the falconer to approach him after the kill without flying away. Birds often are fitted with bells and radio transmitters so they can be located if they travel out of sight.
“When you see a bird trying to catch a wild prey, they go all out,” says Smith, who keeps a Harris hawk, a bird that is not naturally found north of Arizona. “This is their life. When my bird is on a kill, his eyes are on fire. His hackles are up, his wings are spread, he’s excited, he’s panting. That’s when you actually see the wild bird. They are doing what they are genetically engineered to do.”
Smith admits that despite the thrill of the catch, natural predation is not a pretty process.
“When a bird catches its prey, it may kill it by driving its talons into it again and again, puncturing its organs until it suffocates or bleeds to death,” he says. “What we do is we try to step in and avoid that process. We get there and end the prey’s suffering as quickly as we can.
“Actually, the killing part is the worst part for me. I have to look into its eyes and kill it—that’s a very hard thing to do. Sometimes, if it isn’t injured, I can release it. I’ve released quite a few rabbits,” he says.
“I’ve got a contract with this bird. He does his part and I do my part. He went through the effort of catching something three times his size, dragging it down and hanging on to it long enough for me to get there. My part of the deal is to help him kill it so that he can eat. That’s his reward. My reward was watching him fly,” Smith says.
Crashing and burning
Usually this arrangement plays out smoothly. Sometimes not.
A peregrine falcon in a hunting dive or “stoop” can reach a speed of 180 miles per hour from a height of 2,000 feet. “You hear this thing coming over that sounds like a jet. You hear the whistling,” Smith says.
In a stoop like that, sometimes a bird doesn’t pull up in time and will hit the ground. Sometimes they have collisions with fences and wires.
“Most of the time, if something happens to the bird, it’s because you made a mistake,” Smith says. “You were in an area you shouldn’t have been flying in. You didn’t see the fence. You didn’t notice the wires. Afterwards, you have a tremendous amount of guilt, like, ‘what was I thinking?’”
But, both Smith and King agree that the same accidents also happen in the wild.
“There are a lot of collisions in the wild,” Smith says. “In fact, a lot of birds can get killed just by hitting the prey. If they hit a duck wrong at that speed, it’s very easy to break a leg or break a wing. Sometimes they knock themselves out cold by hitting a duck and fall in the water and drown.”
Says King, “In the wild you’ve got poisons, diseases, natural predation, electrocution, getting shot by accident or on purpose, fences, motor vehicles. When you add up all those hazards their survival rate is fairly low.
“Falconers are improving the chance of survival for the raptors they take into captivity.”
In addition to being lost to death or injury, a bird can simply decide to fly away and never return, a paradox that Smith believes is part of the appeal of the sport. It also helps counter some of the criticism leveled against capturing and keeping a wild bird for sport.
“You’re hunting with them, but to do that, you have to let them go. They can choose to go or stay,” Smith says.
In some ways, it seems this mysterious blend of freedom and adventure also describes the falconer.
“Our spouses accept the fact that every day we pick up a bird and disappear to who knows where,” says Smith. “You’re looking at about six to eight hours a week when we disappear, and if we’re out looking for the bird, it could turn into a three-day ordeal.”
Smith knows of falconers who have given up on careers they might have had to pursue their obsession with falconry. “For some, the obsession has cost them their marriages and families. It’s a sport filled with tough choices that each of us struggles with every day,” he says. >>>
A learning experience
“Part of the trade-off for taking these birds into captivity is to tell people about the birds as much as we can,” says Smith. “We feel that’s our duty. In return for the privilege and experience of having the birds in our life, we try to share the knowledge that we’ve gained and save as many of them as we can.”
He believes that once a person gets up close to a raptor, sees the feathers and the talons and learns about its character, it will be that much harder to blow that bird out of the sky.
“We especially try to teach the young kids who are just coming into hunting age that these birds are not just a flying target,” he says. “We try to dispel the myths that these birds are going to eat all your pheasants and ducks.”
But when all is said and done, perhaps the birds’ greatest student is the falconer himself.
“Falconry has taught me about passion, to have a love and enduring interest in something that carries you through everything, thick and thin,” says King. “I believe strongly that having a passion for whatever you do will sustain you longer in any kind of endeavor, way beyond money, prestige, or material possessions.
“Falconers are, by and large, conservation-minded, and if we don’t take care of the resource, whether it’s the bird of prey or the game animal, we would not be able to practice the art.”