Introduction to Falconry

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The Harris Hawk is just one of many amazing raptors a falconer could raise and train. Falconry is a rewarding, but very demanding activity. Recent changes to the sport's regulations by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service may make it easier for new falconers to take up this ancient and fascinating sport.

Falconry — for those who participate in this ancient form of hunting, it’s not just a hobby or sport: It’s a lifestyle. Patience, dedication and trust are musts in falconry, just like most other sports. But knowledge of husbandry, cliff-climbing and, most importantly, time are some of many additional requirements for this type of hunting.

A falconer trains a bird of prey to fly off, hunt, come back with food and surrender its short-lived freedom. Falconry started as far back as 2,205 B.C. in China as a way of acquiring food. Today, it is the most regulated sport in America and the only one that employs a wild animal. Many hours of a falconer’s day are devoted to training and bonding with the hawk. A falconry apprenticeship alone takes at least two years, and to become a Master falconer requires seven years of training.

To put it modestly, it’s not exactly ping pong.

On Oct. 8, 2008 though, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service eased the regulation of falconry. They made a lot of changes to the regulations of the sport, one of which allows master falconers to possess up to five wild hawks when before they could only own three. In addition, paper records of the acquisition, transfer or loss of hawks will be replaced by electronic ones to save time and money. And these are just a few of the new regulations that went into affect Nov. 7, 2008. Another change they made no longer requires falconers to have a federal permit. Instead, falconry regulations will be made under state, tribal or territorial laws as of Jan. 1, 2014, when the federal permit program will end.

MOTHER EARTH NEWS recently spoke with master falconers Glenn Stewart and Tom Schultz to discuss the new regulations and learn more about the complexities of this unique sport.

Glenn Stewart, Director for the California Hawking Club

How did you become interested in falconry?

I read a book — My Side of the Mountain — when I was 11 years old and have been hooked ever since. Sadly, at that time, peregrine falcons were nearly extinct. It was my interest in falconry that caused me to pursue a degree in environmental studies and join the Predatory Bird Research Group at UC Santa Cruz where we led efforts in California to recover the peregrine population.

How many hours a day do you dedicate to the sport, and how long have you been doing it?

There is probably an hour and a half per day, year-round, that goes into it. Sometimes it is half a day or more and others a good deal less, but the point is that you cannot forget about your sport in the off-season. The birds need care every day. I have had a bird pretty much consistently for the past 40 years.

What do you consider to be the biggest challenges that you face?

Easily, the biggest challenge is finding big open places to fly the birds and hunt game. I hunt ducks, Hungarian partridge, sage grouse and pheasants. Because I live in coastal California, I have not even seen a grouse or Hun in several years.

What advice would you give to someone that is just taking up the sport?

I would probably advise a newcomer not to jump in. It takes too much time away from other aspects of life. This is really more of an addiction because one cannot imagine life without it.

What do you mean by “addiction”?

I think of it as a lifestyle. You drive a certain kind of car that will accommodate a hawk and will get you into rough terrain. You get a job that will accommodate time to fly the falcon on a fairly regular basis. For example, I know a guy who was the night custodian for the post office so that he would have his days free for falconry, but that is a little extreme. Falconry never gets in the way of other things I want to do because I do not want to do much else. It gets in the way of family obligations, but fortunately I have an understanding family who enjoys going out to see the birds fly from time to time. But I know that it has interfered in the family lives of others.

When my wife and I met 28 years ago, I was leaving my house at 4:15 every single day to fly my hawk. So that was an understanding from the start that she was willing to live with. I do not think that she regrets it because I am a happy person to live with as a result.

I am one of the lucky people because I’m able to blend my work life with my passion for falcons in my spare time. When I really need to get away with my family for an extended period of time, I arrange for someone else to live at my house and care for my birds, so life works out. It is just a matter of being a little bit creative.

What kind of person do you think is right to be a falconer?

It takes a lot of patience and attention to detail. If you are not impeccable in your practice of the sport, your bird will be lost, in poor health or dead.

What do you think of the new regulations set by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service?

I think that the new regulations are the result of a good effort by all involved. Everyone will find something that they both like and dislike about them, but that is a result of a long, consultative process. I think the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service should be commended for engaging and completing the process on behalf of a very small group of practitioners who exist on the periphery of society doing something that barely fits in our modern world. But it has a long heritage that has at times been quite important to humans. It has value because it is one way for humans to be very close to nature by participating in the process of natural predation. At a time when links to nature are especially hard to come by, I think that falconry adds value to life by connecting us in an intimate way to the planet.

Tom Schultz, President for the Missouri Falconer’s Association

How did you become interested in falconry?

When I was 8 or 9 (back in 1968 or ’69), I lived near San Francisco and would notice kestrels, which are small falcons. This caught my interest and I started reading books. I moved to Virginia in 1970 or ’71, and it was there that I contacted some young falconers, about a year or two older than me. I went out with them and got my first bird when I was 14. And I’ve been doing it ever since — 36 years now.

What do you think of the new regulations set by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service?

Some are good and some I’m not so sure about. I know they want to lower the age to 12, and I’m not too keen on that. I think that might be a little too young because obviously they’re going to need their parents all the time. When I was 14, I would ride my bike with my bird on my fist to the field where I would hunt. In this day in age, it’s a little harder to do that, unless you’re out in the country and have plenty of space.

I am glad to see that the states are handling the permits though. Federal permits are at least $100 every three years. It’s more expensive than I want to pay. Certainly a 12-or 14-year-old would have trouble paying every three years along with their state falconry costs.

What are the initial steps one must take to become involved in falconry?

There are a lot of good books out there now, including our bible, North American Falconry and Hunting Hawks by Frank Beebe and Harold Webster. I always suggest visiting a library or website first, getting some books, and reading up. Then, you can go out and watch somebody fly a bird and see if this is something that you would really be interested in doing. It’s an every day thing, not a hobby where you can pick it up one or three days a week. You are very committed and have to really love to keep birds and care for them. You have to know the husbandry and some of the diseases and ailments that the birds may get and how to cure them. Back when I first started, there were very few vets that knew anything about raptors. You had to care for the bird yourself and figure out what was wrong with it and try and fix the problem. My suggestion to a new person is read, go out with somebody, and if you’re still pursuing the interest, then contact your state’s conservation department.

What do you consider to be the biggest challenges of falconry?

The dedication is the biggest challenge, and the commitment. You don’t want to acquire a bird like this and then have it tied to a perch all day for the rest of its life. You have to have commitment to the bird and what it was bred to do. That and keeping up with the national club, the North American Falconer’s Association, and its regulations are the biggest challenges.

What are the biggest rewards of falconry?

I enjoy seeing them fly and being close enough to see that. I’ve been watching birds all my life, especially raptors, and it’s very difficult to get close to a raptor while it’s pursuing game and see exactly how that takes place. I enjoy seeing a falcon in a stoop at 200-plus mph, or a Cooper’s hawk or a Goshawk flying off my fist to chase a quail. There are different techniques that the birds employ while they’re hunting, and it’s exciting for me to see each one of them try to outwit their prey.

How do you acquire a falcon?

An apprentice has to trap their bird. It has to be a passage bird, which means it was hatched out in the spring of the same year that they’re trapping. It’s a juvenile bird, but it’s full grown and had been hunting on its own already. The regulations might change to give apprentices permission to use Harris’s hawks, which can be bred in captivity, and I’m not so keen on that. I think apprentices should trap their first bird and train it. They learn a lot more from the experience, and they get a lot more out of it. I’ve acquired most of my birds that I’m currently flying either from breeding or capturing birds from a nest through a permit that you purchase from the state.

How high up are these nests?

They vary. A Cooper’s hawk’s nest will probably be about 35 to 50 feet up in the tree. A Goshawk’s nest might be anywhere from 30 to 80 feet in a tree. Falcons’ nests are on cliffs, and the cliff can be 50 feet high to several thousand feet. I get up there with climbing gear — you definitely have to be kind of a climber.

What kind of person do you think is right to be a falconer?

Falconry has changed over the years. I think we’re seeing possibly more and more people getting involved that aren’t necessarily doing it for what I think are the right reasons. For example, over in England, anybody can be a falconer; they have about 30,000, maybe more. A lot of them are what we call “pet keepers.” They get the bird, take care of it and feed it. They do a good job, but they never hunt or fly the bird free. I think we’re seeing more and more of that in the United States, too, unfortunately. These birds are not pets. They’re not affectionate. They will leave you in a heartbeat. It takes a lot of dedication and that’s the art and sport of falconry — hunting and training wild raptors. We have about 10,000 falconers in the United States, but I would say about 8,000 are actually active.

Have you ever had a bird escape?

Over my 36 years of flying I’ve probably lost five, but I’ve had over 20. I’ve lost them because of different circumstances. Although we have radio transmitters on all of the birds today, they sometimes fail. If your bird is chasing a prairie chicken and it flies a mile away, by the time you get in the general area, they get lost because they move again and your transmitter breaks. I’ve also lost birds to accidents, whether it be hitting a window or electrocution or hitting game so hard that they kill both of themselves. When you’re out there flying your bird, anything can happen. That’s part of the game. 

For further reading about raptors, read Terry Krautwurst’sRaptors, the Sky Masters.