Falconry: Hunting on the Wing
By Barr Soltis
About 300 yards from my property line there is an overpass that I cross twice a day during my morning and evening trek to and from work. During the spring and summer months the view of my house from this vantage point is obstructed by the leaves of the many trees, but during early fall the leaves turn into a collage of beautiful colors and eventually drop to the earth, leaving an unobstructed view.
About two years ago, as I crossed the overpass on my way home from the rifle range, I saw a man standing there. He was just looking out over a nearby field. Beyond this, nothing about him appeared to out of the ordinary or cause for concern, but his presence sparked my curiosity.
As soon as I arrived home, I located my binoculars and walked out onto my deck to get a better look. What then caught my eye was not the man, but a hawk circling the field. Moments later, I looked up again and both the man and bird were gone. To this day, I do not know if he was training the hawk or just admiring its flight in search for food, as I have done many times. If there was a relationship between them I will never know, but I hope that there was.
Since that day, I have kept an eye out for the hawks and marveled at their grace as they glide and circle over the same field, occasionally being lifted by a thermal updraft to greater heights with barely a flutter of their wings. Knowing that, it should come as no surprise that I was interested when I found a falconry section in my states annual hunting regulations handbook. A quick online search provided a wealth of information about falconry, including its history, state and federal rules and regulations and the falconers' commitment to the sport.
I called it a sport. If the truth were known, it is much more than that. Words like commitment, dedication, conservation and art come to mind and even these may not adequately describe it. Hunting small game with trained birds of prey dates back to at least 2200 B.C. Today, it is rare to meet a falconer and most hunters have no idea what is required to become a licensed falconer. Falconry is highly regulated and requires significant dedication. This is not really a hobby; it is more like a lifestyle and that is probably why there are so few falconers.
Before anyone even begins to consider becoming a falconer there are a series of questions that must be answered:
If you have answered an unequivocal “yes” to each of these questions then falconry may be for you, but you need to do some serious research to make an informed decision. For instance, the minimum cost for the first year will be more than $3,000 for the basics and another grand more for a transmitter and receiver.
There are three permit levels, Apprentice, General and Master. To become a falconer, the student must first find a sponsor; the apprentice period lasts about two years. Because of the extensive time involved in the apprenticeship, the apprentice and his or her sponsor should live in close proximity to each other.
After finding a sponsor and before an apprenticeship permit is granted, the student must pass an examination that includes questions about the care and handling of falconry raptors and applicable federal and state laws. Until there is a permit in hand, raptors used in falconry may not be taken from the wild and the species that may be taken is dictated by the permit that is held. For the apprentice in Pennsylvania, only red-tailed hawks, red-shouldered hawks and American kestrels may be taken. The holder of a general permit may take any raptor except for the golden eagle and a master may take a golden eagle with the proper permit.
The most common raptor in North America is the red-tailed hawk, which is commonly referred to as the “chicken hawk.” They are commonly seen soaring in the sky or perched in treetops or on telephone wires, scoping out a nearby field for a quick meal. They are ideal for the apprentice, since they are plentiful and easily trained to hunt.
A mature male red-tailed hawk weighs about two pounds on average and females average a little more than three pounds. Wingspans range from 45 to 52 inches and their color varies.
The red-tailed hawk is not a fickle hunter. It is powerful and fully capable of killing small mammals. Rats, field mice, squirrels, rabbits, prairie dogs, waterfowl and even snakes may end up on the menu. They have keen eyesight and can spot their quarry from 1000 feet in the air and dive at speeds of 120 miles per hour.
Hunting with a red-tailed hawk usually involves the falconer releasing the bird where it can find a convenient place to perch and wait for prey to appear. Meanwhile, it is the responsibility of the falconer, either alone or with the aid of a dog, to flush game for the hawk to swoop down upon and grasp in its powerful talons. Once a capture is made, the falconer must find the hawk and trade the fresh kill for a piece of cooked meat.
There are approximately 5,000 falconers in the United States, many more than I had supposed. I have learned while researching this article that most falconers are very private about what they do and prefer to remain under the radar.
There are muzzleloading purists among us who only use traditional flintlock rifles to harvest game and I admire them. However, I applaud those who hunt with birds of prey and I consider them the consummate hunting traditionalists.
If you ever meet a falconer who is willing to tell you about the art of falconry, it would be well worth your time to listen. If you ever get a chance to see one of these birds in action, make sure you have a good camera along to memorialize the experience, as such an opportunity may come only once in your lifetime.
If this article has sparked an interest in hunting with raptors, I suggest that you visit the Pennsylvania Falconry & Hawk Trust web site (http://www.pfht.org). There you will find a great deal of information as it relates to the art of falconry.
Copyright 2009 by Barr Soltis. All rights reserved.